$ 50 seems to be a magical price in the world of streaming media devices. That’s what Roku charges for a Streaming Stick +, that’s the price Amazon is asking for a Fire TV Stick 4K, and as of today, that’s what Google charges for its new Chromecast with Google TV device.
So if each of these streamers costs the same, how do you decide which one is right for you? With more uniting these gadgets than separating them, the answer will be in the details, so let’s take a deep dive and see where each streamer’s strengths and weaknesses are.
Roku and Amazon use almost identical HDMI stick designs for their streamers. You get a “stick”, which connects to an available HDMI port on your TV, a MicroUSB cable for power (which in the Roku case also works as its wireless transmitter module), a power adapter if your TV does not have a free USB port and a voice-activated remote control.
Google’s Chromecast with Google TV follows a slightly different approach that places the streamer at the end of a flexible HDMI cable. It’s a little thicker than the stick style, but it has two advantages: It’s easier to connect to a TV’s HDMI port in situations where you already have other cables connected to the other ports (or where a TV is designed to there is no physical space to have a stick pointing straight out of a gate). And because it is further away from the TV chassis, which can cause Wi-Fi interference, it may have a stronger wireless connection.
Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K comes with an HDMI extension cable that helps address both of these issues, but the Roku Streaming Stick + does not. Roku claims that having its wireless transmitter in the power cable instead of the pin, more than compensates for any wireless problems. But it can still be difficult to install it without buying your own HDMI extension.
In the end, we do not think there is much to recommend one design over another.
Again, the similarities between these units are significant. They are all about the same size and weight, all powered by non-rechargeable batteries, and all have the following buttons:
- Power (for streamer and your TV)
- Volume up / down / off (for your TV, soundbar or A / V receiver)
- Navigation buttons (D-pad) with central OK button
- Voice access via microphone
But when you look closely, Google seems to have taken a simplified approach to Chromecast with Google TV’s remote control, which does not have dedicated buttons for:
- Play / pause
- Fast forward / rewind
Both Roku and Amazon remotes have these buttons, and Roku, which has the most buttons of all three remotes, also throws in four shortcut buttons for specific streaming service apps like Netflix and Disney +, and an instant playback button that zaps back 20 seconds while you watch any video.
Google’s remote control can still perform the same number of functions (except for instant play) by giving certain buttons more than one function. For example, the central OK button inside the D-pad becomes the play / pause button while watching a video. Also for left and right D-pad buttons, which provide fast forward / rewind.
There’s no doubt that Google’s approach provides a smaller, simpler remote control, but we’re still very partial to Roko’s disposable buttons, making Streaming Stick + a real no-brainer for most people.
Access to content
On the surface, this category should belong to Roku. As the oldest streaming platform, the company has gathered an incredible range of streaming services (which are added to the device as downloadable “channels”) and its channel store contains everything from the biggest names like Netflix and Disney + to the smallest, micro-targeted offers from spiritual groups and hobbyists.
It’s also home to the Roku Channel, an excellent resource for free ad-supported content as well as an easy way to get your subscription services into a single interface. Roko’s latest addition of more than 115 free live TV streaming channels makes this even more compelling.
If it was just about the number of available content sources, Roku wins. But for most, it’s an 80/20 (or maybe 99/1) rule, where 80% of the streaming content they want to watch comes from 20% of the available channels. With this in mind, it is noteworthy that no big names exist on a streaming platform.
For example, HBO Max is still not available on Roku or Amazon Fire TV. NBCUniversal’s Peacock was first added to Roku recently after the two companies settled differences that had existed since Peacock’s launch in early 2020, but it is still absent from the Fire TV catalog.
Google’s Android TV platform (which Chromecast uses for content apps) seems to be most immune to this kind of problem, but in the past it’s been a consideration for developers. For example, it took years for Hulu to update its Android TV app to make it compatible with Hulu + Live TV.
We assign this to Roku because of the size of its channel catalog and its amazing Roku Channel. But if the company ends up in more discrepancies with content providers that lead to Roku users not being able to stream from big name services, we will revise this section.
Support for audio and video formats
All three streaming devices support 4K resolution at up to 60 fps. However, their support for HDR (High Dynamic Range) formats and advanced audio formats can differ significantly.
Roku Streaming Stick + can support HDR10, and it lets streaming apps pass through Dolby Atmos. But it can not offer higher quality HDR formats like HDR10 + or Dolby Vision, and it does not support HLG. Consistent support for Atmos is good because if you have an Atmos-compatible TV, soundbar, or A / V receiver, apps can send a bit-bit stream of audio to these devices, which then use it to let you hear Dolby Atmos audio. The problem is that some apps, especially Netflix, do not allow Atmos throughput.
Fire TV Stick 4K seems to be the winner, with all four flavors of HDR on board: HDR10, HDR10 +, HLG and Dolby Vision, plus the ability to completely decode Dolby Atmos. But for reasons we have not yet discovered, Netflix also denies Fire TV Stick 4K access to Dolby Atmos audio tracks and forces it to use Dolby 5.1 instead.
It’s a similar story for Google’s Chromecast with Google TV: Excellent support for HDR formats (HDR10, HDR10 +, Dolby Vision) and Dolby Atmos. In this case, however, Dolby Atmos is only throughput, just like Roku.
Given that Dolby Atmos support is similar to all three devices, it comes down to video format. Technically, Fire TV Stick 4K should win because it supports HLG in addition to the other HDR flavors, but we are not sure that it is enough to explain victory. We will close a little here and say …
Winner: Tie between Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K and Google Chromecast with Google TV
Content discovery and user-friendliness
Roko’s search has always been top notch, and we have no doubt that it will continue. But today, with millions of movies and programs within reach, searching is not necessarily the best way to find something to watch.
That’s why both Google TV and Amazon’s new Fire TV interface look like promising improvements to our ability to discover new content. Both offer a unified view of all your apps, channels and subscriptions, and Google TV has even integrated YouTube TV (for those who subscribe to that service) to blur the lines between what’s on demand and what’s live even longer .
We’re looking forward to trying them both, but until we do, it looks like it’s a tie between Google and Amazon again.
Winner: Tie between Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K and Google Chromecast with Google TV
Content casting, games and extras
A lot is happening here, so let’s break it down:
Roku Streaming Stick +
- Private listening mode and screen mirroring via the Roku app
- Apple Watch integration
- Connection of hotel and dormitory for easy use during the trip
- Compatible with both Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa for smart speaker control
- Select mobile apps on Android can cast to Roku, and this will be extended to Apple devices when AirPlay 2 is added via Roku OS 9.4
Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K
- Compatible with Amazon’s Luna subscription game service
- Alexa built-in for controlling smart home devices
- Optional Ethernet adapter
- Connect to headphones or game controls via Bluetooth
Google Chromecast with Google TV
- Casting content from Android or iOS devices
- Connect to accessories via Bluetooth
- Support for Google’s Stadia subscription service will come in 2021
- Google Assistant built-in for smart home device control
We suspect that as long as you are not a player, Roko’s collection of thoughtful extras will make it the winner. But there is no denying that Google’s and Amazon’s integration of both their voice – based assistants and gaming services can make them a better choice for people who are already invested in one of these ecosystems.
Fire TV Stick 4K’s Ethernet adapter (optional) can seal the deal for those with poor Wi-Fi, but it’s probably a small minority today.
Yes, this one will be decided by you, not us.
Did you hope for an easy decision here? Maybe some fatal flaw that would take at least one of these streaming gadgets off the table?
Unfortunately, this is not the case this time around, but it’s for the best possible reason: Roku, Amazon, and Google have all created amazing 4K streaming media devices at a price that most of us will find very affordable.
But we will not let you get stuck with your streaming device decision without a little advice. If advanced HDR formats like Dolby Vision and HDR10 + matter to you, whether you just want to take advantage of your TV’s capabilities, or are just a total video nerd, you can remove Roku Streaming Stick + from your list, at least until Roku releases a new version that has this capability.
At that time, it will be about Google vs Amazon. If so, and you do not mind waiting a little longer, wait for your decision until we can publish our in-depth review of Chromecast with Google TV, and we can try Amazon’s new Fire TV interface. These reviews are likely to help your decision a lot.
But if gaming and advanced HDR do not put a smile on your face, we believe you can not go wrong with Roku’s Streaming Stick +. It may be the oldest of the three devices, but it’s still a great little streamer with one of the best interfaces we’ve ever used.
One more thing…
Although we did not include it in this comparison, it is worth noting that the TiVo Stream 4K is also $ 50 and shares lots of attributes with the new Chromecast. It is powered by Android TV, it has a very good remote control and support for advanced HDR and Dolby Atmos.
If you’re a Sling TV user, it’s even more meaningful as a streaming device because TiVo has closely integrated Sling’s live TV streaming channels into Stream 4K’s main app – meaning it’s the Sling equivalent of the YouTube TV integration in it. new Chromecast.