Roku Ultra vs. Apple TV 4K vs. Nvidia Shield: Face-Off

Streaming dongles are more powerful and affordable than ever, but if you want a truly premium viewing experience, a full-fledged box is the way to go. The Roku Ultra ($100), Apple TV 4K ($179 - $199) and Nvidia Shield TV ($179 - $199) are the most powerful, comprehensive streaming gadgets on the market, offering lightning-fast performance, a bevy of extra content and a ton of useful bells and whistles.

We put the Roku Ultra, the Apple TV 4K and the Nvidia Shield head-to-head-to-head to see which one triumphed. It's important to bear in mind that all of the devices have strengths and weaknesses, particularly if you're looking to do any gaming, or provide your own content via USB or microSD card. Whether you're a video streamer with eclectic tastes or a connoisseur of all gadgets with an "i" in front of them, read on to see which player stands tallest.

Design (10 Points)

Streaming boxes are generally just black squares with a company logo.

Apple TV 4KApple TV 4KNeither the Apple TV 4K nor the Roku Ultra do much to challenge this perception. The former is a little taller, and the latter is a little squatter, but they both have rounded edges and pretty unremarkable profiles.

Nvidia ShieldNvidia ShieldThe Nvidia Shield is a little more eye-catching, with zigzagging angles and green highlights, like a high-tech cubist sculpture. It’s easily the most attractive of the three devices, although it might be a little incongruous with the rest of the staid, restrained accessories in your entertainment center.

Roku UltraRoku UltraIt's worth pointing out that none of the devices has a digital audio output, which could make life difficult for people who take their sound setups very seriously. However, both the Roku Ultra and the Nvidia Shield have microSD and USB ports, for easy access to your own content. The Apple TV 4K doesn't have either one.

WINNER: Nvidia Shield. Not only is the Shield considerably more attractive than its competitors, but it  has multiple USB ports and a microSD card reader.

Setup (10 Points)

While you have to set up your device only once (hopefully), your initial experience with a streaming player can color your entire perception of it. A good setup process will have you watching what you want to watch within minutes; a bad one will leave you wading through menus and wondering where the last half-hour went.

The first thing you'll need to do is make an account with either Roku, Apple or Google, but this doesn't take much time, and is roughly comparable across all three platforms. All three platforms also allow you to sign in with the aid of your smartphone, further streamlining the process.

Assuming you have another Apple device, the Apple TV 4K probably has the simplest setup process. Apple's streaming box can take your settings directly from your iPhone or iPad, and have all of your content ready to go. Roku can do similar things if you've owned a Roku device before, although you'll have to go through a few cumbersome sign-in pages each time.

The Nvidia Shield is probably the least intuitive of the three, but only because you'll have to sign in twice to access all of its features. Your Google account will suffice for all of the regular Android TV features, but you'll need to create a separate Nvidia account for a lot of important gaming features. It's an extra step, and it's a little cumbersome.

Winner: Apple TV 4K. While a really easy setup requires another iDevice, the Apple TV 4K can be up and running in mere minutes, with all of your content ready to go.

Interface (20 Points)

In past years, Roku dominated the interface section, but other manufacturers have been fairly fast to catch up. The Roku Ultra's home screen is absolutely beautiful, letting you customize your favorite channels into neat, tidy rows and columns. The Apple TV 4K's home screen actually one-ups it, by letting you do the same thing, but with folders, and without invasive ads.

Apple TV interfaceApple TV interfaceWhile the Nvidia Shield is hardly difficult to get around, it's the least intuitive of the three. Android TV gives you a couple of customized recommendations up top, but past that, you'll have to scroll horizontally through long strings of apps to get to the one you want. Furthermore, the Shield introduces an additional wrinkle: It draws games from three different sources, making it a little confusing to find the one you're looking for.

Winner: Apple TV 4K. The Roku Ultra and Apple TV 4K are both excellent when it comes to getting around, but the Apple TV has a more spacious appearance and better folder options.

Content and Apps (25 Points)

The most important thing a streaming media player can do is — you guessed it — play streaming media. In this category, the Roku is still unparalleled. Apart from iTunes, the service has got just about everything you could want, including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Vudu, Pandora, Spotify, CBS All Access, Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, DirecTV Now and almost every other video, music and cable replacement service under the sun.

Without going into excruciating detail about which services each platform has and doesn't have, it's enough to say that the Apple TV 4K doesn't offer as many apps, and neither does the Nvidia Shield. However, each box distinguishes itself from the competition in an important way.

The Apple TV 4K is the only streaming box to give you access to iTunes content, which could be an impressive amount of stuff, depending on how heavily you've invested in the ecosystem. (For comparison, Google Play Movies and TV are available on both the Roku and the Shield.) The system's Siri digital assistant can also help you check the weather, learn about sports scores or even control smart-home gadgets.

Nvidia Shield contentNvidia Shield contentThe Nvidia Shield can also control smart-home gadgets and answer queries about weather, traffic, sports and more. The big differentiator is the Shield's unprecedented access to video games. Between a robust selection of Android titles and Nvidia's own ambitious GeForce Now streaming program, the Shield isn't exactly like having a PS4 or an Xbox One, but it's not that different from having an Xbox 360 or PS3.

It's worth pointing out that all three systems support 4K HDR content, but also work fine with 1080p TVs.

Winner: Nvidia Shield. While the Roku has the most streaming video channels available, the Nvidia Shield has the widest variety of stuff overall.

Search (15 Points)

A good unified streaming box is dependent on two things: the quantity of services trawled, and the quality of relevant information. The Roku Ultra searches the most apps; the Apple TV 4K has the subtlest understanding of human language. (The Nvidia Shield works passably well.)

Roku Ultra searchRoku Ultra searchThere's no question that the Apple TV 4K's search is the subtler of the two. You can ask for "4K HDR sci-fi movies with Hugh Jackman," and you'll find yourself facing down more X-Men titles than you can (or should) watch in one sitting. On the other hand, the Roku's search is impressive in its sheer breadth. It can search hundreds of services, bringing you that obscure Rolling Stones documentary you didn't even know you needed.

Winner: Roku Ultra. Given the sheer amount of streaming channels available, searching more channels is just a little bit better than more detailed search queries.

Remote Control (10 Points)

A remote control is the primary way you'll interact with your streaming player, so it pays to have a good one.

Nvidia Shield remoteNvidia Shield remoteThe Nvidia Shield remote is a perfectly serviceable piece of hardware, with a private listening jack, volume controls and a straightforward, minimalist array of buttons.

Apple TV 4K remoteApple TV 4K remoteThe Apple TV 4K's remote, on the other hand, is incredibly ambitious — it uses a touchpad instead of buttons — but it's too imprecise.

Roku Ultra remoteRoku Ultra remoteThe Roku remote, while not perfect, strikes the best balance between aesthetics and usability I've seen in a streaming peripheral. You have private listening, and all the standard navigation and media controls, but what really sets it apart are the volume and power buttons. The remote syncs with your TV automatically, and you can use it to control your TV's power state as well as its volume level. It's a subtle touch, but it puts the Roku remote head and shoulders above its competitors.

(Worth noting: The Nvidia Shield's $200 variant comes with a controller in addition to its standard remote control. This is necessary if you plan to use the Shield as a major gaming machine, and the controller is excellent. But you don't have to use Nvidia’s controller; any Bluetooth peripheral will do.)

Winner: Roku Ultra. The power and volume buttons that sync effortlessly with your TV make a big difference.

Value (10 Points)

At $100, the Roku Ultra is the cheapest of the three systems by a wide margin.

The Apple TV 4K and the Nvidia Shield are both more versatile machines, true, with their digital assistants and gaming capabilities. However, if you're mostly just interested in watching and listening to stuff, the extra $80-$100 is not really worth the price hike.

If you're going to pay the upcharge, the Nvidia Shield does more to earn its premium price tag than the Apple TV.

The Shield's gaming capabilities are impressive, and there are some seriously worthwhile games that you can play on the system (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the probably the best of the bunch, but the Batman: Arkham series and Shadow of Mordor aren't bad, either.) The Apple TV 4K's iTunes connectivity is a selling point, admittedly, but otherwise, it's basically a much more expensive version of the Roku Ultra.

Winner: Roku Ultra. At $80 less than the competition and with far more channels under its belt, the Roku Ultra is the smartest purchase for the money.

Bottom Line

In the final tally, the Roku Ultra leads its two main competitors by a comfortable margin.

All three gadgets have something to offer. The Apple TV 4K is worth a look if you live and breathe all things Apple, while the Nvidia Shield is an excellent choice for the person who can't quite decide between a streaming box with gaming capabilities, or a gaming box with streaming capabilities.

Apple TV 4K
Nvidia Shield
Roku Ultra
Design (10)
Startup (10)
Interface (20)
Content and Apps (25)
Search (15)
Remote Control (10)
Value (10)
Bottom Line

While the Apple TV 4K has top-notch navigation and the Nvidia Shield is the best gaming you'll get this side of a full-fledged console, though, the Roku Ultra succeeds with flying colors at simply being a streaming media player. You can watch or listen to whatever you want very easily, including your own content. It also costs far less than the two fancier boxes on the market, and $80 can buy a lot of Vudu rentals.

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  • matt.turner02
    Seriously, to setup the shield is easy if you have an Android device. Just Google "setup my device". Also, nice how you omit Google Assistant.
  • jacksmith21006
    You forgot the best part by a mile on the Shield. The Google Assistant.
  • john.hobbs
    Another streaming box review with no HD audio included as part of the comparison. No audio bitsreaming for Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD MA is a non-starter.
  • rdcash
    Yeah, this was pretty sparse and incomplete.
  • joseluisrodriguezacevedo
    Weak comparison, Nvidia Shield blows those 2 out of the water, Goggle Assistant, its unlocked to install anything android , Games, Emulators and Media Players. It even has a game streaming service.
  • anthony.koutstaal
    I felt that there was a lot of things missing from the Shield in this comparison. The Google assistant, and Chromecast built in are easily the most useful features and they were not included. I own the first generation Shield and cast content and ask the Google Assistant to seamlessly resume your show on Netflix. Another thing I use everyday is the Android TV remote. It has the ability to turn the device off and on. If you leave HDMI-CEC enabled you can also turn your TV off at the same time. The remote on the phone is extremely useful when it come to text entry too! Another thing to note is the setup process, I recently did a factory reset if my shield because I wanted to start over fresh as I had a lot of apps side loaded and custom configurations that I no longer wanted. I asked the Google Assistant on my Android Phone to setup my device. I was very impressed how easy that was!
  • JonathanDeane
    I own a Shield TV pro and a Roku smart TV. Love them both but choice between the two? No contest Sheild TV, the only thing Roku has going for it in my opinion is some of the channels they have are really good. If Roku comes out with an Android app for streaming I would load that up for sure but I wouldn't give up my Shield.
  • flagpole
    Duh what about using the Shield as a Plex server to use as a DVR? You left so many things off.
  • flagpole
    U also missed using ur Shield as a DVR using Plex
  • menon.touchpad
    Dolby Vision context looks breathtaking on my OLED. Which of these boxes support it?
  • eriel.alvarez
    The shield has by far the better hardware specs as well. the controller included with it for gaming is awesome, why didn't you talk about that as well.....a gaming controller and a remote, plus the console for $170. While I own a roku, and love that its simple. you cannot side load apps like Kodi and mobdro. if you want just something for streaming apps get a roku. if you want gaming, apps and media players, by far the shield is a clear winner.
  • mistereed08
    This is a terrible review! How could a shield device with google Assistant not be on top of the search result? Can any of the other boxes double as a smart hub to control your home? Can you use HD tuners for OTA channels as I do on a Shield? These other boxes seems pretty limited compared to a Shield. You do so much more than stream TV and movies on it (which is does better than anything) so to me no comparison which is the most complete and best bang for what you spend on it. It also sounds like the other boxes are for the less savvy user. It's not hard at all to determine where my games are and I gamestream from my PC, play on Geforce Now and install android games. That's not confusing that's freedom.
  • wscribbler
    your review is wrong. the ROKU ultra has optical out. lazy.
  • zoyj
    I am really surprised by some aspects of this review. I just gave my Nvidia Shield away and replaced it with an Apple TV 4k, and here are some of my thoughts:

    Seriously, the reviewer finds the tacky design of the Shield better than the simple but elegant Apple TV?!! I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but this is more like a case of bad taste.

    The Shield's remote periodically stops responding to commends, for like half a minute - this is a know issue reported by many. The volume control is also the worst of the three listed here as far as accuracy and response to sliding up and down.

    The Shield has the worst selection of apps of the three platforms (it doesn't even have an app for Google's own Photos). Roku has the largest selection, while Apple TV has the best designed apps.

    The Shield's apps also crash much more often than those on the other platforms.

    Yes, the Shield has games, but it doesn't support gyroscope or accelerometer features. Apple TV does and it's thus more pleasant for casual game play, particularly racing games.

    The voice control with the Shield's remote is terrible! Half the time it doesn't detect speech, no matter how loud, and when it does, it often misinterprets commands. Both the Apple TV and the Roku are much better.
  • zoyj
    I should add that Apple TV 4k is the only one of the three which currently supports Dolby Vision.