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Streaming Boxes and Sticks

When it comes to streaming video these days, there are tons of options.  All it takes is a high-speed internet connection and a device capable of streaming.  Smart TVs come with some streaming services built in already, most gaming consoles are streaming-capable, and there are even dedicated devices for the very purpose.  But how do you choose which one is right for you?

Box or Stick?

There are pros and cons to each, but there are a few key differences to keep in mind when selecting what is right for your needs.

  • Sticks are smaller and sleeker. They’re often easy to conceal, where boxes will need their own space to rest.
  • Sticks are oftentimes easy to install start streaming—just plug them in, and you’re ready to go. Boxes tend to take some setup time.
  • Boxes are typically faster and more powerful than sticks.
  • Sticks typically require a stable Wi-Fi connection, where boxes often have ethernet ports available for a hardline connection. While Wi-Fi will generally be fine for most things, if the stream is 4K or HDR (High Dynamic Range), the more stable, faster connection provided by ethernet is going to be preferable.
  • You have more output options on a box than a stick. Generally, sticks only have HDMI outputs, and they typically need a USB port for power.  If your TV is missing one or both of those, a stick won’t work.
  • Sticks are generally much cheaper than boxes.
  • Boxes generally have more storage space for apps and games than sticks do.

Let’s talk about each one of them in turn.

Roku Sticks

Roku produces a wide range of products to meet whatever need the consumer has (and whatever price range in which they might be).  The pros of the Roku brand devices is that they are generally pretty easy on the pocket book, and they are perfectly capable devices, provided you’re not looking for the Ultra-HD experience.

 

Specs Roku Express Roku Express + Roku Streaming Stick
Type Stick Stick Stick
Price $29.99 $39.99 $49.99
Processor Dual Core Dual Core Dual Core
RAM 512MB 512MB 512MB
Storage 256MB 256MB 256MB
Output HDMI HDMI and Composite HDMI
Best Resolution 1080p 1080p 1080p
Wi-Fi b/g/n b/g/n dual-band a/b/g/n
Ethernet Connection No No No
Expandable storage No No No

Roku Boxes

Roku’s boxes are top of the line as far as picture quality goes, and outside of the Roku Ultra, they’re going to be the less expensive option for 4K streaming on the market.  The storage space available on them is less than exciting, however, which is where their competitors beat them out.  That being said, you don’t need all that extra space if you’re just going to be using the devices to stream video.  If you’re searching for something to use as a media center, then a Roku is probably not what you’re looking for.

 

Specs Roku Premiere Roku Premiere + Roku Ultra
Type Box Box Box
Price $69.99 $99.99 $121.99
Processor Quad Core Quad Core Quad Core
RAM 1GB 1GB 1GB
Storage 512MB 512MB 1GB
Voice Control No No No
Game Options Casual Casual Casual
Output HDMI 2.0 HDMI 2.0 HDMI 2.0 and Optical
Best Resolution 4K 4K/HDR 4K/HDR
Wi-Fi dual-band a/b/g/n/ac dual-band a/b/g/n/ac dual-band a/b/g/n/ac
Ethernet Connection No Yes Yes
Expandable storage No Yes Yes

 

Amazon Devices

Amazon’s offerings into the market are interesting.  They have a fully-functional voice assistant, Alexa, incorporated into their devices, and they will automatically sync with your Amazon Prime account.  They come in two flavors: the Fire TV Stick and the Fire TV, but there is a third option in the works which will support HDR as well as 4K.  If you are an app lover and would like the opportunity to play games on your device, then an Amazon device is probably for you.

 

Specs Fire TV Stick Amazon Fire TV
Type Stick Box
Price $39.99 $89.99
Processor Quad Core Quad Core
RAM 1GB 2GB
Storage 8GB 8GB
Voice Control Yes Yes
Game Options Casual High Performance
Output HDMI HDMI
Best Resolution 1080p 4K
Wi-Fi dual-band a/b/g/n/ac dual-band a/b/g/n/ac
Ethernet Connection No Yes
Expandable storage No Yes

 

NVIDIA Shield

While NVIDIA’s streaming devices are closer to game consoles than anything else on this list, they are remarkable for video as well.  Of the options here, they are by far the most powerful, though they are also the most expensive.  They both support 4K and HDR, and they both have expandable storage on top of their already sizeable internal hard drives.  If you’re looking to play computer games on your streaming device (and not just app store games, mind you), then one of the NVIDIA machines is going to be your best bet.

 

Specs Nvidia Shield Nvidia Shield Pro
Type Box Box
Price $199.99 $299.99
Processor Quad Core Quad Core
RAM 3GB 3GB
Storage 12GB 500GB
Voice Control No No
Game Options High Performance High Performance
Output HDMI 2.0 HDMI 2.0
Best Resolution 4K/HDR 4K/HDR
Wi-Fi dual-band a/b/g/n/ac dual-band a/b/g/n/ac
Ethernet Connection Yes Yes
Expandable storage Yes Yes

 

Apple TV and Chromecast

Last, but not least, we have two of the hardest to quantify options on the market.  The standard Chromecast device and Apple TV both only support 1080p, but at least Google’s option at that resolution is only $35, compared to Apple’s $149 price tag.  Apple TV does have the added benefit of being able to connect your entire existing iTunes library directly to it, and it has at least some internal memory to hold it.  The Chromecast Ultra, on the other hand, sports 4K and HDR capabilities, and it features HDMI 2.0 outputs to keep the video fidelity where it needs to be.  Unfortunately, Google hasn’t published any of the other specifications on the device, so it’s not certain what kind of memory or storage capacity it has.

 

Specs Google Chromecast Chromecast Ultra Apple TV
Type Stick Stick Box
Price $35.00 $69.00 $149.00
Processor Dual Core Quad Core Quad Core
RAM 512MB ? 2GB
Storage 256MB ? 32GB
Voice Control No ? Yes
Game Options Casual Casual Casual
Output HDMI HDMI 2.0 HDMI
Best Resolution 1080p 4K/HDR 1080p
Wi-Fi dual-band a/b/g/n/ac dual-band a/b/g/n/ac dual-band a/b/g/n/ac
Ethernet Connection No Yes Yes
Expandable storage No No No

Recommendations

If you’re in the market for a 4K streaming device, the best value for the money is going to be the Amazon Fire TV.  It has the most power per dollar of any machine on the market, and it has enough versatility to satisfy most consumers.  The only drawback is that it doesn’t offer HDMI 2.0 support or HDR.

If money is no object, consider the NVIDIA Shield Pro, which beats every other option here on outputs, resolution capabilities, and hardware specs.  If a gaming box isn’t your thing, then the Roku Ultra is a good alternative that is less powerful, but less than half the price of the NVIDIA.

While you’re here, be sure to check out our content offerings, including Best of UHD, Volume 1: The Wonders of Nature.