Last month I took Amazon's Fire TV for a test drive and came away pretty damn impressed. It's a nice box with a lot to like – but there's also some pretty stiff competition in the streaming box arena. Companies like Google and Roku are both ready to take your money in exchange for enhancing an otherwise stale television experience.
Since there a variety of options on the market today, we decided to take four of the most popular and put them in a head-to-head deathmatch. We've got Google's Chromecast, the Roku Streaming Stick, Roku 3, and Fire TV all ready to duke it out and answer one question: which one is worth your money?
Unfortunately the answer isn't so simple. Each unit has standout features of its own, and none of them are bad at what they do. In fact, it's really difficult to go wrong with any of these choices. With that said, if you're looking for something in particular – be it gaming compatibility, the largest catalogue, or even the most affordable – we should be able to help guide you towards the right purchase.
Popular App Comparison
First off, let's take a look at what I feel is the most important aspect of a streaming box: app selection (or "channels" as Roku would have you call them). Table time.
Roku Streaming Stick
|Amazon Instant Video||No||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Sports||WatchESPN, MLB.tv, MLS Matchday, Red Bull TV||NBA Game Time, WatchESPN||WatchESPN, NBA Game Time, MLB.tv, WWE, NHL, UFC, and much more||WatchESPN, NBA Game Time, MLB.tv, WWE, NHL, UFC, and much more|
|Music||Play Music, Pandora, Rdio, Songza||Pandora, iHeartRadio||Pandora, Spotify, Amazon Cloud Player, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, Slacker Radio, Sirius XM, Rdio, and more||Pandora, Spotify, Amazon Cloud Player, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, Slacker Radio, Sirius XM, Rdio, and more|
* – Already announced, coming soon.
As you can see, Roku readily and easily beats the competition when it comes to content. The Channel Store is loaded with tons of great content – some you've heard of, and a lot you haven't. It's an excellent platform to explore and find new things on, and I've really enjoyed doing that throughout the course of this comparison.
There's more to building a good streaming box than just a vast app selection (though that does play a pretty major role). There are also things to consider like other uses, performance, and streaming quality.
- Chromecast: I find Google's streaming stick to have the best picture quality, as it appears to be doing some sort of "auto-awesome" modifications before pumping the picture out to the TV. Regardless of the TV's settings, Chromecast consistently looks better than Roku and Fire TV, as it has brighter, more vivid colors across the board.
- Fire TV, Roku 3, and Roku Streaming Stick: The difference in streaming picture across these three devices is virtually non-existent. All three units look good – easily comparable to streaming things like Netflix or HBO on any other device I've tried (PC, PS3, etc.).
- Chromecast: Since Chromecast doesn't actually have an interface to interact with, the performance essentially lies within whatever device is being streamed from. Thus, Chromecast's performance is always consistent, simple, and generally fast (depending on your internet connection).
- Fire TV: Amazon's set-top box is probably spec'd better than any other box on the market, and it shows. It's blazing fast from front to back, top to bottom. You can't slow this thing down.
- Roku 3: Like Fire TV, Roku 3 is stupid-fast. It may not be as tricked out as Amazon's offering, but it's equally as fast in my experience. Jumping from channel to channel and show to show is fast and fluid.
- Roku Streaming Stick: Here's where it gets a little hairy for Roku. The Streaming Stick is a killer value for everything it offers (basically Roku's monstrous channel library), but it falls short in the performance department. I frequently encountered lag and choppiness with the SS's interface, though it's generally fine while actually streaming content.
- Chromecast: It does what it does, plain and simple. It's the only one of the bunch with support for Google Play Music and Play Movies, however. Also, as janky as it may be, tab casting exists only on Chromecast.
- Fire TV: Amazon baked in some pretty impressive gaming support into Fire TV, and the company's first official game, SevZero, plays like a console title should. Additionally, the controller has a built-in microphone for quick and easy voice searching.
- Roku 3: This box also has gaming support, though it's much, much lighter than what Fire TV is capable of. Flinging birds across your TV's screen is about as heavy as the "gaming" is going to get on this front.
The Roku 3's remote, on the other hand, is awesome. It has a built-in headphone jack so you can watch something on TV and listen to it with headphones as to not disturb anyone around you.
Finally, there's the Roku app. It basically turns your phone into a remote control, complete with access to the keyboard and voice search for easier input.
- Roku Streaming Stick: Like the Roku 3, the Streaming Stick also has support for the app, but it's lacking both the kickass remote control audio-out (though it does include a remote of its own), as well as any gaming support. It's essentially a simplified version of its bigger brother for half the price. I'd say that the Streaming Stick offers the most content per dollar that you can get right now.
- Chromecast: While Chromecast's non-interface makes it very simple, it also makes it (in my opinion), the most cumbersome to use, because it relies on a mobile device to control it. I realize that some people may disagree with this, but instead of having some sort of unified way to interact with the device, it's basically left up to app developers to provide a good experience. HBO GO is a good example of a pain-in-the-ass app thanks to its less-than-stellar interface. It doesn't have the same issue on Roku, where it's much easier to parse. Moving forward, I feel like this will become even more hit-or-miss with Chromecast.
On a similar note, Chromecast is drastically lacking in app selection, especially compared to Roku or Fire TV.
- Fire TV: Amazon's box is lacking in three ways: firstly, it has excellent voice search capabilities...but it only searches Amazon content, making it essentially useless in other parts of the OS; secondly, it is sometimes difficult to find new apps or games on Fire TV, as there's no real place to just search through everything available for installation. You have to pick apart various lists and things to potentially discover new content. Lastly, it only has 8GB of storage. That's fine for a streaming-only box, but once you start tossing some games on there it fills up quickly. It needs at least 16GB on the lowest side if Amazon actually wants users to play games on it.
- Roku 3: Honestly, I had to think about this one for a while. I'm having a hard time finding something I'd call a "shortcoming" with the Roku 3. It's a killer box.
- Roku Streaming Stick: As you may have already guessed, the biggest downfall to the Streaming Stick is the [lack of] speed. It can be quite laggy and choppy when navigating the operating system, which could potentially frustrate users.
The set top box market is quickly becoming one of my favorites to keep an eye on, because I see this as the future of TV consumption. The "old way" of cable providers being able to dictate specific packages and whatnot is dying, and eventually more and more content providers will move to the streaming platform with a small monthly cost per channel. That's a future I'm looking forward to.
But now's the time to get in and get used to the streaming box. They're all pretty damn affordable, making them readily accessible to basically everyone. Really, the problem is picking just one: if you're after simple and affordable, Chromecast is the way to go. If you want a huge selection of channels and a device that won't break the bank, it's the Roku Streaming Stick for you. If gaming is a must-have and you rely on Amazon services for most things, Fire TV it is. But if content is king and you want a blazing fast experience, Roku 3 is damn-near unbeatable.
That's what I've loved about this shootout, honestly: there's no clear "winner." All the devices rounded up here are fantastic, so it's really all about what's right for you and your usage patterns. Hell, it's nothing to grab a couple of these for different rooms. Personally, I like Chromecast in the office, but have Roku and Fire TV hooked up in the living room. If you're not looking to drop almost $300 on streaming devices, however, this piece should at least help you decide which one best fits into your life.