It's all about 4K, right? Ask anyone about streaming video, and they'll all try to push you toward the future, which is Ultra High-Definition, or UHD. We're talking about resolution, or the number of pixels pushed to a display. More is better — it means crisper, sharper pictures.
The problem is that there are a whole lot of variables at work. You need a display that can do a native 4K resolution. Sure, 1080p is good, but it's not 4K. And it can't do 4K. Then you'll need a streaming solution that does 4K resolution. That's pretty easy to come by. And then you have to deal with the fact that you can't do a thing about the source feed itself — what's being fed to your streaming provider.
And things get even more muddied when you consider things like HDR — both the display and the box need to support the same standards, whether it's the open-source HDR10, or the proprietary Dolby Vision. Same goes for audio with Dolby Atmos. It can't be just one or the other — both the display and the box have to support the standard.
So, yeah. It's kind of a mess. Here's a high-level look at streaming boxes to get you started.
What it is: Apple's top-end streaming box. It starts at $179 for a 32GB model and ticks nearly every box on the specs sheet, including HDR10 and Dolby Vision. Plus it has an ethernet port for better connections to your network. It also serves as an Apple HomeKit hub.
Who it's for: Pretty much everybody, but especially if you've got an iPhone, iPad or Mac, because you're able to "AirPlay" over pretty much anything you can see on those devices on to your big-screen display. Also, this is the only device that can play content from Apple's iTunes.
What it's lacking: Not a whole lot. ... You can even play back content you've bought Google Play Movies & TV. The biggest miss here is support for the Dolby Atmos audio standard. ... It's also lacking a good remote control. We'd recommend one of these instead.
NVIDIA Shield TV
What it is: It's the best Android TV box you can buy, period. It retails for about $179. Like the Apple TV it ticks off nearly every box for specs. Plus it's one of the smattering of Android TV boxes that has access to Amazon Video. It's also one hell of a gaming rig. And it has voice-activated access to Google Assistant. It's got Ethernet, HDR10 and Dolby Atmos support. Plus expandable storage.
Who it's for: This one's also for pretty much everybody. And while Android folks will certainly have the most seamless experience, remember that Chromecast (Google's version of AirPlay) also extends to a whole bunch of iOS apps. And there are a whole bunch of quality games (and some not-so-quality) available for purchase, or by subscription via NVIDIA's GeForce Now $7.99-a-month subscription service.
What it's lacking: There's no Dolby Vision on board, and no access to iTunes content. (Which Apple doesn't give to anyone else anyway.) The remote control is small and prone to be lost.
What it is: Google's $79 (or less, depending on sales) 4K streaming HDMI dongle. It's not a full Android experience — instead it "casts" content from apps that support the Chromecast protocol. Because it's a dongle it means it's one fewer box to try to hide. It does HDR10 and Dolby Vision. You'll use your phone (or Chrome browser) to control any and all content being fed to the Chromecast. There's an Ethernet port built in to the power brick.
Who it's for: Someone who wants a less-expensive option than the NVIDIA Shield TV, or who doesn't want a full-fledged Android TV experience.
What it's lacking: There's a bit more manual labor involved in this one — no home screen or anything. So you'll be casting from individual apps. But if you're comfortable with that, it'll serve you well. There's no official Dolby Atmos support on board.
Amazon Fire TV
What it is: Amazon's $70 (or less, on sale) HDMI dongle. It comes with a remote control, supports HDR10 and Dolby Atmos. It's got access to pretty much everything except Apple content, though I've found apps on the FireOS to be slower than on Android TV or Apple TV.
Who it's for: Someone who wants a less-expensive way to stream 4K and have super-easy access to everything Amazon puts forth, including Amazon Music and Amazon Photos.
What it's lacking: There's no Ethernet port, so you're going to need a good wireless connection to maintain the 4K resolution. There's also no Dolby Vision support.
What it is: Roku's top-shelf box — it retails for $99 or less — with Ethernet and USB. It supports HDR10 and has apps for pretty much every service out there. The included remote has large buttons and is easy to use, and allows for private listening.
Who it's for: Someone who wants an easy-to-use streaming solution without locking in to the Apple or Android ecosystems.
What it's lacking: No Dolby Atmos or Dolby Vision support, and it's generally a much slower experience than Android TV or Apple TV. If you use HDHomerun for over-the-air content (and you should), you're out of luck here — it's not compatible.
Xbox One X
What it is: It's the best damned Xbox ever. That's what. It's also one hell of a 4K streamer at about $500. It does HDR10 and Dolby Atmos, has Ethernet and cable passthrough (via HDMI). Plus it plays the occasional game or two.
Who it's for: If you're a gamer — and specifically an Xbox gamer — then you've got to consider this for 4K streaming content. Or at least remember that it can do it all.
What it's lacking: There's no Dolby Vision support. The Xbox also is lacking streaming apps like PlayStation Vue (for obvious reasons), Google Play Movies and iTunes content.
PlayStation 4 Pro
What it is: Sony's top-rated gaming box for about $350. It's also a great streamer since it's (obviously) a fan of PlayStation Vue. It's got HDR10 and Ethernet.
Who it's for: If you're a PS4 person who wants to watch TV through the console as well. And there's no reason why you shouldn't.
What it's lacking: No support for Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. And like the Xbox, it's missing some competing apps — no Sling, for instance.
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