Best Streaming Device: Roku Ultra vs. Apple TV 4K vs. Fire TV Cube
After months of testing, I found Apple TV 4K to be the best overall streaming device. It has the most 4K content options and a brilliant interface. However, as a budget-friendly alternative, I recommend Roku Stick Plus because it’s essentially the same as Roku Ultra for just $59.
Now, let’s find out how I reached my conclusion, by comparing three 4K streaming devices (Apple TV 4K vs. Roku Ultra vs. Amazon Fire TV Cube) while evaluating five categories: interface, content, speed, smarts, and price.
Apple TV 4K
- Interface: It’s the most polished design (similar to iOS) and easy to find content.
- Content: The App Store is similar to iOS with the essentials and lots of 4K content.
- Smarts: Siri works seamlessly, but it’s not hands-free. You need the remote.
- Price: Apple TV 4K is $179. HD version is $149.
Best for you if...
You want an ad-free experience with a beautiful and intuitive interface that's similar to iPhone. It's the most expensive, but the experience is exponentially better.
Apple TV HD is $149 and an amazing device, but it only plays 1080p HD content.
- Interface: The interface is dated and sometimes clunky.
- Content: Roku OS is unbiased and doesn’t favor Amazon or iTunes. Good 4K selection.
- Smarts: Voice control is only good for searching. You need to hold down a button.
- Price: Roku Ultra is $99. Roku Stick+ is $59.
Best for you if...
You want a great experience for less. You'll get tons of content and unbiased search, but you're stuck with an old-school interface.
Roku Stick+ has the same speed and interface. The difference is a remote finder and extra ports that most people won't need.
Fire TV Cube
- Interface: It’s attractive but littered with annoying ads throughout the platform.
- Content: Next to no 4K HDR content, but it has all the basic apps.
- Smarts: Alexa can search and control the TV, but there are lots of bugs.
- Price: Cube is $119. Fire TV Stick 4K is $49.
Best for you if...
You want the best Prime Video experience. The hands-free Alexa is cool, but it isn’t polished. The interface is frustrating, slow, and loaded with advertisements.
Fire TV Stick 4K has the same interface and voice remote, minus hands-free Alexa.
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Aside from this streaming device post, I wrote three others:
If you want to find the best premium 4K streaming device, stay here.
I’ve used each device for at least a month and kept each to see new features when the software is updated and improved.
I currently use two Apple TV 4K devices in my main watching rooms. I wouldn’t give up my Apple TV for anything, but not everyone’s a huge Apple nerd like I am. Most people will do fine with Roku.
Apple TV 4K
- The tvOS interface is the most polished of any streaming device by a significant margin. Apple cares about design; the others don’t. It’s the same interface as iOS. If you’re an iPhone user and love it, you’re going to love this too.
- Apple’s “Watch Now” feature inside the TV App is fantastic and innovative. No other streaming devices have anything that works as well. It tracks all of the shows you’re watching (along with the episode you’re on) and puts them in a list. You rarely have to go inside apps if you already know what you want to watch. For example, I’m currently watching Sharp Objects on HBO. As soon as the new episode is available on Sunday night, it appears on my Watch Now list, and it’s ready to play with one tap.
- There are no ads. Apple makes huge profits on their hardware. Why’s this good news? They have no interest in advertising or using your data. Once you buy an Apple product, Apple is done trying to sell you things.
- Whenever a text field appears asking for your email or password, you get a notification on your iPhone and have the option to type on your phone. Previously-used email addresses are shown too to make signing into your apps easier.
- If you have a traditional cable provider and want access to your apps that come with your subscription, you may benefit from Apple’s Single Sign-On feature.
- Apple’s screensavers are slow-moving drone shots (in 4K) that go over huge cities. They’ll hold your attention for longer than you want to admit. People make fun of me for my infatuation with the screensavers, but I’m not saying you should buy a device specifically for its screensavers; but they are pretty cool.
- Apple TV has an App Store, like macOS and iOS. You can find most streaming services and all of the big names are available. These include, but are not limited to Amazon Video, Vudu, Hulu, Netflix, Showtime, HBO, Sling TV, DirecTV, and YouTube TV.
- Apple TV has a YouTube app, but there’s no way to watch 4K content because YouTube uses a VP9 video format that’s not compatible.
- Apple TV has the most 4K HDR content of any streaming device on the market. Plus, previous HD purchases on iTunes automatically upgrade to 4K for free.
Speed & Specs (A+):
- The fourth-generation Apple TV is the fastest streaming device on the market, but the 4K version is faster and uses the same processing chip as iPad Pro (A10X Fusion).
- Siri is quicker at finding results than Alexa. The downside is you need to use the remote to ask Siri anything.
- It supports Dolby Vision (the best HDR format) AND Dolby Atmos (the best audio experience), which is the only device in this comparison that can do both. (Fire TV Stick 4K can do both.)
- Siri justifiably gets a lot of flack on iPhone, but it’s nearly perfect on Apple TV. It does all the functions it’s supposed to like playback controls and content searching.
- You can’t go hands-free, like with Fire TV. You need to hold the Siri button on the remote. Handless HomePod support is inevitable, but it’ll be at least a year because it wasn’t announced at the least WWDC conference.
- If you want to run automation or control your smart devices away from home, you’ll need an Apple TV or HomePod to work as your “Homekit Hub.”
- You can ask Siri things like:
- “Fast forward 30 seconds.” This is great for skipping intros.
- “What did he just say?” This goes back 30 seconds and provides captions so you can find out what was said.
- “Play Dexter on Showtime.” Dexter will open on Showtime with your current episode queued.
- Just say the name of any show or movie, and it’ll pop up on the screen, and you can choose which service that you want to watch it on. If the content is not available free via one of your streaming services, you can rent it from iTunes.
- You can mirror your iPhone’s screen via AirPlay.
- Apple does a better job at regulating the volume for all its apps, which means the HBO volume level is going to be identical to Showtime and Netflix. Roku devices sometimes struggle with apps getting louder than their counterparts.
- Apple TV 4K is $179 and plays 4K HDR video, but it also works with standard HDTVs too. Even if there’s only a slight chance that you’ll eventually upgrade to a 4K TV, go with the 4K version. For $30, you’ll get a extra speed and future proof yourself.
- The Apple TV HD is $149 and a fantastic device, but it can’t play 4K video.
- Roku is getting over the app quality issues from previous years. Roku’s “feed” shows potential by curating movies to watch, while content you “follow” show up in the feed as it becomes available, but the overall Roku interface leaves much to be desired.
- The interface feels dated, and you don’t get a universal experience. Every app is set up differently and has different playback controls. This will probably be overlooked or not noticed by most people. I’m obsessed with nice design and in the minority.
- Roku makes money by collecting your user data and showing you targeted advertising. There’s no way to opt out of ads, but it’s not too concerning because there’s only one big ad on the home screen and it stays out of the way.
- You can follow moves and shows and you’ll get an update when they become available, but it doesn’t work as well as it should.
- Amazon favors its content and Apple prefers iTunes, but Roku doesn’t play favorites. There are no biases in the search. If a movie is free from one of your subscriptions, why should you pay for it? When searching for a movie or show, it displays results from your installed channels from lowest to highest price.
- Amazon Video, Google Play Video, Vudu, Hulu, Netflix, Showtime, HBO, Sling TV, DirecTV, YouTube TV, PlayStation Vue, Spotify, and Pandora are available. Roku has every streaming service I’ve ever heard of other than iTunes. They claim to have 500,000 movies and shows. No streaming device comes close to that number.
- Roku’s 4K content selection is vast. You get 4K content from Netflix, Amazon Video, YouTube, Vudu, and others. Also, Roku does a great job of organizing and showing where to find 4K content.
- If you don’t want to subscribe to HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, or Starz through your cable provider, you can subscribe through Roku and pay Roku instead. The benefit is that your content to your subscriptions stays in one app, The Roku Channel. (You won’t need to use the HBO app anymore.)
- The Roku Channel has solid ad-based free content in it as well.
Speed & Specs (B-):
- It has enough power to do what’s needed. Going in and out of menus is quick, but Roku’s speed doesn’t have anything on Apple TV.
- Setup is annoying. Roku gets docked because of how beautiful Amazon and Apple are in comparison. Roku requires you to create an account and asks for your credit card. Every time I set up a new Roku, I can’t seem to log in. However, the clunky setup can be overlooked because it’s only a one-time thing.
- Dolby Vision and HDR10 are the two competing HDR standards. My eye isn’t tuned enough to tell the difference, but critics say Dolby Vision looks better. Roku only supports HDR10, but Apple has the most HDR content as they support both standards.
- I don’t love the preset streaming buttons (i.e., Netflix, Hulu, PlayStation Vue, and Sling) on the remote. It would be cool if you were a member of all those services, but I’m left with three useless buttons.
- Private listening mode is a cool feature if you have roommates or you’re just trying to be quiet. You plug your headphones into the remote, and the volume is turned off on the TV and is played in your headphones.
- Apple AirPlay is in the works with other Apple integrations coming too. In a future update, Roku devices can mirror your phone’s display on your TV.
- Roku Ultra has a USB port and Micro SD card reader, making it the only legitimate option to watch your ripped movies or shows via external storage.
- Hulu, Sling, Philo, Pandora use a feature called Automatic Account Link that automatically logs you into your streaming apps on each new Roku device after the first one. Typing logins with a remote and TV is a pain, so this could be a huge feature for Roku if they can add more services.
- Roku does voice search but only to find movies or shows. There’s no virtual assistant like Alexa or Siri. Roku can’t handle complex questions or tasks, but I’m alright with that because their voice system does what it’s supposed to.
- You can control your TV’s volume and power with the remote. Setup for this was slick. It plays a sound on your TV and automatically enters codes until you don’t hear the sound anymore.
- Roku was the last to get voice control on the remote, but they did a solid job. The voice controls don’t do fancy things like Alexa or Siri, but Roku’s assistant finds the show and which app to stream it in when you ask.
- Roku’s phone app is great for opening streaming channels. When you tap on services in the app, it shows on the TV.
- You can ask your Google and Alexa devices to control Roku. These are solid workarounds for the lackluster smarts in the remote, but the integration doesn’t work perfectly and the commands get wordy. For instance, you’d have to say “Alexa, open Netflix on Roku,” and then wait a while for it to happen.
- You can put your Roku in “Guest Mode” if you have a TV regularly used by visitors. It lets your guests use their credentials to their streaming services, then automatically signs them out on their chosen “leave date” and Roku will be ready for the next guest. It’s a great feature for guest rooms or AirBnB places.
Fire TV Cube
- The interface has an attractive design and isn’t dated like Roku’s, but it has several frustrating aspects.
- Amazon Channels is great if you buy your streaming services like HBO and Showtime through Amazon. But it’s confusing if you’re not a user, there’s no way to delete it from the interface.
- The home screen is a giant advertisement. I like Amazon the company and Jeff Bezos is a cool guy, but I don’t need Amazon to tell me how cool they are on every screen.
- Amazon is using this device to get people interested in their Prime content, and that’s fine. But I draw the line when there are obnoxiously huge ads on my TV. (Dear Amazon, I will PAY YOU to have an ad-free device, and I’m sure others would too. After I’ve already paid money for a device, I don’t to be sold to again).
- You pick five of your favorite apps to appear on the home screen, but Amazon has a row above that shows your “most recently used” apps. This results in duplicate apps on the home screen because my favorite apps are usually recently used. It looks awful and doesn’t make sense from a usability perspective.
- If you like Amazon’s original content, you’ll like the experience because it’s setup nicely with bonus features.
- If you’re watching a Prime show, it’ll show up in the most recently used section similar to Apple’s “Watch Now,” but it’s a shame that it doesn’t work with other streaming services.
- Amazon favors their shows in searches, which is to be expected.
- There’s Hulu, Netflix, Showtime, HBO, Sling TV, DirecTV, YouTube, PlayStation Vue, and others available.
- YouTube TV is the best live streaming service and not available on Amazon products, but it’s coming later in 2019.
- There’s not a big 4K HDR content selection because there’s no Vudu or iTunes (the two biggest 4K content providers). Your three 4K options are Amazon Video, Netflix, and YouTube.
Speed & Specs (C):
- It’s not fast compared to Apple TV, but it’s manageable. Ironically, the second generation Fire TV from 2015 was faster.
- Amazon released a new “Alexa Voice Remote” that comes included and lets you control the volume with the remote. This was a huge and annoying issue with previous Fire TV devices.
- Most experts favor the picture quality of Dolby Vision over HDR10 as the best HDR standard. Apple TV supports both standards, but Amazon is exclusively HDR10. Ironically, the more affordable Fire TV Stick 4K supports both standards.
- Like Apple TV and Roku, you can hold down a button on the remote to ask Alexa questions.
- Unlike Apple TV and Roku, with Fire TV Cube you don’t need the remote to use the assistant. You can just use the wake word “Alexa,” and one of the device’s eight far-field microphones will pick up what you say.
- Alexa is slower than Siri, but it does these things well:
- “Alexa, turn on the TV.”
- “Alexa, turn up the volume.”
- “Alexa, Westworld (or any show or movie).” It’ll bring up the show with options of where to watch it.
- “Alexa, turn off the TV.” This speaks to my laziness, but I found this helpful at night when I was ready to sleep but didn’t want to reach for the remote.
- “Alex, go home.” This brings you to the homescreen.
- Fire TV Cube has Apple TV beat in a big way by allowing you to say just one command to set everything up. For example, when you say “Alexa, play The Office on Netflix.” Alexa will turn your TV on, put your TV on the correct input, fire up Netflix and cue up the right episode.
- It doesn’t work consistently enough for it to be an advantage, but it’s fantastic when it works.
- The phrasing gets wordy because you need to say the show and the service you want to use. Alexa misunderstands most of the time, no matter how slowly you speak. Amazon should use their AI technology to predict which service you want to use based on previous uses, or let you choose your preferences. I want to say “Alexa, play Nathan for You” and have everything done for me.
- Fire TV Cube functions like normal Echo devices and can handle all of the usual questions, actions and smart home commands that any smart speaker can handle.
- A recently released feature, lets you navigate the interface, without the remote, by saying “Alexa, scroll up,” “Alexa, select this.” I’m not sure how this would be practical, but it’s there.
- You can’t change some Alexa preferences via the TV, need to go in Alexa app on your phone. It doesn’t make sense.
- Fire TV Cube has a bright future, but Alexa in its current state isn’t ready for primetime and has too many bugs and is too laggy.
- Bug example: It randomly pauses several times while in the middle of a show and for unexplainable reasons. It’s a fixable bug, but it’s annoying while we wait for the patch.
- Fire TV Cube is $120 and comes with an IR extender and Ethernet adapter. It sounds like a good deal compared to Apple, but it’s not great value for most people. Apple TV provides an experience that is over $100 more valuable.
- If you’re convinced you want an Amazon device, Fire TV Stick 4K is a better bet for $50. Four things to think about:
- On Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Prime Day it’ll most likely be $35. You should consider it, even with its faults, at that price.
- Fire TV Stick 4K has the same remote, interface, and performance (sometimes better) as Fire TV Cube, without hands-free Alexa.
- If you put Fire TV Cube in a cabinet and Alexa won’t hear you anyways.
- If Fire TV Cube is in your bedroom: do you want a listening device in your room while you sleep?