I am neither an audiophile nor a videophile, but I like to have a functional home theater that takes advantage of the state of the art without investing a ton of time and money into it. About eight years ago I assembled some mid-range gear—including a 46″ Samsung LCD panel, Denon AVR, Sony Blu-ray player, and Polk Audio speakers—that enabled me to watch movies in judder-free 1080p24 with lossless, 5.1-channel surround sound. It doesn’t hold a candle to e.g. a modern 4K HDR and Dolby Atmos setup, but it’s still a fine setup for our viewing distance and family room needs (if anything, it’s probably overkill).
We also have an Apple TV (3rd gen) and a 2010 TiVo Premiere that are getting a little long in the tooth. (Incredibly, the TiVo plays Prime Video at 1080p24 with Dolby Digital Plus, but it’s slow as molasses and you have to pay for the TiVo service to use their OnePass feature.) A few weeks ago I decided that I wanted to cancel cable TV and the TiVo subscription and replace the Apple TV and the TiVo with a new, future-proof streaming media player that supports Plex, streaming TV services, 4K HDR, and Dolby Digital Plus. I tried out the latest offerings from Amazon, Roku, and Apple.
“Winner(s)” in bold.
|Product||Fire TV (pendant)||Ultra||TV 4K (32 GB)|
|Distinguishing channel(s)||None||Roku app, Google Play Movies & TV, YouTube, YouTube TV||Apple TV app, iTunes, YouTube, YouTube TV|
|“Mini” version for bedroom TV1||Fire TV Stick||Streaming Stick+||No|
|Frame-rate matching1||In development, supposedly||Yes, but poorly implemented||Yes, in some apps|
|Dolby Atmos2||Yes (Digital Plus)||Yes (Digital Plus)||No|
|DTS-HD pass-through1||Worked at one point but not currently||Yes||Yes|
|Ethernet port||Requires USB OTG adapter||Yes (10/100)||Yes (gigabit)|
|Secondary digital audio output||No||Yes (TOSLINK)||No|
|USB port||Requires USB OTG adapter||Yes||No|
|microSD card slot||Requires USB OTG adapter||Yes||No|
|Private listening||Bluetooth||Remote & in-app||Bluetooth|
|IR receiver||Requires USB OTG adapter||Yes||Yes|
|Volume control||No||Yes, HDMI-CEC||Yes, HDMI-CEC or IR|
- Must-have for me
- Strictly future-proofing
- Specific to my situation
Amazon Fire TV (pendant)
First up was the all-new Fire TV with 4K Ultra HD. This was a no-brainer for us to try since we’re an Alexa household and heavy Prime Video users. It’s cheap enough that it doesn’t need to be future-proof, it has the best voice search, and frame-rate matching is supposedly “coming soon.” I had visions of integrating the home theater system into our Echo multi-room music setup and controlling everything hands-free while we fed our newborn. Even though it doesn’t have a built-in ethernet port, I didn’t think it was going to be a problem because we have a brand-new enterprise-grade access point in the family room. Unfortunately, it was better in theory than in practice.
Setup is easy, with the device coming preregistered to your Amazon account, and the single sign-on feature is a huge timesaver. But the interface—while nicely designed, with X-Ray and a cross-channel “recently watched” gallery—is incredibly glitchy, with apps constantly erroring out trying to connect to the Internet. Streaming videos across multiple services frequently stutter and pause and occasionally completely stop, requiring you to restart the video from the beginning and fast-forward back to your place. I couldn’t try a wired connection to see if it fixed the problem because I didn’t have the $15 adapter. Amazon Support had me try a factory reset and even sent me a replacement unit, which unfortunately did not help.
The lack of an IR receiver frustrated us more than I expected, having to constantly switch back and forth between the Harmony and Fire TV remotes. I didn’t realize that Amazon was in the middle of a turf war with Google, which means that YouTube and YouTube TV are not available. Plex can’t pass DTS-HD through to the receiver. You can’t add a Fire TV into an Echo multi-room music group. And there’s no ETA for the frame-rate matching feature.
I don’t know why Amazon decided to remove all the ports cf. the 2nd gen and make the 3rd gen more like a Fire TV Stick with 4K HDR. Even more baffling, it seems like there’s no buffering whatsoever of streaming videos, so the slightest connection issues cause jarring playback interruptions. In the end, the negatives far outweighed the positives, and the unit had to go back. For Amazon’s sake, I hope they invest the engineering time and talent necessary to resolve these issues.
On paper, the Ultra seems to be everything the Fire TV was not. For $25–30 more you get a player with built-in ports, frame-rate matching, Google Play Movies & TV, YouTube & YouTube TV, working DTS-HD pass-through, and enhanced private listening. And in practice, it’s pretty great! Setup is a breeze, allowing you to configure your channels directly through a web browser on a computer. I love the Roku channel and the ability to control the Roku from our Harmony remote, with easy, programmable shortcuts to frequently-used channels like Prime Video, HBO NOW, Netflix, etc.
Unfortunately, the voice search isn’t on par with Alexa, there’s no easy way to do hands-free, and despite the additional cost there’s no support for dynamic HDR (e.g. Dolby Vision). Many of the apps aren’t nearly as polished as the Fire TV’s (or even what we’re used to on our third-generation Apple TV). Although the remote has volume buttons, it can only control the receiver through HDMI-CEC, which I prefer to leave disabled. And the Prime Video channel has a terrible audio/video synchronization issue that can only be solved by rewinding a bit.
I could have lived with those negatives, but the frame-rate matching (auto-adjust display refresh rate) feature that got me all hot and bothered is a complete bust. The Netflix UI is unusable because the TV keeps changing modes as the auto preview feature kicks in and out. The Prime Video sync issue becomes greatly exacerbated. HBO NOW and YouTube play without any audio. YouTube TV plays at a very choppy and grainy 30Hz. Roku Support was worse than useless, putting the blame on the channel providers and telling me to do things I had already tried (and communicated that I tried). Attaching the Ultra directly to the TV solves some issues but not others. None of these issues are present with the auto-adjust display refresh rate feature disabled. Other Roku users have reported similar issues.
Ultimately, the support experience was a huge turn-off, and I didn’t get the impression from them or their Twitter team that the deficiencies with this feature would ever be taken seriously. The fact that they can’t or won’t exercise any sort of quality control over their channel providers is worrisome. While I was weighing whether to stick with it or try something else, the latest Apple TV went on sale for $20 more than I’d paid for the Roku Ultra, so we made one more (hopefully final) leap.
Apple TV 4K (32 GB)
Despite the Apple TV 4K being positioned in the market as the premium option (and the retail cost certainly bears that out), throughout this process I came to see it as the compromise device between the Amazon Fire TV and the Roku Ultra. Siri isn’t as good as Alexa, but at least it’s better than Roku’s voice search. It doesn’t have as many ports as the Ultra, but at least it has an ethernet port (and it’s gigabit). We can’t program a soft button on the Harmony remote to go straight to an app, but at least there’s an IR receiver so we can use it for basic navigation. We lose Dolby Atmos, but at least we gain Dolby Vision.
Setup is… fine. I used an iPad and every time I canceled out of setup (e.g. to retrieve a password from my password manager) I had to reboot the iPad, which was frustrating. I also had to enter my Apple password three or four times for iCloud, iTunes, Home Sharing, etc. Going through the App Store and adding apps one at a time is somewhat tedious, and despite the option to select your TV provider, the single sign-on feature doesn’t seem to work as well (or at all) as it did on Fire TV and Roku. It doesn’t automatically update the software on first boot, and the remote takes some getting used to. Apple can definitely take some notes from the competition on all of the above.
Once Apple TV is set up, however, it works like a dream. “Up Next” beats the pants off the Fire TV’s “recently watched” gallery—it works more like TiVo’s OnePass feature—and the built-in screensaver beats the shirt off the Roku’s. Siri works well enough. Using the touch pad to scrub is a game-changer, as is the ability to organize apps into folders. The apps themselves are extremely well-polished, with a high degree of consistency between them. The biggest surprise so far is the inclusion of an IR transmitter on the remote, which lets us control the volume without enabling HDMI-CEC on the receiver.
Critically, the Match Frame Rate feature works perfectly. Apple has enabled it in compatible apps only, which is eminently preferable to Roku’s approach of enabling it everywhere and damn the torpedos. On the audio side, Apple TV supports Dolby Digital Plus sources, but takes the unusual step of decoding it internally and pushing out lossless, multichannel LPCM via HDMI. (This is one reason why Atmos isn’t supported, and why some folks are having trouble with Apple TV connected directly to a TV with ARC to the receiver.) In theory, this results in the same exact sound reproduction as bitstreamed Dolby Digital Plus, but the little blue light on my receiver doesn’t light up and that makes me sad. I suppose it’s possible that the Dolby Digital Plus decoder in the Apple TV is better than the one in my receiver—or vice-versa—but I have no way to test that.
We’re already an Apple-heavy household so the AirPlay, iTunes, and iCloud integrations are a nice benefit, and now we can rotate the old Apple TV (3rd gen) to the bedroom TV. My only other nit is that even though you can add multiple iTunes accounts, there doesn’t seem to be a way to quickly switch between them. If Apple really wanted to blow everyone’s mind, let my wife tell Siri to “show me my iCloud album” and “play my iTunes playlist” even though the unit is registered to me.
After being an Apple TV early-adopter in 2007 and an Apple TV (3rd gen) owner since 2012, I was eager to see what else was out there and wean my family off the Apple streaming media player teat, so to speak. Unfortunately, despite Roku’s vast industry expertise and Amazon’s size and clout, they can’t seem to keep up with Cupertino.
Roku definitely came the closest to usurpsing Apple—on our TVs, at least—until a severely broken feature and extremely poor customer service forced me to reconsider my options. They need to work much more closely with their channel providers to improve the user experience across the board.
Amazon should focus more on device stability and content partnerships (e.g. with YouTube), and less on aggressively shrinking their form factor to save a few pennies per unit.
For their part, Apple still has a lot to learn from their competitors. They have an opportunity to greatly improve the setup experience of their set-top box. Additionally, they could easily make it possible to bitstream Dolby Digital Plus, thereby enabling Dolby Atmos compatibility.
March 13th, 2018
Since publishing this article, I’ve decided to put a Google Chromecast on each TV in addition to the Apple TV. While Apple TV addresses 90+% of our use-cases, it’s just helpful to have another streaming method available. For example, to watch YouTube TV upstairs or to share something downstairs using my Android phone. I had two second-generation units lying around so it was an easy call.
I’ve had a fair number of commenters ask why I didn’t review the NVIDIA SHIELD along with the other devices. Although it was on my radar, I couldn’t justify the additional cost. I wouldn’t have tried the Apple TV 4K either if it hadn’t gone on sale when it did. We already have a media server, a smart hub, and a rarely-used gaming console in the house, so the SHIELD didn’t seem like a good fit for us. But if anybody from NVIDIA is reading this and would like to send me a review unit…
The Apple TV 4K remote continues to vex me. I always accidentally grab it and try to use it when it’s upside down. (Yes, the ring around the menu button is raised to help with orientation, but you have to sweep your thumb over the remote to find it, and I’m sure you can see the problem with that.) The touch pad works much too inconsistently between apps, and it’s too sensitive in some but not sensitive enough in others. I’ve taken to tapping the four sides of the touch pad to get a familiar directional pad, but you still have to press down on the touch pad to click, and that sometimes moves the cursor a bit and causes you to click on the wrong thing. YouTube TV is by far the worst offender in terms of usability with the remote and I’ve taken to AirPlay-ing (or Chromecast-ing) it instead.
- An earlier version of this article stated that the Roku software is based on Android. It is based on Linux, not Android. (h/t u/sk9592, u/mhunterchump)
- An earlier version of this article listed Google Play Movies & TV as a distinguishing channel on the Fire TV. Although there are ways of installing it, it’s not easy to do so out of the box. (h/t u/mhunterchump)