Are you still looking for a gift for the TV fan in your life? Or maybe you are looking to upgrade one of your own TVs to finally watch online video in the downstairs den? The streaming sticks that bring Netflix, YouTube and other apps to any TV are a great option, especially if you’re looking for a gift that doesn’t break the bank. But with everyone and their mother making their own TV stick, you might ask yourself: Which one should I buy?
Look no further. This ultimate guide to streaming sticks looks at the video services you can watch with different sticks as well as the hardware each dongle packs — all to find the right stick for your needs.
Overview: What’s in a stick
The streaming stick craze started when Google unveiled its Chromecast dongle last summer. Since then, it seems like everyone has been working on a stick, including big companies like Microsoft and Walmart as well startups like Matchstick that target the open source community. However, some of these products aren’t quite ready yet, while others really just try to solve niche problems.
If you are looking for a stick that gives you easy access to Netflix, YouTube, Hulu and the likes, you are really just left with three options this holiday season: Google’s Chromecast, Roku’s Streaming Stick and Amazon’s Fire TV Stick. All of them plug straight into your TV’s HDMI port, all of them are powered with a USB power adapter that looks like the one from your phone — but that’s where the similarities end.
Chromecast, which retails for $35, sets itself apart from the competition by not including a remote control. That’s because all of the control happens from your smart phone, tablet or Chrome web browser on your computer. This means you’ll never have to navigate through any menus on your TV again. As long as both your phone (or whichever device you chose to control your Chromecast) and your Chromecast itself are on the same Wi-Fi network, the cast button automatically starts showing up in supported apps. Press it, and the next video on Netflix will start showing up on your TV.
Roku’s streaming stick, which costs $50, does ship with a remote control, and offers pretty much the same functionality as a Roku streaming player. Roku’s streaming devices have been around for years, so you’ll have plenty of apps to choose from, and you will be familiar with the navigation and apps if you’ve ever used a Roku box before.
Fire TV Stick, which goes for $39, is the newest contender. It’s based on Amazon’s Fire TV device, and just like its big brother, the Fire TV Stick also comes with a physical remote and apps on the TV screen. The device is heavily optimized for Amazon’s own services, and also offers some casual gaming.
The content: it’s all about those apps
All three streaming sticks have Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus and Pandora, but there are still some notable differences that may just help you decide which stick is right for you. Here are some known dealbreakers:
- HBO Go: Fire TV doesn’t have HBO Go yet, but is supposed to get support in the near future. Roku does have a HBO Go app, but it won’t work if you are a Comcast customer. Only Chromecast currently offers HBO Go for everyone — everyone with a pay TV subscription, that is.
- Amazon Prime Instant: Chromecast doesn’t support Amazon Prime Instant. Roku does, and the Fire TV stick offers the best experience for Amazon’s service.
- Spotify: Roku and Fire TV both have a Spotify app. There is no native Spotify support for Chromecast, but Chromecast users can access the service through a third-party app.
- Sports: All three sticks support WatchESPN, but aside from that, it’s hit or miss. NFL Now are only on Roku and Fire TV and UFC only on Chromecast and Roku. Generally, Roku has the most sports apps, but the other two seem to be catching up.
- Games: Roku has a few casual games, as does Chromecast, but Fire TV has the upper hand with hundreds of Android games optimized for the TV screen.
Altogether, Roku still has the upper hand when it comes to the sheer number of apps, with more than 1,800 apps total. Chromecast has what Google calls “hundreds” of apps, and the Fire TV Stick has more than 500 apps and games. Before you buy, it’s definitely a good idea to check if your favorite apps and services are supported: Here’s the list of Roku apps, here’s Chromecast’s app catalog, and here is the Fire TV Stick section of the Amazon app store.
The hardware: it’s more than just numbers
The best apps and services are of no use if the streaming stick doesn’t work with your home network, or if the hardware is too slow for what you want to do. Here are some of the most important details about the hardware differences.
Wi-Fi: Chromecast only supports 2.4GHz 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, whereas both Roku and Fire TV Stick use dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, with 2.4 or 5GHz. Why is this important? Because 5GHz is better if you live in an urban area with lots of interference from your neighbor’s Wi-Fi networks, but it doesn’t matter if your router doesn’t support it to begin with.
Memory: These three streaming sticks use RAM and flash memory for very different purposes. Chromecst plays all content from the web and only caches content locally, which means its 512 MB of RAM and 2 GB of storage are more than adequate. Roku does download channel data, and only has 512 MB of RAM and 256 MB of Flash storage, which means you can run out of space for new channels pretty quick. The Fire TV Stick has 1GB of RAM and 8GB of storage, which is more than plenty for your average media app and a couple of casual games. But remember: Fire TV games are basically the same games that also run on your Android phone or tablet. And complex games can occupy a lot of storage, just like on your mobile device.
Remote controls: I already mentioned that Chromecast doesn’t come with a remote control. Fire TV Stick and Roku streaming stick both have one, but there are some differences: Roku’s remote feels a bit more sturdy, but also comes with a few pre-labeled buttons for services you may not actually use. Amazon’s remote feels cheaper, but looks better. And if you end up losing it between the couch pillows, you can always trade up and get a remote with integrated microphone for voice search for $30.
HDMI CEC: Google’s Chromecast may not come with a remote control, but the device is actually capable of turning on your TV, and even switch to the right HDMI input as soon as you start to cast from your mobile device. The secret behind this is HDMI CEC, an extension of the HDMI standard that sends control commands from your Chromecast straight to your TV. Roku’s streaming stick doesn’t speak CEC, and Amazon’s Fire TV Stick seems to be inconsistent in its support for CEC.
Mirroring: All three sticks support some kind of screen mirroring, meaning that you should be able to display whatever’s on your phone screen or even your desktop PC on your TV as well. At least that’s the theory. In practice, mirroring is still a bit hit-or-miss.
Chromecast supports mirroring from any desktop Chrome browser as well as select Android phones. Roku and Fire TV both use Miracast, which means that they are capable of mirroring the same phones, as well as select Intel-based Windows PC desktop computers. None of the three devices can mirror an iPhone or iPad, and mirroring generally comes with some latency, which means that the video stream from that website you’ve been watching on your PC will likely look a tad choppy on your TV. At this point, you should consider mirroring a bonus, not a key feature for any of these products.
So which one should you buy?
The answer is: it depends. Each of these devices has its pros and cons, and choosing the right one as a gift or for yourself has as much to do with the type of person who is going to use it as the hardware itself.
If you are already watching a lot of video on your phone or iPad, then Chromecast is the right choice for you. A large and growing number of mobile apps already support casting, and you are probably a lot more comfortable with finding the next YouTube clip or Netflix video to watch with the device in your hand than with a remote control an menus on the screen.
If you are looking for something closer to a traditional TV experience, then Roku is a good choice. You don’t want to use your phone to find shows, and instead prefer a regular remote control, and you are likely to find some good apps among Roku’s big catalog.
Finally, if you are already spending a lot of time with Amazon Prime Instant, and also like to play the occasional game, then you should get the Fire TV stick. It has still a lot fewer apps than its two competitors, but you won’t find a Prime experience like this anywhere else.
Personally, I have picked Chromecast as the device of my choice, and I’ve been happily using it ever since it was first introduced last year. But I also know that some TV viewers may miss the remote control — and the best device is of no use if it just doesn’t work for someone.
The good news is that all of these sticks are very affordable — so if someone dares to return your gift, you can always use it to trick out that extra TV of yours.