Streaming sticks and compact dongles used to exist solely as low-budget alternatives to bigger, better, and more powerful set-top boxes. Nowadays, though, these tiny little tech marvels can often perform the same tasks as their larger brethren, but at more manageable prices (and sizes).
Google, Roku, and Amazon are the biggest players in this market, with each touting signature streamers at reasonable rates that are packed fullof the features you want and expect. But which one is best? Google’shockey-puck-shaped Chromecast recently received an update, with some better specs and new features. Amazon’s Fire TV Stick isn’t too shabby either, and both Roku options — the Express Streaming Stick+ and the Roku Expree — have undergone recent makeovers, boosting power and adding neat features to boot.
We decided to pit Chromecast versus Roku versus Fire TV Stick+ in the categories that matter most, from ease of use to price and features. Take a look to see which streamer should win your heart (and your wallet).
|Controller app||Android, iOS, MacOS, Windows, Chrome OS||Android, iOS, Windows Phone, BB10||Android, iOS, Windows Phone, BB10||Android, iOS|
|Voice search||Yes, via app||Yes||Yes, via app||Yes, via app or remote|
|Available here||Various retailers||Amazon, Roku||Amazon, Roku||Amazon|
Even though it lets you access the same content, the Chromecast functions nothing like the other devices. It doesn’t have a menu-based user interface, it comes with no remote control, it doesn’t store anything … 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. The Chromecast leaves all the smarts to your smartphone, tablet, or computer, 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 window, meaning 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.
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 Streaming Stick+. Moving on!
Winner: Roku Streaming Stick+
Sure, the Roku devices will let you play Angry Birds and a handful of other cute games, but the Fire TV Stick has access to a huge library of more advanced titles (like Shovel Knight andMinecraft)in the Google Play Store. Plus, the Fire TV Stick can be used with the same console-style gaming controller available with the Fire TV (sold separately). 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.
Winner: Amazon Fire TV Stick
When it comes to the sheer number of available apps (not counting games) the Roku devices, with access to more than 1,000 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 a wide selection. But Chromecast still can’t natively play Amazon Prime Instant Video. Allof which isto say, Roku is still king of app mountain.
Winner: RokuExpress & Roku Streaming Stick+ (tie)
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 atough 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 ableto take care of business. We enjoy using both for different reasons, and neither is significantly better than the other by any objective measurement, so we’re calling this one a draw. While Chromecast does have a lot of functionality via the Home app, it doesn’t really have a traditional UI, per se. Instead, you’ll be navigating apps and content libraries through your phones, tablet, PC, or whatever device you happen to be casting from. 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 Express, Roku Streaming Stick+, & Amazon Fire TV Stick (tie)
When it comes to finding what towatch, where to watch it, and how much (if anything) it will cost, the Roku devices win. They can search through text or voice, whether you use its 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 means Fire TV Stick users have to use either their smartphone or spend an extra $10 to get the voice search-enabled remote that comes free with the Fire TV set-top box. However, 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 program you want can be found. Still, Roku is more transparent in its search about cost, while Amazon tries to push its own product a bit too much.
Google Chromecast includes both text and voice search, which put it ahead of Amazon purely because of the broader search choices. However, like the Fire TV, the Chromecast’s 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 extremely close any way you slice it, but we still feel Roku comes out on top here.
Winner: Roku Express & Roku Streaming Stick+
Frankly, the best remote is your smartphone running the Roku app, but we digress. Both Rokus have a leg up on Amazon here for a couple of reasons. First, when it comes to the included remotes, Roku’s offer just a bit more functionality, with shortcut buttons to some of the most popular apps, including Netflix and Amazon Video. Both platforms offer free remote apps for iOS and Android, but here again, Roku has the upper hand. Not only is Roku’s app available on every platform (including Windows and even BB10), it allows you to launch any channel instantly. The Streaming Stick’s remote includes voice search and dedicated volume buttons for your television (as does the Fire TV Stick’s), giving it a slight upper hand on the Express. Chromecast doesn’t use a remote.
Winner: Roku Express & Roku Streaming Stick+
When it comes to playing content that doesn’t come from a streaming service, the Google Chromecast wins 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 withChromecast. 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 betweenall four streamers, but Chromecast is easier. Thanks to Miracast, screen mirroring for Android and Fire device users isn’t much of a chore. But 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.
The Roku Streaming Stick+ is the only device on the list that supports 4K UHD video, while the other three cap their output ta 1080p (it’s worth noting that Google offers the more expensive Chromecast Ultra, which can also handle 4K). That alone is enough to give the Streaming Stick+ the win here. However, it’s worth examining the other three nonetheless.
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. The fact that the Google’s Chromecast supports dual-band a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi could (in theory) give it an edge over the a/b/g/n-onlyFire TV Stick and the b/g/n-only Roku Express. Unless your home network is sporting the latest and greatest standards, though, this will likely make little difference.
The Roku Streaming Stick+ alsosupports dual-band a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, which makes it well-equipped to handle 4K streaming provided your home network is up to the task.
Winner: Roku Streaming Stick+
The Roku Expressis the most affordableof the fourplatforms at just $30, which really is an incredible bargain for all that it offers. But before we hand this one to the Roku Express, we would be remiss if we didn’t point out that the Fire TV Stick and the Streaming Stick+ come standard with a voice-enabled remote. That makes searching way easier, but it also brings Amazon’s most interesting feature to the forefront: Voice search is now connected to Amazon’s hugely popular Alexa intelligent assistant. This means that even owners of the $40 Fire TV Stick now have access to a better A.I. than the one Apple provides on its (far more expensive) Apple TV 4th gen set-top box. Still, when all is said and done, the Express’s low price and extensive Roku feature set take the cake here.
Winner: Roku Express
If we tally up the scores, the RokuStreaming Stick+comes out on top, with the Express a close second. Roku’s excellent ecosystem is difficult to overlook — especially at such manageable price points — and its awesome interface and search function make for an exceptional overalluser experience. While the Streaming Stick+ is the most expensive device on this list by a wide margin, it’s also the most powerful, and when compared to just about any streaming device — stick, box, or otherwise — it’s hard to beat.
You reallycan’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). If you’re an Amazon Prime member and heavily invested in products like the Amazon Echo, the Fire TV Stick is more than worthy of your consideration. When all is said and done, the decision is yours and yours alone. Choose wisely.