Roku, Chromecast Or Fire TV: Which Streaming Stick Is Right For You?
If you’re looking to add streaming capability to your TV without taking up extra shelf space, a streaming stick can be a good—and less expensive—alternative to the standard set-top box . Roku, Google GOOGL -1.37%, and now Amazon all make sticks that let you watch movies and TV from services like Netflix NFLX -2.88%, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Prime Instant Video. Not much larger than a portable flash drive, these sticks plug into your TV’s HDMI port and stream video using your Wi-Fi connection. You lose the beefier processors, extra storage and inputs that come with the larger set-top boxes. But the sticks still provide HD output, a wide selection of content to watch and the ability to share your personal photos and videos on the big screen. Which one should you buy? The answer comes down to how you’ll be using it.
If the thought of adding yet another remote control to your entertainment room arsenal makes you shudder, or you simply hate onscreen TV menus, you’ll be happy to know that Google’s Chromecast does away with both. You control Chromecast entirely with your phone or tablet, using it to play/pause and typing on its keyboard to browse, search and enter any necessary login info. After installing the Chromecast app (Android, iOS) to pair your device with the stick, you’ll find an icon on many of your media apps that lets you “cast” their content directly to your TV. And because your TV is now doing the actual streaming, you can use your phone or tablet for other things while the content is playing. Friends and family can cast to your TV from their devices too, as long as they’re on the same Wi-Fi network.
Verdict: The Roku and Fire TV sticks offer the best of both worlds with a physical remote and mobile app for easier searches. Currently, the Fire TV app is limited to Android devices, making the Roku Streaming Stick the most flexible option.
There’s very little practical difference among these sticks in terms of the content you can watch. While Roku boasts of 1,800 channels, there are only a handful you’d ever actually watch. All three sticks cover popular services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime Instant Video, and ESPN. And you can watch YouTube videos on each of them as well. Amazon doesn’t offer HBO Go yet, so if Game of Thrones is a must-watch, you’ll want to look elsewhere. And Comcast subscribers should note that the cable provider currently blocks HBO Go access to its customers on all Roku (and Sony Playstation) devices. Chromecast stands out in that you can cast web content from any computer that’s using Google’s Chrome browser. So for apps that Chromecast doesn’t directly support, like Amazon Instant Video for example, you can still enjoy a movie on your TV by launching Amazon’s site on your Mac or Windows machine. The Fire TV Stick, as you’d imagine, makes it very easy to find and watch content from Amazon’s own video service, and its speedy dual-core processor and large memory cache allow those movies and shows to start running almost immediately after you press play.
Verdict: For Amazon Prime subscribers, the Fire TV Stick offers the fastest way to find and watch Amazon’s free content. HBO subscribers will need either the Roku Streaming Stick or Chromecast to watch current fare like Game of Thrones. If you want to cast content from your computer, Chromecast is the option for you.
Don’t be fooled by product shots showing a cord-free streaming setup. These sticks all need to draw power. If your TV has a USB port, you can use that. Doing so, however, means that the stick must power up every time you turn on the TV, a process that can take several seconds. For the most seamless performance you’ll need to use a good old AC wall adapter (included) plugged into an outlet. These sticks are all around 3 inches in length, something to be aware of if you have a wall-mounted TV with rear-facing ports. Fortunately, both the Chromecast and Fire TV sticks come with HDMI extenders that bend so the sticks can hang vertically, taking up less space. If you bought a dual band wireless router to prevent interference with your Wi-Fi connection, you’ll lose that benefit with the Chromecast which only operates on the lower2.4 GHz band.
Roku’s Streaming Stick is the most expensive of the three. If you want to setup streaming access for multiple TVs in your house, its $50 price tag can add up. Google priced Chromecast very aggressively, and at $35 it often ranks as the top-selling electronics product on Amazon, a fact that surely influenced the Fire TV Stick’s $39 price.
Verdict: If you’re looking to buy more than one, $35 for the Chromecast is hard to pass up as long as you don’t need dual band Wi-Fi.
In the end, the choice of which one to buy depends largely on your preference for a physical versus smartphone app remote and whether you’re an Amazon Prime member. No matter which stick you decide to get you’ll be able to enjoy a wealth of movies and TV shows and likely come one step closer to getting rid of cable altogether.
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