1. Nvidia Shield Android TV
The Nvidia Shield Android TV is closer to being a full-fledged game console than a media streamer.
For one thing, the Shield, like the Apple TV, can run games that have been optimised for the big screen. Nvidia even bundles a game controller with the Shield, in addition to the usual remote control.
The Shield is powered by Android TV. Designed for TV sets, this Android variant has large, readable tiles instead of app icons. The interface works well with both the remote and the game controller.
But Android TV's coolest feature is its voice search and voice commands. Simply press the voice button on the controller and say your query aloud to search across supported apps, including YouTube, Google Play and Hulu. The device also understands several voice commands. For instance, you can launch an app with your voice.
Another cool feature of Android TV is the recommendations row that shows up at the top of the home screen. Based on your viewing habits, Android TV will recommend videos, apps and other content. It is useful when searching for more relevant content to consume, though some of the recommendations miss the mark.
PRICE: US$200 (S$286)
INTERFACES: Gigabit Ethernet, 2 x USB 3.0, HDMI 2.0, micro-USB 2.0, microSD slot, IR receiver
WIRELESS: Wi-Fi 802.11ac 2x2, Bluetooth 4.1
VALUE FOR MONEY: 3/5
OVERALL: 4 /5
Because it runs Android, you can install TV-optimised apps ranging from video-streaming services to weather apps from the Google Play Store app on the Shield. But the library of apps for the Shield is significantly smaller than the Google Play Store for mobile devices.
Still, I counted around 130 Android TV games. Nvidia also offers a curated collection of games on its Shield Hub digital store. They include classic titles such as the Half-Life series and Doom 3.
A notable Shield game that showcases the gaming prowess of the device is Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, which, just two years ago, was released for the Sony PlayStation 3.
The Shield can also stream PC games running from a computer over the home network, so you can play your PC game on the big screen. Nvidia says there are over 200 supported games, though the PC must have a compatible Nvidia graphics card.
Besides its gaming capabilities, the Shield, like Roku 4, can stream 4K videos from Netflix. The device probably has the best hardware out of the media streamers in this roundup, with a powerful chip, a speedy Gigabit Ethernet connection, USB 3.0 ports and HDMI 2.0 port.
Nvidia offers a 500GB version of the Shield, up from the 16GB on the standard version. Storage can be expanded using a microSD card.
The Nvidia Shield is not available locally, but you can get it from online retailers such as Amazon.
As my primary media streamer for almost half a year, the Shield is as capable as a last-generation game console.
Android TV could do with more TV-optimised apps, but that is down to the developers.
For its part, Nvidia has been updating the Shield regularly - the company announced an upcoming Android 6.0 software upgrade earlier this month.
• The Shield aspires to be more than a media streamer. It largely succeeds, though at a higher price than its rivals.
2. ViewQwest TV 4K
The ViewQwest TV 4K streaming media player was touted as a game-changer at its launch.
Produced by local Internet service provider ViewQwest, this media streamer comes integrated with ViewQwest's Freedom VPN service that lets users bypass geographical locks on streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu.
Previously, Freedom VPN was available only to ViewQwest subscribers. But now that it comes bundled with the media streamer, you do not have to subscribe to ViewQwest for Freedom VPN, opening the service to subscribers of other broadband providers.
INTERFACES: Ethernet,3 x USB 2.0, HDMI 1.4
WIRELESS: Wi-Fi 802.11n dual-band, Bluetooth 4.0
VALUE FOR MONEY: 4/5
The media streamer includes a year's subscription to Freedom VPN. Subsequently, you have to pay ViewQwest $10.70 a month to continue using Freedom VPN.
To enable Freedom VPN on the ViewQwest TV, you simply click a button within the preloaded DNS login app. It is that simple. There is no need to configure your home router or devices, unlike with typical VPN services.
The built-in Freedom VPN service worked over the StarHub broadband network without any issues. It took around the same time as the ViewQwest network to start streaming videos from the US version of Netflix.
In addition, the ViewQwest TV is preloaded with over 20 popular video-streaming apps, ranging from US-based Hulu and Netflix to China-based LeTV and PPTV. However, you usually have to sign up - and pay - for these services separately.
Admittedly, it is not difficult for tech-savvy users to sideload these apps themselves as the ViewQwest TV runs on Android KitKat, which lets users install apps from an external USB drive. In fact, you can basically get a similar experience by installing a third-party VPN app on an Android TV box. But it is probably not as convenient.
These preloaded apps are tablet or smartphone versions and so are not optimised for TV.
My main quibble with the ViewQwest player is in the navigation of the apps. The bundled TV remote has an integrated trackpad. While the trackpad helps, especially if you surf the Internet using the ViewQwest TV, it is not as accurate or as responsive as a mouse.
There were times when I really wanted to throw the remote at the screen in frustration.
The ViewQwest TV can also do with a restart button. The remote's power button appears to only put the media streamer to sleep. The device does not support a microSD card, though it has a decent 8GB of storage.
While the ViewQwest TV supports 4K media playback, it can output these videos at only 30 frames per second (fps). This is unlike the Nvidia Shield Android TV and the Roku 4, which can both play 4K videos at 60fps. More importantly, the ViewQwest TV cannot stream 4K videos from Netflix.
Compared with ViewQwest's previous media streamer, the current model loads faster and is more responsive because of better hardware. However, its Wi-Fi 802.11n adapter is not as advanced as the 802.11ac adapters on the Apple, Nvidia and Roku media streamers.
At $299, the ViewQwest TV may seem relatively pricey. But if you exclude the bundled Freedom VPN service, the actual cost of the hardware (around $128) is fairly reasonable.
• The Android-powered ViewQwest TV is not as polished as its rivals.But its bundled VPN service makes it a viable choice for less tech-savvy users.
3. Roku 4
The Roku 4 is the media streamer to get if all you want to do is to watch the TV and movies.
Unlike the Apple TV or Nvidia Shield, the Roku 4 is not for gaming, even for casual titles. Unless, that is, you fancy playing Tetris, Snake and puzzle games on your TV.
Another caveat: the Roku 4 is about as good as a paperweight if you do not subscribe to a VPN service. Most of the apps available for the Roku are geographically locked to the US and a VPN is required to get the most out of it.
PRICE: US$130 (S$186)
INTERFACES: Ethernet, USB 2.0, HDMI 2.0, microSD slot,optical audio output
WIRELESS: Wi-Fi 802.11ac 2x2, Bluetooth 4.1
VALUE FOR MONEY: 4/5
That said, with a VPN, the Roku is probably the most mature media streamer in this round-up with more TV-optimised apps than any of its competitors. This is probably because the Roku platform has been around longer than its rivals.
However, the downside is that the Roku's menu-heavy user interface is not as sleek as Apple's TV OS or Google's Android TV. In fact, the Roku's companion mobile app (available for iOS, Android and Windows 8 phones) looks more modern. The app is also very handy for entering text using its virtual keyboard.
Setting up the Roku starts by linking the device to a Web page. This lets you continue the set-up process via a browser, which is extremely helpful because entering user names, passwords and payment details is horrible using a TV remote.
The remote itself has dedicated buttons for popular apps such as Amazon and Netflix. And if you happen to misplace it, you can easily locate the remote by pressing a button on the Roku media streamer that makes the remote emit a loud sound.
A microphone on the remote picks up your voice for the Roku's voice search feature. This search returns results from multiple services. But the cool thing is that you can look for your favourite actors and follow them, making it easier to know when their next movie is available on these services. But the Roku seems less accurate in recognising my voice searches, compared to Android TV.
The major selling point of the Roku 4 is its support for 4K content. In fact, this is the major difference between the Roku 4 and the previous model.
Like the Nvidia Shield, the Roku can support 4K video streaming for Netflix. Roku has also made it convenient for users by listing 4K content from multiple service providers in a dedicated 4K channel. The media streamer can also play 4K content from a connected USB device or microSD card.
Roku does not state the amount of internal storage in the device, though online reports have pegged it at a miserly 256MB. Thankfully, you can add more storage via the microSD card slot (up to 128GB).
Like the Nvidia Shield, the Roku 4 is not available in Singapore, so you probably have to buy it online.
• Roku 3 owners will have few reasons to upgrade. But the Roku remains one of the best media streamers you can buy because of its huge library of streaming services.
4. Apple TV (4th Generation)
Now into its fourth generation, the new Apple TV has its own operating system with the tvOS. It comes with its own App Store, so native apps can be installed in the device. The user interface is also as user-friendly as it is with iOS.
There is also a new remote control, which comes with a built-in accelerometer and gyroscope. The remote supports the Siri voice-recognition technology, but the feature is available only in the United States and seven other countries.
Singapore is not among them but you can still use the feature by switching to the US iTunes store.
PRICE: From $248
INTERFACES: HDMI, Ethernet, IR Receiver and USB-C
STORAGE: From 32GB
CONNECTIVITY: 802.11ac Wi-Fi (with MIMO) and Bluetooth 4.0
VALUE FOR MONEY: 4/5
The remote has a clickable touchpad and six buttons - search (represented by the microphone logo), menu, home, play, volume up and volume down. It also has a Lightning port for charging. Strangely, while the box includes a Lightning cable, there is no HDMI 1.4 cable.
The remote is light and easy to use. Navigating menus is a breeze. You can also use the remote to switch between apps or close apps.
To use Siri, you need to change the Apple TV's iTunes Store and region selection to supported regions, say, the US.
You not only can search for movies or music to play, but you can also search for the latest information on stock markets or your favourite basketball team's score. Press and hold the search button and ask, "Did the Golden State Warriors win?" and Apple TV will give you the scores for the Warriors' last match.
Most of the time, Siri was able to pick up what I was saying despite my Singaporean accent.
During a movie playback, you can command Siri to go forward or rewind by a specific time span, say, 10 minutes. You can even ask: "What did he just say?" if you missed out on a conversation. And it will rewind to the scene and show you the subtitles of what was said.
In terms of content for Singapore, the Apple TV has only the iTunes Store and, now, Netflix. It does not have the wide selection of services and Hulu, LeTV and PPTV found in other media streamers in this round-up.
However, the new Apple TV does have one advantage - the tvOS ecosystem, which, I believe, will continue to grow. Plus, if you have the iOS version of some of the apps, you can download them if there is a tvOS version.
I actually spent more time playing games than watching TV shows or movies on the Apple TV. At last count, there are over 70 games. The graphics of some tvOS games, such as GT: Spirit and Galaxy On Fire: Manticore, are just gorgeous.
I bought the Disney Infinity 3.0 (DI3) Starter Pack for Apple TV - not available here - from the US and it comes with the SteelSeries Nimbus Bluetooth Controller.
The Nimbus works better in most games, such as the racing game GT: Spirit and DI, where you need better control.
However, there are some games like Beat Sports, where you use the Apple TV Remote to hit a virtual ball, as you would with a baseball bat in real life.
The biggest downside is Apple's limit of 200MB for the tvOS app. As a result, a lot of these games need the user to stream the content.
I waited for 30 minutes for DI3 to load before I could play the game. This can be frustrating.
Another shortcoming is that the Apple TV does not support 4K content.
• Verdict: It might be more expensive than the rest, but the Apple TV(4th Generation) is the most elegant and, potentially, the most comprehensive media streamer.