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.
Neither 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.
The 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.
It'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.
While 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.
The 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.)
There'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.
The Nvidia Shield remote is a perfectly serviceable piece of hardware, with a private listening jack, volume controls and a straightforward, minimalist array of buttons.
The Apple TV 4K's remote, on the other hand, is incredibly ambitious — it uses a touchpad instead of buttons — but it's too imprecise.
The 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.
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
|Content and Apps (25)
|Remote Control (10)
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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Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.