Next year, 25 percent of households will have some sort of streaming device in their home, according to analysts. With Apple, Roku, Google, and Amazon all making dedicated streaming devices, consumers have plenty of competitive devices to choose from. But before you settle on a brand, the bigger question might be form factor: streaming stick or set-top box?
Inexpensive, compact and dead simple, streaming sticks like the Google Chromecast, Roku Streaming Stick and now Amazon Fire TV offer a compelling argument for “smaller is better.” And consumers agree. Google sold 3.8 million Chromcasts in its first year alone, the same number of set-top boxes Roku sold in 2013.
But what do you sacrifice when you go small? To help you navigate, we compiled a list of pros and cons to the streaming HDMI stick in an effort to help you decide whether the new hotness in home theater is right for you, or if a traditional set-top box better fits the bill.
Tiny size, light weight
Streaming sticks are about the size and weight of a big pack of gum. With such a negligible footprint, they easily fit in your pocket, and go unnoticed in a backpack or suitcase. As such, you can take one anywhere, anytime, whether it’s to a buddy’s place, the office, or a hotel. Sure you can haul around a set-top box, but then you’ll have to bring its power supply and a bulky HDMI cable, too.
Out of sight
There’s a lot to be said for a device you don’t have to look at. Not only does your TV’s transformation seem just a but more magical with a streaming stick, but its out-of-sight location behind your TV is far more discreet and convenient, too. With a streaming stick, you don’t have to be concerned with another black box taking up space on your already crowded equipment rack.
Since streaming sticks plug directly into a one of a TV’s HDMI ports, you’ll never have to worry about running another HDMI cable up to a TV, or deal with the hassle of snaking another power cord through your entertainment stand’s already rat-nested bundle of cords and cable. Streaming sticks get their power via USB, and since most TVs produced in the past few years have USB ports on them, there’s often no need to run any cables anywhere.
The Chromecast, Fire TV Stick, and Roku Streaming stick cost $35, $39, and $50, respectively. By comparison, each devices set-top counterpart, the Nexus Player, Fire TV box, and Roku 3, cost $99. That means the least you save by going with a streaming stick is 50 percent, which also means you can hook up at least twice as many TVs.
It would be fair to assume that, because streaming sticks are so small and inexpensive, that they might offer a watered-down experience, but that would be incorrect. Both the Fire TV Stick and the present version of the Roku Streaming stick offer the same user interface with access to the same apps and many of the same features.
Simply put, streaming sticks can’t house as much horsepower, due in part to their smaller size. Though the Amazon Fire TV Stick raises the bar for HDMI dongle hardware, it’s still half the hotrod the Fire TV set-top box is. As such, The Fire TV Stick, like the Roku Streaming stick, will be a little slower to navigate and load videos compared to its full-fledged set-top counterpart.
No Ethernet connection
Both the Roku 3 and Amazon Fire TV feature Ethernet connections, which provide a more stable and reliable streaming video experience. Wi-Fi is prone to interference and congestion in a way that Ethernet hard lines are not. For those houses where multiple video streams via Wi-Fi are common, or Wi-Fi dead spots are a problem, Ethernet is the best possible solution, but, sadly, not an option for streaming sticks.
Fewer connection options
With a streaming stick, you’ve got one connection possibility — HDMI to one port — and that’s it. Roku and Amazon both outfit their best set-top boxes with Toslink optical audio output ports, which can diversify connection options and, for many, dramatically improve sound quality. Sure, HDMI can handle all the latest audio signals, which can’t be said for Toslink, but if that HDMI stick is connected directly to a TV, that TV is going to downmix and crush the living daylights out of the audio signal before it passes it out through its own Toslink optical digital audio port. Unless you are using an A/V receiver for all of your audio and video switching needs, a set-top box is almost always going to be a better choice for those that care about sound quality.
No on-board decoding potential
Fair enough, set-top boxes don’t currently decode video files on their own, but they at least have the potential to. Just looking at Amazon’s Fire TV hardware, and it’s clear it is up to the task of taking videos straight off a storage drive and decoding them on its own, without the need for media software (like PLEX) and a computer to run it. This is something we could see in a future firmware update (yes, we’re optimistic!). On the other hand, streaming sticks have virtually zero chance of pulling off this function anytime within the next decade. And this isn’t the only hardware-based con.
No storage expansion potential
It’s amazing technology has come to a point where the Amazon Fire TV Stick can tout 8GB of storage space — blowing the Roku Streaming Stick away — but that 8GB is all you’ll ever get. As apps and games get more advanced, they’ll get bigger, and a set-top box will be able to accommodate them, a streaming stick never will.
At this point, you should have a gist for what makes streaming sticks and set-top boxes different. For casual users who want a quick and inexpensive fix, streaming sticks are great. And, frankly, they’re cheap enough to have one sitting around just in case. But if you consider yourself more of an enthusiast — a power user, even? — then the set-top box offers the sort of hardware and expansion potential that should help feed your tech-y need.