The world of budget 4K streaming devices has certainly gotten more interesting of late. We got an updated Chromecast in the latter half of 2020, and Roku just came out with its latest budget streamer, the Express 4K+. And with so many well-regarded and popular choices on the market, we thought we’d examine the current crop of budget 4K streamers, how they perform, and how they stack up against more expensive options.
If you’ve been looking for a new streaming device, and you’ve been on the fence about taking the plunge on a $40 or $50 streaming device, we hope this comes in handy.
(Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from our recent video, which you can check out at the embedded link below.)
What Exactly Is A Budget 4K Streamer?
First off, a disclosure: This isn’t a review, per se, but several of the streaming devices we mention in this article were originally sent to us for free for review from their respective companies. And just like with our regular reviews, all of our opinions remain 100 percent our own.
So let’s establish what we’re talking about when we say “budget” 4K streamer. There’s no hard-and-fast, legally binding rule about what qualifies as a budget device. For this article, however, we’re generally placing a line at the $50 price point, with budget 4K streamers coming in at or slightly below that mark.
In all, we’re talking about a variety of impressively capable devices, including the Chromecast with Google TV ($49.99), the TiVo Stream 4K ($39.99), the Fire TV Stick 4K ($49.99), and two options from Roku: the Streaming Stick+ ($49.99) and the new Express 4K+ ($39.99).
That’s a pretty wide selection in such a narrow price range, so it’s clear the companies involved feel this is a battleground worth fighting over. So let’s go over who these types of devices are for, and why you might consider them.
Upgrading Your Smart TV
If you’re shopping for a 4K streaming device, odds are pretty good that you’ve got a 4K TV at home that you’re looking to connect it to. And if you do have a 4K TV, odds are also fairly good that your TV already has some form of smart TV platform on board — though that may not always be the case. It does, however, beg the question why you’d want a separate $40 or $50 box for streaming to your 4K TV. And there are a lot of reasons you might want to do that.
A Better UI Than Your Current Smart TV
Even if your current 4K TV has some sort of smart TV platform on board, you could be looking for a better user experience or a more pleasant user interface. For instance, maybe you have an otherwise great LG OLED TV, but you personally want something different than the onboard webOS-based software.
Well, the budget 4K segment features some of the biggest and most popular platforms on the market, including Roku, Fire TV, Android TV, and its newer variant known as Google TV. Those are all compelling choices if you’re looking for a change of pace from your current 4K TV’s built-in software.
Better App Support
Beyond to their user interfaces, budget 4K streamers might also offer better app support than whatever your 4K TV has access to. Maybe there’s a new streaming service or app you want to check out, but your smart TV’s own software isn’t supported just yet. Or maybe it’s a more obscure app from a smaller company that doesn’t have the developer resources to produce apps for every platform.
Case in point, Pluto TV has been around for several years now, but it wasn’t until late 2020 that the free streaming app finally appeared on my 2018-era LG OLED B8.
Odds are pretty good that whatever app you’re looking for should be available on one or more of those major platforms. And yes, we do run into instances where a big app isn’t supported by a big streaming platform. Sometimes that happens when a service launches, or maybe when two sides can’t renew a previous agreement. Overall, though, improved app support is definitely one reason consumers look to these streaming devices.
Depending on your current setup, a $40 or $50 4K streamer might offer significantly improved performance. That can show up as faster app loading times, faster switching between apps, or just an overall smoother experience when scrolling through menus.
If you’ve seen our earlier hardware reviews, you might be familiar with our streaming service performance suite, where we test a device by timing how long it takes to load a series of popular apps. For this article, we thought we’d compare budget streamers to a 4K TV’s integrated smart platform, so we turned to my 2018 LG OLED with its webOS-based operating system.
We immediately ran into an issue when trying to run our standard cross-platform test suite, however. Two of the apps we measure (Crunchyroll and ESPN) aren’t actually available on webOS, which just reinforces the potential differences in app support on these platforms.
So we dropped those two apps from our suite and timed the LG’s performance when loading the apps that were available. Our modified test suite featured Netflix, YouTube, Prime Video, Disney+, Hulu, Pluto TV, Sling TV, and then Netflix once more to see if it loaded up any faster the second time around.
And we compared those times to what we’ve measured on our various budget 4K streamers and I think the numbers tell a pretty clear story. Our 2018 LG B8 may still offer some incredible picture quality, but its onboard smart TV platform clearly lags behind this collection of 4K streaming devices.
So if you’re looking for better performance, a budget 4K streamer could be a significant upgrade.
Beyond app support and overall performance, there’s at least one other perk to picking up one of these devices and that’s their portability.
Each of these $40 or $50 streamers fits in the palm of your hand and can easily slip into a carry-on bag. That could come in handy on, say, business trips, where you don’t feel like being at the mercy of whatever cable or satellite company is on offer at your hotel. And even if your hotel room’s TV does offer streaming services, bringing along your own device means you won’t have to enter your login info on some unknown device.
Why You Shouldn’t Consider a Budget Streaming Device
Beyond the realm of $40-$50 4K streaming devices, there lies another category of higher-end options. Again, there’s no clearly defined line here, but we’re considering 4K streamers that usually retail for $100 or more to be in the high-end class and that includes the Roku Ultra, the Fire TV Cube, the new Apple TV 4K, and the NVIDIA Shield TV and Shield TV Pro.
So why would you want to pay more for these devices instead of the considerably cheaper options we’ve been talking about?
Better Performance on Higher End Devices
For one thing, many of these options offer faster performance than the budget class of 4K streamers. While none of these budget options is truly “slow” by any means, it’s worth pointing out these higher-spec models tend to offer even faster, smoother performance.
For example, the Nvidia Shield TV Pro’s hardware hasn’t been updated since 2019. In our performance tests, though, despite a curiously long Netflix load time right after a system restart, the Shield TV Pro more than holds its own. If you take that initial load time out of the equation, the Shield TV Pro jumps to second place overall. And the same can be said for other higher end devices, like Roku’s $99.99 Ultra. That model recorded a time of 75.74, which beats out the recently launched Express 4K+ and all our other budget 4K streamers.
So if having the best overall performance in loading apps, and navigating menus is important to you, moving up to the higher-end streaming devices might be a better move.
But what if you don’t really care that a Roku Ultra loads the Hulu app 3 seconds faster than a Chromecast with Google TV? What else do more expensive devices offer?
In a word: features.
Generally speaking, these $100+ 4K streamers offer a wider and more expansive feature set than their budget counterparts. And by that, we mean additions like better HDR support, more onboard storage and RAM, more robust connectivity options, and more. The Roku Ultra, for example, has a built-in Ethernet port if your WiFi connection isn’t reliable. The latest Roku Express 4K+ does let you connect via Ethernet through a third-party adapter, but that’s an additional cost that narrows the price gap somewhat.
Beyond more impressive specs, these higher-end machines can often pull off some interesting tricks outside of streaming entertainment. The Apple TV, for instance, has some gaming capabilities built in and includes support for other company’s input devices, including gamepads from Microsoft’s Xbox line and Sony’s PlayStation.
The Shield TV Pro can also function as a Plex Media Server if you’re looking to manage and stream your own personal media library. It also boasts some gaming credentials of its own, including supported Android games. There’s also the company’s GeForce Now streaming service, as well as GameStream, which lets you stream your home PC’s games onto your big screen TV.
It’s worth pointing out the Chromecast with Google TV is still slated to gain support for Google’s Stadia game service, but as of the publication of this article, that support is still TBD, so we don’t know when it’ll arrive and how it will perform once it does.
Overall, though, if you’re hoping to get more out of your streaming device than just streaming movies and TVs, it might be worth taking a look at the higher-end options on the market. You might be surprised what they’re capable of.
Wrapping It All Up
The budget 4K streaming device segment has clearly matured over the years. In terms of raw app-loading performance, newer entries like the Chromecast with Google TV and the Roku Express 4K+ have the horsepower to compete with pricier options. But there are still advantages that come along with investing in those higher-end devices. And if you were considering a budget 4K streamer, we hope this article helped highlight their relative strengths and weaknesses so you can make a more confident buying decision.
Of course, the market doesn’t stand still, so we’re looking forward to what the future holds for the budget category — as well as how companies will look to justify more expensive options. It’s definitely an exciting time to be a cord cutter.