Stick vs. Dongle
Let’s first take a look at the devices themselves. We call the Amazon Fire TV a dongle because, well, it dangles. This has some advantages as it will be easy to plug in to most televisions, but a potential drawback to this design is that it can put stress on some HDMI ports due to its weight. We suggest using double-sided tape or Velcro to affix the device to the back of the TV, just to be on the smart side.
The Roku Streaming Stick+ is a more compact, light-weight stick, with its 801.11AC dual-band antenna built into the power cable, which you can’t replace. The idea behind this design is that Roku’s external antenna could end up pulling in a stronger Wi-Fi signal in tough reception spots like hotels and dorms where you may be far away from a Wi-Fi router.
Unfortunately, because of its 3.75-inch length, the Roku streaming stick might have difficulty fitting into some HDMI ports. In our video above, we show how the Streaming Stick+ can’t angle into a 2017 Vizio M-Series TV’s down-facing HDMI jacks. Why not just plug it into the side-facing jack? In order to get 4K HDR on this TV, it has to go into HDMI 1. To pull it off, we employ a short adapter cable to plug it in, thus turning the stick into a dongle. This won’t be a problem for everyone, though. If you’re concerned this may affect you, take a look at the back of your TV and take some measurements to gauge whether you might need a short adapter. If you do, we recommend this one.
Your magic wand
Perhaps the most impactful differences between these devices are in their on-screen interfaces.
Taking a look at the remote controls, there are some obvious differences. Both remotes have voice control buttons – we’ll get to that later – and both have cursor controls, but the Roku adds hotkeys to popular streaming apps for quick access, and then there are the all-new power and volume keys. The Streaming Stick+ auto-detects your TV’s IR sensor and controls power and volume, which may mean you can ditch your TV remote for those times when you just want to Netflix and Chill.
The user experience
Perhaps the most impactful differences between these devices are in their on-screen interfaces. The Fire TV interface is a polished product. It feels modern and sleek, partly because the graphics are beautiful to look at. You’ll notice in our video, though, that what you see most prominently is stuff Amazon wants you to watch through its streaming service. You have to do a bit of extra clicking to get to Netflix and other apps, but they are there, and the quality of those apps is strong. You do get the latest version of apps with Fire TV these days, which is a step up from when the device debuted a couple of years ago. The Fire TV also includes a couple of web browsers, Mozilla Firefox and Amazon Silk. While Amazon and Mozilla claim both offer the full web experience, the same as you would find on desktop or mobile, we have yet to test them — and TV web browsers have a history of inconsistency. We’ll be sure to update once we’ve had time with them.
On the Roku side, you get the same grid-like layout Roku has been using for years, and while it is extremely easy to use and customize — you can relocate apps anywhere you want — the interface is starting to feel a little dated. Maybe that is because we have been using Roku for several years now, but the apps, too, can be a little behind the curve. Also, since we brought up web browsers with the Fire TV, it’s worth pointing out the Roku doesn’t feature officially supported browser apps. Some dubious looking third-party ones exist, but we haven’t tested them, so we can’t comment on their performance.
To Alexa or not to Alexa: Some searches are smarter than others
Outside of Apps, the Fire TV offers mobile-style games, and there are some pretty good ones, worth playing if you get the dedicated gaming controller, sold separately. But the Fire TV’s real ace in the hole is Alexa. And not just built-in Alexa — any Alexa-enabled device in your house can control the Fire TV, like an Amazon Echo or Sonos One. Or, at least, Alexa can get you closer to watching your TV shows and movies in most cases. While Alexa can pull up any title you want, Amazon’s digital assistant can only pull the trigger on playing that title if it’s in the Amazon Prime Video library.
You can pull up the Fire TV remote and ask Alexa anything, and you’ll get the same answer as if you were to ask through an Alexa speaker. But it’s more likely you’ll use voice control on the Fire TV to find stuff you want to watch.
In our demonstration, we call up Orange is the New Black, and where the Fire TV OS used to pull up Amazon’s offerings to rent or buy first, we now see that Amazon shows the title as being available on Netflix. On the downside, you must navigate to a “more ways to watch” icon to see where else the show is available, and Amazon will be the only result you see.
Contrast that with the Roku, which doesn’t allow voice control, per se, but does include voice search. We call up Orange is the New Black once again, and we see it is offered on Netflix for free, along with other streaming services for a fee.
We then search for a movie we know is available free on Netflix, and paid elsewhere. “Show me Sausage Party” on Roku shows us the film is available free at Netflix, and for a $3.00 rental fee at four other services.
Contrast that with Fire TV which, again, does show Netflix as a free option, but does not offer any other suggestions on where to watch outside of Amazon.
Picture and sound
In terms of video and audio quality, the two are evenly matched. Both support 4K HDR content with HDR10, neither support Dolby Vision HDR, and both support Dolby Atmos audio for the best streaming surround sound.
We think the Roku Streaming Stick+ is the better choice for the majority of people.
Bottom line: Both the Amazon Fire TV and Roku Streaming Stick+ serve the same core purpose in very different ways, and if we have to pick a winner, we think the Roku Streaming Stick+ is the better choice for the majority of people. Roku’s platform is app agnostic (i.e., it doesn’t pick sides), provides the best search results, and even if you’ve never used one before, you just get it right out of the box. Plus, the Roku mobile app is great as a second remote, and can be used for private listening through a phone and headphones, or out loud with a Bluetooth speaker.
The Amazon Fire TV has its place, though, and this author loves using it, too. For Alexa power users, it’s great using Alexa through the TV to get answers to questions, start a Spotify playlist, and control smart lighting and smart thermostats in your home. The Fire TV benefits a very specific kind of user — one who does everything Amazon and loves it. If that’s you, the Fire TV is the better choice. If you’re on the fence, know that, aside from promoting Amazon’s content first and foremost, the Fire TV is every bit as great a streamer as the Roku Streaming Stick+. We suggest you go with your gut and choose the one that offers the unique features you think you’ll use the most.
Update: Added information on the web browsers currently available for both Fire TV and Roku (or lack thereof).
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