Best Streaming Stick: Roku Stick vs Amazon Fire Stick vs Chromecast
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.
However, 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 are deeply embedded in Apple’s ecosystem, 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 - (Grade: C-)
Amazon Fire TV Stick
- Fire Stick has most of the basics: Amazon Video, Hulu, Netflix, Showtime, HBO, Sling TV, DirecTV, Spotify, and Pandora. There are notable omissions like: Google Play Video, Vudu, and YouTube TV.
- It’s the best way to watch Amazon’s content. Everything is perfectly optimized.
- While you’re watching 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 should be available for all content purchased on Amazon Video.
- When 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.)
- When you hold down the mic button on the remote, you get most of Alexa’s powers. I can say, “Alexa, turn off the lights” to the remote and the lights turn off in my house.
- If you want to go hands-free, you can set up Fire TV Stick to work with any Echo device. You can ask your Echo to play, pause, or open an app, without touching the remote. For certain apps, you can ask it to play a show directly and it’ll open it in the correct app. For instance, “Alexa, play Bosch on my Fire TV” and Bosch automatically plays in the Amazon Prime Video app.
- 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-playing 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.
- The home screen is not customizable, and there will be duplicate apps on your home screen.
- The idea of Amazon Channels is to have HBO, Showtime, Starz, or Cinemax billed through your Amazon account, while it puts all your content in one place, with the same interface, in the same app. It’s a great idea, but it’s confusing for new users.
- There are multiple ways to watch the same streaming services. For example, HBO has HBO Go, HBO Now, and HBO through Amazon Channels.
- You probably already subscribe to HBO and Showdown through other means, making Amazon Channels worthless.
- You can’t get rid of Amazon Channels from the screen even if you’re not a subscriber.
- 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.
- 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 - (Grade: C+)
- You use your phone as the interface, so the speed of the interface will be as quick as your phone. Once you hit the cast button from your phone, it takes a few seconds to display on your TV.
- You can stream most content services by hitting the cast button inside the respective app on your phone. Apps like Netflix, Sling, HBO, DirecTV Now, Google Play Movies, Vudu, Hulu, Showtime, PlayStation Vue, Spotify have a cast button. (Check out the other apps here.)
- 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 no interface on the TV. You have to “cast” content from your phone to your TV. You use the Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and other content apps on your phone and tap the cast button in the top right corner to send it to your TV. If you’ve used AirPlay, it’s similar to that.
- Some people might love casting, but I don’t like it. I want a dedicated device that doesn’t run off of my phone. Two casting issues:
- When you’re trying to binge-watch a show there are 30 seconds of blank until the next episode plays.
- Occasionally when you’re in an app (i.e. HBO Now), the cast button randomly disappears, and you’ll have to close out the app and try again.
- While I don’t like casting, it works well if the cast button is present. With AirPlay, Apple TV is mirroring your phone, but Chromecast doesn’t work like that. 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 streaming.
- You can search and find shows inside the Google Home app, too. 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.
- 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.
- There’s no remote or storage on Chromecast. Your phone is the remote.
- Setup is easy and you shouldn’t run into issues.
- Chromecast should be 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.
#1 - (Grade: A+)
Roku Stream Stick
- The new Roku Stick model is 50% more powerful than the previous generation, 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.
- It’s surprisingly fast. It’s not as fast as Apple TV, but it blows Fire Stick out of the water with its speed.
- Amazon Video, Google Play Video, Vudu, Hulu, Netflix, Showtime, HBO, Sling TV, DirecTV, PlayStation Vue, YouTube TV, Spotify, and Pandora are available. Roku has every streaming service I can think of.
- 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. When doing a search for content, it’ll show you your free options first (from the services you subscribe to), rather than make you pay.
- I don’t like how the menus are set up, and there are design inconsistencies throughout, but Roku 8.0 software was a substantial upgrade from last year’s. There used to be a lot of low-quality apps that apps didn’t match the experience of the other streaming devices. Roku fixed this and now the apps are more consistent.
- You can follow movies and get updates 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.
- With Private Listening mode, you can play your show’s sound through the Roku Phone app and then listen using headphones. It can 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.
- “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, and you can control the volume and turn the TV on and off.
- You have to hold the remote close to your mouth for the voice detection to work.
- There are four preset app buttons (Netflix, HBO Now, Sling and Hulu) on the remote, so you’re stuck with useless buttons if you’re not using all four services. (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.
- You can ask the remote to search for shows or movies and it works well, but there is no smart assistant to do other tasks.
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.