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Best Streaming Stick: Roku Stick vs. Fire Stick vs. Chromecast (2018)
Earlier this year, while on the hunt for the best streaming device, I limited my search to devices in box form and overlooked streaming sticks. However, lots of you were curious about them.
Streaming sticks have come a long way.
Two years ago, I wouldn’t have recommended any of them.
But after testing several out, I found there are some surprisingly good models out there, and they’re a great value.
Now, I’m convinced that if you don’t have a 4K TV or have plans to upgrade, you should get a streaming stick.
My original streaming device comparison was 5,000 words and covered seven different devices. It was too long and added more confusion than clarity. I broke that post into two parts.
If you want to find the best premium streaming device for 4K TVs, go here.
If you’re on a budget or don’t have a 4K TV, stay on this page because it’s time to find the best streaming stick. Here’s a comparison of the three top contenders: Roku Stick vs. Fire TV Stick vs. Chromecast.
#3 – Ads Everywhere. Too slow.
Fire Stick (C-)
- Amazon Fire TV Stick is $40 new, but I’ve seen refurbished ones for as low as $25. That’s a terrific value.
- As soon as you turn on Amazon Fire for the first time, it recognizes you. You don’t have to sign up for an account or sign in. It says, “Hi, Cam! Thank you for buying an Amazon Fire. Would you like to continue?” Amazon pre-registers the serial number into your account after you make the purchase. This is brilliant! (You can change the information if you buy it as a gift.)
- Amazon has a feature called “Amazon Channels.” If you go with the Fire TV, this is the smartest way to manage your subscriptions. You can sign up for HBO, Showtime, Starz, or Cinemax. There are three things I love about this: 1. It’s billed through your Amazon account and sign up is easy. Also, you can control your subscriptions on Amazon.com. 2. It gives you a universal watching experience. All of your videos are in one place, with the same interface, in the same app. 3. On your phone, you’ll only need the Amazon Video app. This will give you access to all the content you pay for. You won’t need an HBO or Showtime app at all.
- I’m a big Alexa fan. When you hold down the mic button on the remote, you can set up your Fire TV to work with an Echo. I can say, “Alexa, turn off the lights” to my TV and the lights will turn off in my house.
- While you’re watching any Amazon Originals or certain content through Amazon Channels, when you pause the playback, it shows all the characters’ names and those of the actors playing them. This is amazing, but I don’t get why it’s not integrated into all of Amazon’s other video services. At the very least, it could be in their library.
- It’s the best way to watch Amazon content. Everything is perfectly optimized.
- The only significant difference between Amazon Fire TV and the Stick is the memory. The Stick only has 1GB, compared to the Fire TV’s 2GB. You might be thinking a 1GB difference isn’t that big of a deal. But, during my tests, I found it was very noticeable. All the apps open slower and memory intensive apps like PlayStation Vue were unusable.
- Fire TVs are a platform for Amazon to brag about how cool Amazon is. So, it’s no surprise that Fire TV Stick favors Amazon content over other services. Also, there are annoying banners at the top of the screen promoting Amazon content and sometimes even auto-play clips.
- There are non-content related ads in the middle of some screens as well. Unless you enjoy looking at ads for pet food and other irrelevant products, it’s not ideal.
- Alexa doesn’t work as well on the TV as it does with Echo devices. You can set your lights and do other smart home activities, but there are a couple of annoyances: 1. It doesn’t work as well with 3rd party apps. For example, if you ask Alexa to play music, it’ll only play through Amazon Music. Spotify doesn’t work. There’s a Spotify app, but you can’t control it with Alexa. 2. Timers and alarms don’t work either.
- There’s no way to mirror your iOS devices natively. There are a couple of ways to do it with 3rd party apps, but I wasn’t pleased with the performance. Android users won’t have an issue, however.
- I like Amazon Channels, but it’s confusing for new users. There are three different ways to watch HBO: HBO Go (with your cable subscription), HBO Now (HBO’s standalone service), and HBO through Amazon Channels. I know my tech, and even I was a little confused when I started.
- The home screen is not customizable. HBO and Starz show up inside Amazon Channels even if you’re not a subscriber. And there will be duplicate apps on your home screen making it look bad.
- You can turn on the TV via HDMI CEC, but there’s no way to turn off the TV. Wut? There’s also no way to change the TV volume.
#2 – Great price but no remote.
- Chromecast is only $35, and you can stream most content by hitting the cast button inside the respective app on your phone.
- There’s a $70 version “Chromecast Ultra” that plays 4K and HDR content.
- You can control your TV with your voice through Google Home. This is the only streaming device that works with Google Home, and it works well.
- There’s a guest mode that lets others in your house cast things from their phone without using WiFi.
- You can control the TV volume with your phone.
- Google upgraded the experience with the app. Now you search to find shows inside the Google Home app. Once you find a show you want to watch, you click on it, and it’ll open the respective app (i.e., Netflix) and from there you can cast it to your TV.
- With AirPlay, Apple TV is mirroring your phone, but Chromecast isn’t. You send the content to Chromecast, and it streams from your WiFi, providing a fantastic streaming experience. Plus, your phone doesn’t need to be within a certain radius of the Chromecast. You can leave the house, and it will keep working.
- There’s no remote or storage on Chromecast. You have to “cast” content from your phone. If you’ve used AirPlay, it’s similar to that. Some people might love this, but I hate it. I want a dedicated device that doesn’t have to run off of my phone. It’s not ideal if you’re trying to binge-watch a show. There are 30 seconds before the next episode plays and by the time you fire up the app on your phone, it’s too late.
- You might be thinking: Chromecast is perfect for travel because of its size. But it’s hard to connect to new Wifi networks after the initial setup. It’s meant to be set up on one WiFi network only.
- Sometimes when you’re in an app (i.e. HBO Now), the cast button doesn’t show up. You’ll have to close out the app and try again.
#1 – By far the best.
Roku Stick (A+)
- The 2017 Roku Streaming Stick is $50. (The 2016 model is still available for $40.)
- This year’s model is 50% more powerful than last year’s, uses dual-band 802.11ac, has a voice remote, and uses the cleaner Roku 8.0 software. I tested both models. Although I liked both, I’d recommend spending the extra $10 for faster speed.
- Roku 8.0 software was a substantial upgrade. There used to be a lot of low-quality apps that should’ve been taken out. And some apps didn’t match the experience on the other streaming devices. Roku fixed this and now the apps are more consistent.
- It’s surprisingly fast. It’s not as fast as Apple TV, but it blows Fire Stick out of the water with its speed.
- Roku has almost every streaming service I can think of. Even for on-demand video services, you have three options: Amazon, Google Play, and Vudu.
- You can follow movies and get updates of when they become available.
- You can get your music, videos, and photos on your TV with Roku Play-On. This is similar to Apple’s AirPlay but is located inside the Roku app.
- The Roku phone app is excellent. You can pick the streaming service you want to use, and it’ll pop up on your TV screen.
- Private listening. You can play the sound through your headphones because the Roku remote has a headphone jack. But what’s even cooler is you can listen to your show’s sounds through the Roku Phone app. Not sure when this would come in handy, but it’s a cool feature nonetheless. Maybe it could be useful if you have roommates and you’re trying to keep the noise level down. This feature is technically available with Apple TV and Amazon Fire, but you have to jump through a bunch of hoops to connect Bluetooth headphones through the settings menu. On the Roku, it’s seamless.
- There are no biases with Roku’s search for movies and shows. Roku doesn’t create or sell content, so they can be completely objective.
- “What’s On?” feature inside the Roku app tries to curate movies and shows with algorithms. It’s a great idea, and it’s executed decently.
- Roku has voice search through the remote. You can also control the volume and turn the TV on and off with the remote.
- The remote is cheaply made, and you have to hold it close to your mouth for the voice detection to work. (But, hey, at least it comes with a remote!)
- Setup was a bit clunky. The first time I connected to the Internet, it failed, and then worked the second time. Also, you need to register for a Roku account and can’t get set up without one.
- The Roku interface is old school. While the new version is better than last year’s, I don’t like how the menus are set up. When you scroll down to the bottom of a page, rather than the page ending, the apps from the top appear back at the bottom. It also focuses more on apps than content.
- There are four preset app buttons on the remote. That’s cool, but the problem is they can’t be changed. So unless you’re using all four services: Netflix, HBO Now, Sling and Hulu, you’re stuck with useless buttons.
Which one is for you?
If you’re in Google’s ecosystem and like using your phone to stream content, go with the Chromecast.
Chromecast is a nice device. You’ll get a clean stream, affordable price, and the ability to control your TV with Google Home. The downside is that there’s no physical storage for apps and no remote. You’ll be on your phone the whole time. I own a Chromecast just for streaming YouTube TV because it’s by far the best way option for YouTube TV.
Fire TV Stick is too slow and has become way too pushy of Amazon’s content and other advertising. The thing you have to remember is that Amazon sells most of its hardware (Echos, Kindles, tablets, streaming devices) at cost and don’t profit from them.
What’s in it for Amazon? Once you own their devices, they sell you on their products. Whether that’s a Prime subscription, Kindle book, Audible subscription, Amazon Video content, or household items from Amazon.com.
If you’re looking for a streaming stick that plugs into the back of your TV, the Roku Streaming Stick is your best bet and the clear winner. You’ll get an unbiased platform, voice remote, tons of content, private listening, and something that’s faster than Fire Stick.