Companies like Amazon and Roku have had 4K-capable media hubs for a year or two now, so the Apple TV feels a bit late to the party. Performance and value matter more than haste, though, so we’re going to see which device has the edge for getting 4K video on your TV: the Apple TV 4K, the Google Chromecast Ultra, or the Roku Ultra.
The Amazon Fire TV would also be considered as part of this roundup, but the latest 4K-capable streamer is currently unavailable; we expect Amazon will refresh its own 4K media hub in the near future.
4K and HDR
All three media streamers support 4K resolution, but that’s only part of the story for getting the best picture on your TV; high dynamic range (HDR) is also part of the equation. 4K defines the number of pixels, but HDR defines how dark, bright, and colorful each pixel can get. If your TV can handle it, HDR content can look much better than 4K video played back using standard dynamic range (SDR).
There are two major HDR formats currently out there—HDR10 and Dolby Vision. HDR10 is a standardized format commonly found on both Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and HDR video streams, defining color and brightness values in a predefined range. Dolby Vision is mostly found on streaming services (but Dolby Vision-equipped Ultra HD Blu-ray discs have started coming out), and it defines color and brightness for each pixel based on a unique profile for each TV, adjusting those values to suit the capabilities of the panel. Neither format is necessarily superior, but they’re still distinct, with different levels of support from different studios, services, and TV manufacturers.
The Apple TV 4K supports both HDR10 and Dolby vision, making it extremely well-rounded on the HDR front. The Google Chromecast Ultra and Roku Ultra only support HDR10. The lack of Dolby Vision support isn’t a huge problem, since so much HDR content is available in either just HDR10 or in both formats, but it is a small edge the Apple TV 4K has over the competition.
Winner: Apple TV 4K, by a Dolby Vision hair
Apple begrudgingly started to support non-Apple apps and services on the Apple TV with the launch of tvOS on the most recent 1080p Apple TV two years ago. Meanwhile, Roku has been building its library of thousands of “channels” (apps and services), and Google has wildly expanded the capabilities of the Google Cast platform that drives the Chromecast for at least twice as long.
As it stands, Apple TV still falls a bit short behind Roku and Google in terms of what third-party content you can access. Major streaming services like Hulu, Netflix, and Sling TV are available, and Amazon Video is expected by year’s end, but Google’s on-demand library is absent, along with many smaller names. Apple also seems to be hamstringing third-party music services on tvOS to nudge users towards iTunes and Apple Music for tunes; you wont find Spotify on the Apple TV 4K, even if you can get it easily on Amazon, Roku and Google media streamers.
For first-party content, however, Apple has an edge. If you get most of your movies, music, and TV shows through iTunes, the Apple TV is made for you. You can easily bring up any of your purchases, and search for content on iTunes simply by speaking into the remote. Roku supports voice search, but it doesn’t have its own comprehensive media library and mostly relies on third parties like Hulu and Netflix. Google, meanwhile, has plenty of content available on Google Play, but the Chromecast Ultra requires using your own smartphone or tablet to navigate through it instead of an easy, on-screen interface.
Power is hard to measure for media streamers. All of these devices can stream 4K HDR video, so they have the processing speed to handle that. The newest chips and the most sheer power can determine how smoothly your browsing experience is, and there aren’t many ways to directly test that.
On paper, though, the Apple TV 4K is the most powerful simply because of its beastly A10X system-on-chip. It’s the same processor used by the iPad Pro, and it’s incredibly fast. The Roku Ultra uses an unspecified quad-core CPU, and Google doesn’t say what sort of processor the Chromecast Ultra uses, and they’re both about a year old. Though, since the Chromecast Ultra relies on your smartphone or tablet for navigation, its interface responsiveness depends entirely on what device you use it with.
Winner: Apple TV 4K (but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything)
Both the Apple TV 4K and Roku Ultra support voice search and controls through microphones built into their remotes, but the extent to which they work varies wildly. Roku focuses primarily on voice search, letting you find the movies and TV shows you want to access just by talking into the mic. Apple TV 4K, on the other hand, has Siri.
Apple’s voice assistant is incredibly powerful, with reach that goes far beyond picking what to watch. You can ask Siri to answer questions, set alarms, and directly control media playback. It can even control your smart home devices if they’re Apple HomeKit-compatible.
The Google Assistant voice assistant seems as powerful as Siri, but again the smartphone/tablet requirement for Chromecast comes into play here. The Chromecast Ultra doesn’t have a remote with a microphone so you can’t simply give it commands, and not every Android device has Google Assistant, so you can’t be certain your voice commands will mesh well with the device. Your best bet for Google Assistant working well with your Chromecast is to add a Google Home or another voice assistant speaker to your setup, so you don’t need to depend on any smartphone implementation for those controls.
Winner: Apple TV 4K
This is where Apple undeniably falls behind the competition. 4K media streaming has been available for $100 or below for over a year. The Apple TV 4K, meanwhile, starts at $179 (and even the 1080p Apple TV is a hefty $149). Chromecast Ultra is $69, and while the Roku Ultra is $100, the step-down Roku Premiere+ we prefer retains all of our favorite features for $90.
Apple TV 4K pre-orders begin Sept. 15; it arrives Sept. 22.
Winner: Google Chromecast Ultra