A Chromecast, Roku Streaming Stick+, or a Fire TV Stick 4K are all great ways to access popular streaming services on your TV, but picking between these choices can also be a challenge.
The good news is that we’ve reviewed all the options for you, and categorized them by how user-friendly these products are, their processing power, games, video quality, and other important factors that can influence which product you end up purchasing.
Ease of use
Even though they let you access the same content, the Chromecast and Chromecast Ultra function quite differently than the other devices on this list. Since Chromecasts use your mobile device or computer to “cast” content to your TV, they’re devoid of a traditional menu-based user interface, a remote control, and onboard storage. 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. Chromecast devices leave all the smarts to your mobile device, 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 tap of a button and, voilà, it’s on your TV. That includes any content you can put on a Chrome browser window, i.e., anything on the web. It’s not that the other options here are complex — in fact, they’re all quite manageable, and some of you may get along better with the traditional remote-powered user interfaces you’re likely already used to — but the Chromecast takes the top spot here for overall intuitiveness.
Well, technology moves fast, so the winner in this category is generally the most recently released product. As of our most recent update, that would be the Roku Premiere+ and the Fire TV Stick 4K, but as the Fire TV Stick 4K packs a bit more punch, that is our pick. Moving on!
Winner: Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K
Sure, the Roku devices will let you play Angry Birds and a handful of other cute games, but the Fire TV Stick 4K has access to a huge library of more advanced titles (like Machinarium and Minecraft). These games are highly appealing to casual gamers and represent more than just a novelty. Chromecast’s games are fine, but you won’t find much to please the console crowd. Most are multiplayer party titles such as Risk, Scrabble, and Monopoly. Amazon recently dropped support for its own game controller in newer models, but you’ll find third-party solutions if you really want to get your game on with your Fire TV Stick 4K.
Winner: Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K
When it comes to the sheer number of available apps (not counting games), the Roku devices, with access to thousands of apps (or channels, as Roku calls them), win 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 an ever-growing selection.
Speaking of making that choice, Amazon and Google recently ended their feud over video services, and the latest update to the Amazon Prime Video app now supports Chromecast natively. Conversely and perhaps more importantly, you can now download the YouTube app on Amazon Fire TV. This announcement notwithstanding, Roku is still king of the app mountain.
We’ve owned one Roku device or another for the last several years but also have put some serious time into testing Fire TV set-top boxes and streaming sticks. As we’ve now come to use both the Roku and Fire TV interfaces regularly, this has become a tough call to make. The Roku interface is extremely user-friendly — some might even call it “bubbly” or “boring” — whereas the Amazon Fire TV interface has a little more techno-flash, yet is still very able to take care of business. While we generally prefer the service-agnostic Roku interface, Amazon uses Alexa for all sorts of voice-control functions that Roku can’t compete with, though Roku does support rudimentary voice-activated requests through any separate Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant devices you may have.
For its part, Chromecast does have decent functionality via the Home app, but it doesn’t really have a traditional user interface, per se. Instead, you will be navigating apps and content libraries through your phone, tablet, or PC. While that does technically put it behind the other devices, as long as you’re comfortable with your casting device of choice, Chromecast is incredibly simple.
When it comes to finding what to watch, where to watch it, and how much (if anything) it will cost you, the Roku devices win. They can search through text or voice, whether you use the remote or the mobile app, across a vast channel library.
Consistent updates have made Fire TV a serious contender here, with Amazon bragging that it has the “broadest cross-provider search of any streaming media player.” It will show you where the video you’re looking for can be found amidst your streaming service options. Still, Roku is more transparent in its search about cost, and Amazon’s broader searches leave something to be desired.
Google Chromecast devices include both text and voice search, but they’re still pretty far behind. Like the Fire TV, however, Chromecast search favors content from certain apps and services, especially proprietary ones. So, unless you’re really into the Google Play store, finding the best place to watch what you’re looking for can be a bit more of a hassle here.
It’s pretty close any way you slice it, but we still feel Roku comes out on top here.
When it comes to the included remotes, both of the Roku devices and the Fire TV offer a ton of functionality, including power and volume keys for your TV. However, Roku’s is a bit easier to use, including shortcut buttons to some of the most popular apps for Netflix, Hulu, and others. Both platforms offer free remote apps for iOS and Android, but here again, Roku has the upper hand thanks to slightly better usability, as well as the ability to listen to headphones directly from your phone or tablet for private listening. As mentioned, Chromecast devices don’t use a dedicated remote, so they’re not in the picture. Fire TV gets an honorable mention here, if only because of its cool voice features like, “rewind 20 seconds,” for those times when you miss a piece of critical dialog.
Casting, mirroring, sharing
When it comes to playing content that doesn’t come from a streaming service, the Google Chromecast and Chromecast Ultra win the day. While it’s just as easy to stream Netflix, YouTube, or Hulu to a Roku device, sharing personal videos or photos on the Android platform is a tad easier with Chromecast. For iOS users, the process of casting personal photos or videos to a Chromecast requires the use of a third-party app, whereas Roku users with iOS devices have to share from within the Roku remote app.
When it comes to mirroring, it’s pretty close between all four streamers, but Chromecast is easiest — for Android, anyway. Thanks to Miracast, screen mirroring for Android and Fire device users isn’t much of a chore (though iOS users will need to use a third-party app). Chromecast users can easily and quickly mirror their desktop to put anything and everything you can find online (legally, of course!) up on your TV screen from a PC or an Android device. Though mirroring isn’t available via iOS devices, Chromecast streamers still edge out a win here.
Video and audio quality
The only device on this list that doesn’t support 4K UHD or HDR video is the third-generation Chromecast, so for the most part, it would appear we’re starting on a level playing field. When it comes to the quality of streaming content, the biggest factor is often the quality of the connection, not the device’s claimed specs. Unless your home network is sporting the latest and greatest standards, though, this will likely make little difference.
Like the Chromecast Ultra, the Roku Streaming Stick+ and the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K also support dual-band a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, which makes them well-equipped to handle 4K streaming provided your home network is up to the task. This leaves out the Roku Premiere+, which is limited to b/g/n connections. However, the fact that Chromecast supports Dolby Vision (in addition to HDR10), and the Fire Stick 4K supports every HDR format (HDR10, HDRO10+, HLG, and Dolby Vision) gives them a (very) slight edge (for Dolby Vision-supported TV owners, that is).
The Roku Premiere+ ties the Fire TV Stick 4K when it comes to price, and although the Fire TV Stick 4K offers the wiles of Alexa voice search and plenty of other Alexa functions, the Roku Premiere+ was simply a smoother ride in our testing, with fewer hiccups and more intuitive controls. On the other hand, the Roku Streaming Stick+ adds potentially faster, dual-band Wi-Fi which will likely perform better in houses with multiple heavy users, and it costs just $10 more. When all is said and done, both Rokus offer a low price, better app selection, and a more intuitive interface, for the win in this category.
And the winner is …
As far as we’re concerned, the Roku Premiere+ and Roku Streaming Stick+ are simply the best streamers you can buy right now. At $50 and $60 apiece, they both offer simple streaming with everything you need, and nothing you don’t. While Alexa makes it easy to use voice for control over multiple devices, the Rokus will do just about everything you need while offering better search, more apps, and, for our money, a better overall interface. That said, if you have a TV with Dolby Vision support, we suggest going with the Fire TV Stick 4K instead, which is a very good streamer in its own right and loaded with features.
Moreover, you really can’t go wrong with any of the selections on our list. If you regularly use your phone, tablet, or computer for streaming, you might as well grab a Chromecast and streamline your viewing experience (and, again, if you want a 4K-capable version and don’t mind paying extra, there’s also the Chromecast Ultra). When all is said and done, the decision is yours and yours alone. Choose wisely.
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