It’s fair to say compact streaming sticks (dongles, etc.) are here to stay. And why not? These tiny little tech marvels can often perform the same tasks as their larger set-top-box brethren, but at half the price and well under half the size.
But which one is best? Google was the first to hit the refresh button on its Chromecast late last year — and kinda blew up the whole “dongle” label with its flying-saucer-meets-hockey-puck shape. Amazon’s Fire TV Stick has brought some real competition to Google’s offering, Roku’s Steaming Stick remains one of the most powerful of its type, while the all-new Roku Express, though not a stick per se, is the latest (and most affordable) device to disrupt the 1080p streaming category.
We evaluated all four devices in the categories that matter most, from ease of use to games and video quality. Take a look to see which stick should win your streaming dollars.
Roku Streaming Stick
Amazon Fire TV Stick
|Controller app||Android, iOS, OS X, Windows, Chrome OS||Android, iOS, Windows Phone, BB10||Android, iOS, Windows Phone, BB10||Android, iOS|
|Voice search||No||Yes||Yes, via app||Yes, via app or remote upgrade|
|Available here||Walmart||Amazon, Walmart, Roku||Amazon, Roku||Amazon|
Even though it lets you access the same content, the Chromecast functions nothing like the other two 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 press of a button and, voilà! It’s on your TV. It just doesn’t get much simpler than that, which is why the Chromecast takes the top spot here.
The Roku Express doesn’t boast the speed and power the Amazon Fire TV and Roku Steaming Stick do, so it doesn’t compete well in this particular category. Also, since the Chromecast doesn’t have to process much of anything since it has no on-screen user interface, it’s out of the running. In terms of brute processing strength, the Amazon Fire TV Stick just edges out the Roku Streaming Stick because it is particularly well-equipped to handle visually intensive apps and games; which brings us to our next category…
Winner: Amazon Fire TV 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 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. These games are highly appealing to younger (and older) casual gamers, and represent more than just a novelty. Chromecast’s games are fun, but you won’t find much to please the console crowd. Most are multi-player party titles such as Risk, Scrabble, Monopoly. Yes, Angry Birds is on Chromecast, too (yay).
Winner: Amazon Fire TV Stick
When it comes to the sheer number of available apps (not counting games) the Roku Express, with access to more than 1,000 apps — or channels, as Roku calls them — wins 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. Notably, however, Chromecast still can’t play Amazon Prime Instant Video. All that to say that Roku is still king of app mountain, and with the lowest price in our shootout, the new Express edges out Roku’s own Streaming Stick in this category alone.
Winner: Roku Express
We’ve owned one Roku device or another for the last three years, and more recently added a Fire TV set-top box and Fire TV Stick. Having grown accustomed to the Fire TV interface, 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. 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.