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The Cheapest Ways to Get Started with 4K Streaming

If you’re buying a new 4K TV this year, you’ll naturally want to watch some beautiful 4K content on it. The best possible picture quality can be found on Blu-ray discs, but the discs and the players are costly. If you want 4K content on the cheap and right now, streaming is fast and cheap. Here’s how to get started without spending a ton.

Fire Up Your Smart TV’s Apps

We may not care very much for smart TV software, but it is the cheapest option for streaming anything since it comes with your TV. Most TVs at least have a YouTube or Netflix app, and any TV that’s capable of displaying 4K content probably has a version of those apps that supports 4K streaming.

YouTube in particular has a number of 4K and HDR friendly channels you can use to try out your display. The HDR Channel offers a collection of high quality clips ranging from nature documentaries to video games to fashion shows. The 4K Relaxation Channel offers peaceful nature videos you can put on in the background. Finally, The Slow Mo Guys put out tons of awesome videos of showing ridiculous things in slow motion like jumping onto a trampoline covered in mouse traps or slicing water bottles with a katana. These will look incredible on your new TV.

If you want to watch 4K movies, most smart TVs come with some kind of video rental app—for example, recent Sony TVs come with the Ultra 4K app—which you can use to rent or buy 4K movies to stream. This is kind of a last resort since these purchases and rentals are close to Blu-ray prices (and streaming is never as high-quality as a disc), however if you don’t want to buy a Blu-ray player, this can be cheaper in the short term.

Check Out Netflix and Amazon’s 4K Library

YouTube’s 4K content is just as free (or ad-supported) as any other content, but if you want to watch the highest quality video on Netflix, you’ll have to upgrade your plan. Fortunately, it’s extremely cheap. Netflix’s normal HD plan costs $10.99/month and lets you stream on two screens at once. The 4K plan costs $11.99/month—a whole extra dollar!—and lets you stream on up to four screens at once. Not a bad upgrade for the cost of a pack of gum. Most Netflix original shows made in recent years support 4K and HDR content, so in terms of bang for your literal buck, this is one of the best upgrades you can make.

Amazon also offers a selection of 4K HDR content, though not quite as much as Netflix has. On the other hand, Amazon doesn’t charge any extra for 4K, so if you already have Amazon Prime, you can start watching shows like The Grand Tour and The Man in the High Castle, or movies like Manchester by the Sea or Spectre in 4K right away.

If All Else Fails, Get a Roku

So far, we’re banking on your TV to have the right support and apps to stream 4K content. While it should be expected that a 4K TV be able to stream 4K content on its own, some companies might skip that step (or do it very poorly) to save a buck. If you’re not finding enough content with the apps available on your TV, get a Roku.

To be clear, a Roku isn’t necessarily the best streaming device for everyone, the Roku Streaming Stick+ ($70) and the more powerful Roku Ultra ($100) are among the cheapest ways to add robust 4K streaming to any TV. The Roku platform has a bunch of 4K-compatible apps. Since Roku isn’t embroiled in the same kind of anti-consumer feuds that Amazon and Google are, you can get 4K content from nearly any source.

Roku includes apps for mainstays like Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon Video, as well as a number of other 4K-compatible channels. Vudu lets you buy or rent movies in 4K, as does Roku’s own 4K Ultra HD Spotlight app. You can even use Plex to stream your own 4K content from a self-hosted server if you have any.

Unfortunately, 4K content isn’t as dirt cheap as HD movies and TV shows yet, but the market is growing rapidly. You can get access to a bunch of 4K TV shows and movies with Netflix for an extra dollar, videos on YouTube for free, or rent some 4K movies from Vudu for just a few dollars a pop. That’s way cheaper than springing for a new Blu-ray player and $20-30 discs, even if streaming quality isn’t quite as good.

Eric Ravenscraft Eric Ravenscraft
Eric Ravenscraft has nearly a decade of writing experience in the technology industry. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, PCMag, The Daily Beast, Geek and Sundry, and The Inventory. Read Full Bio »