Chromecast vs Roku vs Fire TV: which streaming stick should you buy?

43 Comments

Credit: Janko Roettgers / Gigaom

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.

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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.

Fire TV Stick with remote

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.

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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.

43 Comments

sandra hill

On any of these devices can you watch TV shows from tnt or amc channels like these

Marie

It should be mentioned that if you are casting from an Amazon tablet or other Amazon device as of October they don’t communicate with the chromecast you get a notification to update you app but the apps are the current update.

oubcoats

So if I want to watch HBO or live NFL games, I have to have cable, right? If so, what’s the point, just more flexibility and movies and games?

Linda Knox

My TV is about 7 years old and has no USB port. Only HDMI. Is there someway I can use this? I would love to purchase this as I do not have cable TV.

Steve

You’ll simply plug it into an outlet. It uses the same micro-USB charging cord as any Android phone.

Maurice

It comes with a power adapter. The USB power on TV is not required.

EP Sato

Chromesast SUCKS. The mirrorcasting is slow and choppy at best, there’s no menu, and no real structure. It’s about as user-unfriendly as a device could get. I bought one on Sunday, and by Monday night it got returned. Seriously, it’s garbage. What surprises me is how many folks actually like Chromecast. My guess is that it’s mostly people who haven’t previously owned a smart blu-ray player.

Yes, a few folks may like it. But my guess is that these are going to be on clearance racks for $10 in a few months once everyone gets hip to how lame Chromecast is.

mike154

Bizarre then that from a standing start last year, chromecast now outsells Apple TV and is fast approaching Roku’s market share.

Look. The review is a fair one. These are all best thought of as online streamers working with supported apps. The writer specifically mentions mirroring as being hit and miss on any of them, and says it’s best to regard it as a plus, not a core feature. I’d certainly advise anyone wanting primarily to mirror to look for something else.

And no. There is no menu, nor “core structure”. It’s all on my phone and tablets. And I don’t have to key 2 twice to get a “b” when I’m searching on my clunky old school dumb remotes.

I’ve got 3 chromecasts. 2 in 2 TV’s, and a third ($22) in an AV amp delivering DD+ 5.1 direct.

I’ve also got a smart TV, smart BD, and smart PVR. And had them between 3 and 5 years.

And I still think chromecast adds value to our set-up.

akibbe02

I’ve heard this “slow and choppy” comment a number of times but that hasn’t been my experience at all. When I cast YouTube videos from my Mac or iOS devices to my Vizio TV, the speed and quality of the streaming are better than the Vizio’s native YouTube app. The Chromecast seems to select the highest quality available (e.g., using HD if there’s an HD version) as opposed to the Vizio, which ostensibly uses the default quality setting (typically 480p).

The only time I’ve gotten an erratic stream is with Hulu, which is also choppy on the native Vizio app. Only the Hulu app within Apple TV seems to work well. But when casting from browser content (I’ve done YouTube, Mubi, Fandor and SnagFilms), Chromecast worked fine out of the box. I’d be curious to find out more about the setups of people who aren’t getting the “just works” experience.

Chad Ulrick

I have fire stick and Chromecast had chromecast first but played a few group games at my in-laws along with several drinks and decided that I need to order firestick because BestBuy has it on special this 2014 holiday season. they both are great gonna get a second chromecast for my bedroom.

Mark

I canceled my Fire tv Stick order because i could not easily find a list of apps. As far as I could tell i could not get Acorn TV which my wife will want. Since the TV i want to use it on has apps in it (most of what you can get on Fire tv Stick and would actually use,) I am gonna get a ChromeBox so i can watch stuff does not have an app (i.e. CBS :( )

allan

But you do need WiFi network right in order these to work piz help I don’t have WiFi that’s why

Tracy

My only question and it’s my biggest issue, can you cast from a laptop using the Amazon Fire Stick?

mike154

Fire TV Stick if you want a steer to Amazon, and are big on their Video.

Roku, 1000 apps. 995 you’d watch once, and never again.

Both, if you want to go back to a clunky on-screen experience via a remote with no volume control.

Chromecast. Throwaway money. Adds Google Play if you use their content. Will mirror Amazon video via a supporting phone. Browser casting. Includes a mains adapter but will run off TV USB. Chuck it in the bin when you next upgrade your TV and then have all the services you need.

Carole

AS AN AMAZON PRIME subscriber, I was looking forward to watching 1000’s of movies via Chromecast; however, I discovered that my 2011 Samsung Smart TV is the only year not supported by this Prime benefit. Now I’m wondering if Amazon Fire will allow the streaming of their movies onto my Samsung Smart TV. Anyone else know???

Ryan Michael Downey

Of course. They would not limit theirvdevce like that.

deb c

Fire stick will not work on alot of Samsung TVs, including one of mine. Check Amazon reviews,

KJ

Great article! One question: I can’t get traditional DSL Internet at my house, so I have to watch my shows on my smartphone. Do any of these sticks allow Internet connection via my Iphone LTE network only, not a wireless router from a DSL company like Comcast?

Janko Roettgers

You should be able to do that with any of them if you can run your phone as a hotspot… I’d say either Roku or Fire TV are the best bet because you won’t have to also use your phone as a c ontroller. However, you should keep in mind that it could eat up significant amounts of data, so you may want to check your data plan first…

Karen Smith

Stephanie no fee unless you are going to use a subscription site like Hulu Plus, Netflix, etc. I have the Chromecast and I love it.

Joseph Campo

So they never report that info in the ads. I don’t have a smartphone or tablet. It makes it seem like I can plug this device into my hdmi on my tv, and suddenly I will have all these espn sports, hulu plus, netflix, for free. that’s not true, right?
We do have amazon prime so if we would buy any of these, it’d be the amazon variety I guess.

Genie

Roku would stream Amazon Prime too. I’d go with Roku over Amazon. The Fire products are great in theory, but they just don’t measure up.

Mark

Can’t believe this article show’d the photos without power cords. I know at least one of them needs one

Janko Roettgers

As I said in the story, all of them require power from a USB power adapter. In theory, this could be from your TV’s USB port, but using the included power adapters in generally preferable.

Beach Bumm Bri 5

I can’t afford cable or sat…So, my neighbor lets me piggyback off their WiFi…If I purchase a FIRE STICK do I have to pay a monthly subscription or does it strictly work off my avble WiFi? Many THANX in advance! Happy Turkey Day! Gobble til Ya Wobble! Brian Duf_85@Yahoo.Com Jax., FL

dongateley

If I could control the Roku stick from my laptop PC with an app or Firefox so as to use a real keyboard for search or if the phone apps supported voice search I’d be in the market for one based on its content selection.

Am I missing something here?

Ryan Michael Downey

These devices are like appliances guys. You do not have to pay a fee. I don’t understand people ask that question so often. But ill tell you, without Amazon Prime the Fire TV interface looks really empty.

Ryan Michael Downey

Yes you are. With the app for tablets or smart phones you can access a keyboard.

libssd

Good overview. I have had a Chromecast for over a year, took delivery of a Fire TV Stick 4 days ago. I have been looking at Amazon.com customer reviews of all three devices, and each device has just about the same review profile, but if you look at the 1-star reviews, many people have Wi-Fi connectivity or performance issues with one device, but not with another, so it’s kind of a crapshoot which will work best (few of the reviewers provide any technical details). Setup of both devices was straightforward for me, and both have performed flawlessly, but YMMV.

Dave Michels

Mirracast has one significant advantage that wasn’t mentioned – it doesn’t require an access point. I am considering getting a stick specifically for travel/hotels so that I can use the large screen tv as a second desktop monitor. Hotel BW is problematic as it is, so I think Mirracast makes much more sense. Plus, my LG G3 has a 64 GB card that could hold video content for a hotel TV. I think the Chromecast would be too highly problematic in this use case. Any thoughts on this? I am unsure how well this will work, or it a stick makes more sense than a small Mirracast receiver.

Sreedhar Eaga

Hi Dave, I am looking for miiracast feature with respect to Amazon Fire Stick, can you please guide me or suggest if its good to buy Amazon Fire Stick for Mirracast option.

Also as you said it doesn’t need wireless connection, right?

Can you please confirm onto which options i need to check the configuration for Mirracast once you have the home screen.

Please feel free to send an email message if possible.

Email : sreeeaga@yahoo.com

Sam

I thought this was a very fair comparison of the cheaper streaming devices. My cousin asked me this exact question last week, and I ended up doing a considerable amount of waffling. While I love the Chromecast and would prefer to use it for everything, I continue to read baffling reviews or comparisons on the internet by people who view not having a remote as a large “con” and don’t seem to view the fact that you can’t cast most apps to the Roku and Fire TV as a major con for those devices. He also owns Apple devices, and I have very little experience with how it is to use an iPhone with a Chromecast. I would assume the lack of lock screen controls and notification controls would be a major downer, since I use those all the time. In the end, I ended up leaning towards the Fire TV stick, because I had read at launch the Roku stick was generally slow and the Fire TV had all the apps he needed.

My current setup seems optimal to me. I have the Chromecast for most things, and a Roku 3 to fill in any content holes (basically Amazon Prime at this point). I have access to everything, and I get to use my preferred method (casting) for most things.

Cully Prentice

So if I buy one of these sticks, then still I need to subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, or something else to view the 1000’s of shows? What will that cost me? Do they require contracts or month to month? If I buy a stick what can I watch without paying more?

rydangel

both netflix and huluplus have monthly rate plans. with netflix it depends on how many tv’s you want to watch it on and if you want to add dvd rentals too. but the basic rate is $8 month each. you need a stick for each tv in your house.

Nathan Betzen

FWIW, the Fire TV Stick is the only one that will run XBMC/Kodi, and is generally the least locked down option, if that matters to people.

palewook

i own them all, but i do find more of a use for the amazon fire with its ability to run xbmc. would recommend amazon fire tv stick for anyone wanting a cheap holiday gift for any techies or people under the age of 30. since they are going to have no issues putting xbmc on the stick. not a tough process. and the options xbmc unlocks, makes cordcutters/cordnevers happier than roku or chromecast.

Charlie

And this means airplay so you can mirror apple devices… I need to go test that now.

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