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Battle of the 4K streaming boxes: Apple, Google, Amazon, and Roku

Here’s a dirty little secret the TV companies would prefer that you didn’t know: You can’t see the difference between 4K and regular high definition.

“4K” means four times as many pixels as on an HDTV in the same space. And from a normal seating distance, on standard TV sizes, the human eye can’t make out the additional resolution.

What you can see—what is worth upgrading to—is a format with a much less catchy name: HDR, which stands for high dynamic range. (You might see either “HDR” or “Ultra HD Premium”—they both mean high dynamic range.)

If you have an HDR screen and an HDR movie to watch, hoo boy: the quality hits you between the eyes. Much brighter brights, much darker darks; more detail in those bright and dark places; and more shades in between. More shades of color, too. Really fantastic.

Still with us? OK, good—then here’s another dirty little secret about 4K: Not a single TV network or cable channel broadcasts anything in 4K. If you own a 4K television, and you want to watch 4K shows and movies, you have two choices: Buy a 4K Blu-ray player and new movies on disc—or stream your shows online, from services like Netflix (NFLX), Amazon (AMZN), Hulu, iTunes (AAPL), Google Play (GOOG, GOOGL), Vudu, and YouTube.

Streaming your shows, of course, is ultimately less expensive than buying on Blu-Ray, and offers far greater variety and choice of stuff to watch. But to stream them, you need a fairly fast internet connection and streaming box attached to your TV.

As it turns out, all four of the major streaming boxes—Apple TV, Roku, Google Chromecast, and Amazon Fire—have just been re-introduced in 4K HDR versions in the last couple of months.

(Since 4K TV has been around for four years now, what took 4K streaming boxes so long to come out? Simple: Their makers were waiting for HDR to become a thing. Because remember: 4K alone doesn’t make any visual difference.)

Meet the Contenders

I rounded up the four major rivals on a quest to figure out which one is the best: Apple TV ($180), Roku Streaming Stick+ ($70), Amazon Fire TV with 4K Ultra HD ($70), and the Google Chromecast Ultra 4K ($70).

They’re all black plastic. Each plugs into one of your TV’s HDMI input jacks. Each then has to plug into a power outlet. (The exception: The Roku stick can get power from a USB jack on your TV instead.)

Most come with a remote control. (The exception: the Google Chromecast. You’re supposed to use a special app on your smartphone to control it, which can be a huge inconvenience. If the person with the phone isn’t home, or if the phone’s dead, guess what? No movies for you.)

Each of these devices starts you off with a miserable setup experience. You have to download and install each of the “apps” or “channels” you’ll want to watch: Netflix, YouTube, HBO GO, Hulu, and so on. Then you have to enter your account information for each one—your email address and password, usually—by using arrow keys on the remote to skate across an on-screen grid.

It’s awful. It’s a user interface from 1956. It’s tedious. And you have to do it over and over and over.