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Battle of the streaming sticks: Chromecast vs. Roku vs. Fire TV Stick

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By Ryan Waniata


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Streaming sticks and compact dongles used to exist solely as low-budget alternatives to bigger, more powerful set-top boxes. Nowadays, though, these tiny little tech marvels can perform nearly all the same tasks as their larger brethren, but at more manageable prices (and sizes).

Google, Roku, and Amazon are the biggest players, with each touting signature streamers at low prices that are packed full of desirable features. But which one is best? Google’s hockey puck-shaped Chromecast and Chromecast Ultra are monsters of their respective domains. Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K isn’t too shabby either, and both Roku options — the Streaming Stick+ and the Roku Premiere+ — have plenty of streaming muscle and great features. We pitted them all against each other to see which one come out on top.

Chromecast 3rd Gen

Google Chromecast (3rd gen)

google chromecast ultra 2016

Google Chromecast Ultra

roku streaming stick+ review led

Roku Streaming Stick+

roku premiere plus review 2018 1

Roku Premiere+

Amazon Fire TV Streaming Stick 4K

Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K

Price$35$69$60$50$50
Video1080p4K UHD4K UHD4K UHD4K UHD
Dedicated remoteNoNoYesYesYes
Controller appAndroid, iOS, MacOS, Windows, Chrome OSAndroid, iOS, MacOS, Windows, Chrome OSAndroid, iOS, Windows Phone, BB10Android, iOS, Windows Phone, BB10Android, iOS
Voice searchYes, via Home appYes, via Home appYesYesYes, via app or remote
Cross-platform searchLimitedLimitedYesYesYes
DT ReviewYesYesYesYesYes
Available hereBest Buy, Various retailersBest Buy, Various retailers
Amazon, RokuWal-MartAmazon

Ease of use

best tech under 0

Even though they let you access the same content, the Chromecast and Chromecast Ultra function quite differently than the other devices. Since Chromecasts use your mobile device or computer to “cast” content to your TV, they’re devoid of a traditional menu-based user interface, a remote control, and onboard storage. In fact, in a world of smart devices, the Chromecast is perhaps the dumbest of them all.

But when it comes to simplicity and ease of use, that’s a very good thing. Chromecast devices leave all the smarts to your mobile device, simply acting as a conduit through which your TV can access content. Find what you want to watch or listen to on your personal device, “cast” it at the Chromecast with the tap of a button and, voil, it’s on your TV. That includes any content you can put on a Chrome browser window, i.e., anything on the web. It’s not that the other options here are complex — in fact, they’re all quite manageable — but the Chromecast takes the top spot here.

Winner: Chromecast, Chromecast Ultra

Processing power

Amazon tech deals Fire TV with 4K Ultra HD and Alexa Voice Remote

Well, technology moves fast, so the winner in this category is generally the most recently released product. As of our most recent update, that would be the Roku Premiere+ and the Fire TV Stick 4K, but as the Fire TV Stick 4K packs a bit more punch, that is our pick. Moving on!

Winner: Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K

Games

Amazon Fire TV Streaming Stick 4K
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Sure, the Roku devices will let you play Angry Birds and a handful of other cute games, but the Fire TV Stick 4K has access to a huge library of more advanced titles (like Machinarium and Minecraft). These games are highly appealing to casual gamers and represent more than just a novelty. Chromecast’s games are fine, but you won’t find much to please the console crowd. Most are multiplayer party titles such as Risk, Scrabble, and Monopoly. Amazon recently dropped support for its own game controller in newer models, but you’ll find third-party solutions if you really want to get your game on with your Fire TV Stick 4K.

Winner: Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K

App library

roku streaming stick+ screen home
Caleb Denison/Digital Trends

When it comes to the sheer number of available apps (not counting games), the Roku devices, with access to thousands of apps (or channels, as Roku calls them), win by a landslide. You can also use the official Roku app to select content on your smartphone.

Chromecast apps (“Cast Enabled” apps) also number in the thousands now, but support for the casting platform between PC, Android, and iOS devices varies, which can be frustrating. The good news is that, unlike Roku and Amazon Fire TV, any Android or iOS app can be Cast-enabled if the developer chooses, making for an ever-growing selection. But Chromecast still can’t natively play Amazon Prime Instant Video due to the ongoing war between the two megacorps. All of this to say, Roku is still king of app mountain.

Winner: Roku Premiere+, Roku Streaming Stick+

User interface

We’ve owned one Roku device or another for the last several years but also have put some serious time into testing Fire TV set-top boxes and streaming sticks. As we’ve now come to use both the Roku and Fire TV interfaces regularly, this has become a tough call to make. The Roku interface is extremely user-friendly — some might even call it “bubbly” — whereas the Amazon Fire TV interface has a little more techno-flash, yet is still very able to take care of business. While we generally prefer the service-agnostic Roku interface, Amazon uses Alexa for all sorts of voice-control functions that Roku can’t compete with.

For its part, Chromecast does has decent functionality via the Home app, but it doesn’t really have a traditional user interface, per se. Instead, you will be navigating apps and content libraries through your phone, tablet, or PC. While that does technically put it behind the other devices, as long as you’re comfortable with your casting device of choice, Chromecast is incredibly simple.

Winner: Roku Premiere+, Roku Streaming Stick+, and Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K (tie)

Search

roku streaming stick+ review full
Caleb Denison/Digital Trends

When it comes to finding what to watch, where to watch it, and how much (if anything) it will cost you, the Roku devices win. They can search through text or voice, whether you use the remote or the mobile app, across a vast channel library.

For its part, Amazon forces you to use voice search, with no text-based option available. That said, with Alexa available right on the remote, it’s pretty easy to use. Consistent updates have made Fire TV a serious contender here, with Amazon bragging that it has the “broadest cross-provider search of any streaming media player.” Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa also now allows users to say things like “rewind 20 seconds” for more attuned searching, and the system will also show you where the video you want can be found. Still, Roku is more transparent in its search about cost, and Amazon’s broader searches leave something to be desired.

Google Chromecast devices include both text and voice search, but they’re still pretty far behind. Like the Fire TV, however, Chromecast search favors content from certain apps and services, especially proprietary ones. So, unless you’re really into the Google Play store, finding the best place to watch what you’re looking for can be a bit more of a hassle here.

It’s pretty close any way you slice it, but we still feel Roku comes out on top here.

Winner: Roku Premiere+, Roku Streaming Stick+

Remote control

roku streaming stick+ review remote
Caleb Denison/Digital Trends

When it comes to the included remotes, both of the Roku devices and the Fire TV offer a ton of functionality, including power and volume keys for your TV. However, Roku’s is a bit easier to use, including shortcut buttons to some of the most popular apps for Netflix, Hulu, and others. Both platforms offer free remote apps for iOS and Android, but here again, Roku has the upper hand thanks to slightly better usability, as well as the ability to listen to headphones directly from your phone or tablet for private listening. As mentioned, Chromecast devices don’t use a dedicated remote, so they’re not in the picture.

Winner: Roku Premiere+, Roku Streaming Stick+

Casting, mirroring, sharing

Cast from Chromecast

When it comes to playing content that doesn’t come from a streaming service, the Google Chromecast and Chromecast Ultra win the day. While it’s just as easy to stream Netflix, YouTube, or Hulu to a Roku device, sharing personal videos or photos on the Android platform is a tad easier with Chromecast. For iOS users, the process of casting personal photos or videos to a Chromecast requires the use of a third-party app, whereas Roku users with iOS devices have to share from within the Roku remote app.

When it comes to mirroring, it’s pretty close between all four streamers, but Chromecast is easiest — for Android, anyway. Thanks to Miracast, screen mirroring for Android and Fire device users isn’t much of a chore (though iOS users will need to use a third-party app). Chromecast users can easily and quickly mirror their desktop to put anything and everything you can find online (legally, of course!) up on your TV screen from a PC or an Android device. Though mirroring isn’t available via iOS devices, Chromecast streamers still edge out a win here.

Winner: Chromecast, Chromecast Ultra

Video and audio quality

google chromecast ultra 2016
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

The only device on this list that doesn’t support 4K UHD video is the third-generation Chromecast, so for the most part, it would appear we’re starting on a level playing field. When it comes to the quality of streaming content, the biggest factor is often the quality of the connection, not the device’s claimed specs. Unless your home network is sporting the latest and greatest standards, though, this will likely make little difference.

Like the Chromecast Ultra, the Roku Streaming Stick+ and the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K also support dual-band a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, which makes the well-equipped to handle 4K streaming provided your home network is up to the task. This leaves out the Roku Premiere+, which is limited to b/g/n connections. However, the fact that the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K and Chromecast both support Dolby Vision gives them a (very) slight edge (for Dolby Vision-supported TV owners, that is).

Winner: Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K, Chromecast Ultra (tie)

Value

Roku Premiere Plus Review
Riley Young/Digital Trends

The Roku Premiere+ ties the Fire TV Stick 4K when it comes to price, and although the Fire TV Stick 4K offers the wiles of Alexa voice search and plenty of other Alexa functions, the Roku Premiere+ was simply a smoother ride in our testing, with fewer hiccups and more intuitive controls. On the other hand, the Roku Streaming Stick+ adds potentially faster, dual-band Wi-Fi which will likely perform better in houses with multiple heavy users, and it costs just $10 more. When all is said and done, both Rokus offer a low price, better app selection, and more intuitive interface win.

Winner: Roku Premiere+, Roku Streaming Stick+

And the winner is …

Roku Premiere+ and Roku Streaming Stick+

roku premiere plus review 2018 1roku streaming stick+ review in tv

As far as we’re concerned, the Roku Premiere+ and Roku Streaming Stick+ are simply the best streamers you can buy right now. At $50 and $60 apiece, they both offer simple streaming with everything you need, and nothing you don’t. While Alexa makes it easy to use voice for control over multiple devices, the Rokus will do just about everything you need while offering better search and, for our money, a better overall interface. That said, if you have a TV with Dolby Vision support, we suggest going with the Fire TV Stick 4K instead, which is very good streamer in its own right, one that’s loaded with features.

Moreover, you really can’t go wrong with any of the selections on our list. If you regularly use your phone, tablet, or computer for streaming, you might as well grab a Chromecast and streamline your viewing experience (and, again, if you want a 4K-capable version and don’t mind paying extra, there’s also the Chromecast Ultra). When all is said and done, the decision is yours and yours alone. Choose wisely.


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