Could streaming sticks stomp out set-top boxes? If Amazon’s recently-announced Fire TV Stick lives up to the hype, then we think it’s entirely possible.
Streaming set-top boxes are huge. The Apple TV, once a “hobby” for Apple, has brought in more than $1 billion in revenue for the company. Meanwhile, Roku has devices connected to well over 5 million TVs. But could the set-top box already be on its way out?
With the tiny Chromecast, Roku Streaming Stick and now Amazon’s Fire TV Stick, the handwriting on the wall is clear: We don’t need little black boxes anymore. These diminutive devices promise all the functionality of a set-top box, but at a fraction of the size and price.
Related: Fire Phone review
But which one is best? Roku has been around for a long time, but that hasn’t stopped the Chromecast from becoming one of the best-selling devices around. And where does the new Fire TV Stick fit in?
We evaluated all three devices in the categories that matter most, from ease of use to games and video quality. Take a look to see which stick
Roku Streaming Stick
Amazon Fire TV Stick
|Controller app||Android, iOS, OS X, Windows, Chrome OS||Android, iOS||Android, iOS (coming soon)|
|Available here||Amazon, Walmart, BestBuy, Staples||Amazon, BestBuy, Office Depot, Walmart||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.
Based on the specs (and our experience with both of the other devices) it looks like the Fire TV Stick will end up taking this category … for now. With a dual-core processor, 1GB of RAM, and 8GB of storage, the Fire TV Stick is touted as having 50 percent more processing power and double the memory of Chromecast, and six times the processing power, twice the memory, and 32 times the storage of Roku Streaming Stick. Since both the Chromecast and Roku Streaming Stick are notoriously sluggish, it’s a safe bet that the Fire TV Stick will blow both of them out of the water when it comes to speedy navigation and video loading. Plus, the Fire TV Stick takes advantage of Amazon’s ‘ASAP’ feature, which attempts to “predict” what you want to watch and pre-load it for instant streaming. Of course, ASAP only works with Amazon Prime Instant videos, so its impact on the larger streaming experience will be limited.
What remains unclear, however, is how beneficial all those big-league specs will be to the average user when simply streaming video. Roku likely has a hot-rod version of its Streaming Stick in the works, which will probably challenge Amazon’s. And even now, the Fire TV Stick’s souped-up hardware is probably going to be of greater benefit to those playing games than those streaming videos. This leads us to the next category …
Projected winner: Amazon Fire TV Stick
Sure, Roku 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. Having owned the Fire TV for several months now, I can assure you these games are highly appealing to younger (and older) casual gamers, and represent more than just a novelty. Chromecast doesn’t do games, unless you count playing a game in a Chrome Browser window being mirrored on a TV through the Chromecast — in which case: Good luck with that.
Winner: Amazon Fire TV Stick
When it comes to the sheer number of available Apps (not counting games) the Roku streaming stick, with access to more than 1,000 apps, wins by a landslide. It’s not just the number of apps, either; many of the apps that Amazon charges for are free on the Roku platform. Take the popular media server and playback app, PLEX, for example. The app is free for Roku users, but it will cost you $5 if you want to use it on an Amazon device. Meanwhile, Chromecast lags far behind in terms of supported apps — perhaps most notably: Chromecast can’t play Amazon Prime Instant Video.
Winner: Roku Streaming Stick
I’ve owned one Roku device or another for the last three years, and added a Fire TV set-top box about six months ago. Having grown accustomed to the Fire TV interface, I now find this a very 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 down to take care of business. I enjoy using both for different reasons, and I think that neither is significantly better than the other by any objective measurement, so I’m calling this one a draw.
Winner: Draw between Roku Streaming Stick and Amazon Fire TV Stick
When it comes to telling you what you can watch, where you can watch it, and how much (if anything) it will cost you, Roku beats them all. While Amazon’s voice search is a clever idea, it searches within a limited number of apps, so its results aren’t as complete. Also, we don’t enjoy the fact that Amazon forces you to use voice search, with no text-based option available. That means that users have to use either their smartphone (Android and Fire Phone only, for now) or spend an extra $30 to get the voice search-enabled remote that comes free with the Fire TV set-top box.
Winner: Roku Streaming Stick
Roku has a leg up on Amazon here for a couple of reasons: First, when it comes to the included remotes, Roku’s offers just a bit more functionality, with shortcut buttons to some of the most popular apps, including Netflix and Amazon. But a more prominent distinction between the two platforms is the fact that the remote app available for Amazon Fire TV Stick only runs on Android and Amazon Fire TV phones (for now), leaving iOS users out in the cold. Roku, on the other hand, has an app on all major smartphone platforms, including Windows.
Winner: Roku Streaming Stick
Casting, mirroring, sharing
When it comes to playing content that doesn’t come from a streaming service, the Google Chromecast wins in the end. While it is just as easy to cast content streamed from Netflix or Hulu to a Roku device, when it comes to sharing personal videos or photos, on the Android platform, it’s just a tad easier to use the Chromecast. For iOS users, the process of casting personal photos or videos to a Chromecast requires the use of a third-party app, whereas iOS/Roku users have to share from within the Roku remote app. When it comes to mirroring, the Chromecast takes the top spot for now, but when the Fire TV stick comes through, it will be a draw. Thanks to Miracast, both the Chromecast and Fire TV Stick will make screen mirroring for Android and Fire device users extremely easy. Meanwhile, iOS users are screwed.
Editor’s Note: While Roku does offer mirroring functionality for certain Android and Windows phones, the feature was rolled out less than a month ago and remains in beta. When it is officially rolled out, we will revisit this consideration.
Video and audio quality
At this time, it looks like a draw among the three contenders. All three output 1080p video, and are capable of up to 7.1 surround sound. What isn’t clear is whether or not the Fire TV Stick will downconvert the Dolby Digital Plus signal that it receives from services like Netflix to Dolby Digital for use with older receivers. Since these devices are most likely going to be connected directly to televisions anyway, this seems like less of a concern than it is for set-top boxes.
At just $5 more than the Chromecast, the $40 Fire TV Stick bridges the gap that once existed between the $35 Chromecast’s low price and the $50 Roku Streaming Stick’s functionality. It’s now fair to say that Roku will need to drop the price on its dongle to compete.
Winner: Amazon Fire TV Stick
And the winner is …
If we tally up the scores, it looks like Amazon’s Fire TV Stick and Roku’s Streaming Stick are dead even, with three wins each and two draws. Still, the Chromecast has always appealed to a different type of user, and it is hard to say that it “loses,” though the Amazon Fire TV Stick’s lower price makes that a less clear-cut observation. Let’s also remember that the Fire TV Stick isn’t available yet, so this is a largely hypothetical (if well-educated) analysis. In the end, though, the right one for you will depend on what you value most.
As for me: Though I’m a die-hard Roku fan, I have to say that it looks like Amazon has this all wrapped up until Roku updates its Streaming Stick to better compete. How about it, Roku?