If you want to keep your entertainment center elegant and minimalist without sacrificing a huge selection of channels, consider a streaming stick. These small HDMI dongles may not look like much, but what they lack in size, they make up for in versatility. Smaller than a game console and more concealable than a set-top box, streaming media sticks tend to be less powerful than other players, but much simpler to set up.
The Google Chromecast ($35), the Amazon Fire TV Stick ($40) and the Roku Stick ($50) are the three most popular models of streaming stick, and each one comes with its share of selling points and caveats. Depending on what you want to watch and how quickly you want to watch it, one of these sticks could be a fantastic investment. Based on our multiple-round evaluation, the Chromecast is the best value, but it might not be the ideal option for you.
Bear in mind, too, that each of the streaming sticks maxes out at 1080p resolution: perfect for full-HD TVs, but less-than-ideal for newer 4K models. For UHD resolution, you can either use your smart TV’s built-in apps, or invest in a Roku 4 ($130), Amazon Fire TV (2015) ($100) or Nvidia Shield TV ($200).
The term “streaming stick” is technically only accurate for the Fire TV Stick and the Roku Stick, since the Chromecast is a bit of a different beast. The former two are rectangular objects, with the Fire TV Stick in a sleek black and the Roku Stick in a garish purple.
The latter sports a much cooler design, going for a circular Chrome symbol in black, yellow or red. Furthermore, the Chromecast has a flexible HDMI cord and a magnet that keeps the device from dangling. It’s a subtle device, but an attractive one.
While both the Roku Stick and the Chromecast can draw power from your TV’s USB port (if it has one), the Fire TV Stick pitched a fit every time I tried, with half-a-dozen TVs from a variety of manufacturers. It wouldn’t work properly — and provided plenty of error messages to this effect — if I used anything aside from Amazon’s official adapter in a wall outlet. It’s not a design flaw, exactly, but it makes the system much, much uglier and more inconvenient than its two counterparts.
Winner: Chromecast. While the Roku Stick gets the job done, the Chromecast excels with a flexible, aesthetically pleasing design that can fit into almost any TV setup. The Fire TV Stick is too finicky about its power cable requirements.
Although you only have to run a streaming stick’s setup once (in theory), it should still be a painless process that puts as few steps as possible between you and the content you want to watch. All three systems have fairly similar setup processes: Plug the device in, connect to Wi-Fi and follow a few simple instructions. You’ll also need an existing user account with either Google, Amazon or Roku, depending on your device.
Once again, the Chromecast provides the most straightforward setup, since all you have to do is visit a website on your phone, tablet or computer, download an app and select Set Up. Since you’re likely already signed into your Google account (not to mention your Netflix, Hulu, YouTube or other streaming accounts) on your device, you’re good to go as soon as the Chromecast connects to your Wi-Fi network.
The Roku Stick and Fire TV stick are a bit more traditional, in that you’ll have to sign into an account and wait for your information to sync with a server. The Roku Stick has a bit of an advantage, however, as you can sign in via phone, tablet or computer. The Fire TV Stick requires users to sign into the device itself, one painstaking remote-controlled letter at a time.
Winner: Chromecast. While it requires a phone, tablet or computer, the Chromecast gets up and running in the quickest, most foolproof manner. The Roku Stick is slightly easier to set up than its Amazon counterpart, though.
Streaming sticks can display thousands of videos, none of which will do any good if you can’t find your way to them. While the Roku Stick and the Fire TV Stick provide somewhat different spins on the tried-and-true method of scrolling through menus, the Chromecast employs an unusual way of finding and watching videos. To use an app on the Chromecast, simply open it on your phone, tablet or computer, then press the Cast button. It will show up on your TV, and your device will act as the remote. While the Chromecast app can act as a hub, it’s not strictly necessary for anything except initial setup.
The Roku Stick and the Fire TV Stick use a much more familiar system of getting around. Each one lets users scroll through various menus, which let you search for content, download new apps or simply watch the channels you’ve already downloaded. I wasn’t thrilled with either stick’s performance in this regard.
Two years’ worth of software updates have rendered the Roku Stick sluggish.
The Roku has the better menu of the two, letting users customize the placement of apps on their home screen, putting favorite ones front and center, and deleting irrelevant ones. However, two years’ worth of software updates have rendered the Roku Stick sluggish and lifeless, making even routine tasks take a few more seconds than they should. The Fire TV Stick, on the other hand, has fairly snappy scrolling speeds, but puts such an overwhelming focus on Amazon content that just finding apps like Netflix and Hulu can be a pain.
Winner: Chromecast. While the Chromecast eschews traditional menus, it’s still the simplest and quickest way to get your content up on the big screen. The Roku Stick has an admirable menu system, but the hardware isn’t quite up to snuff, while the Fire TV Stick’s Amazon focus can feel relentless.
Content and Apps (25)
In the kingdom of streaming content, the product with the most apps is king. In the past, Roku won this category handily based on sheer numbers alone, but now each product has access to thousands of apps. Naturally, most of them are chaff, so it really comes down to which sticks supply the wheat. The Chromecast is out on this count, as it lacks Amazon Video, thanks to an ongoing dispute between Google and Amazon.
The Roku Stick and the Fire TV Stick, then, have extremely similar selling points. They both support all the big apps, including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, YouTube, Pandora and Spotify (although Spotify requires a go-between mobile app on the Fire TV). In fact, the only major difference is that the Fire TV has a fairly big selection of games, whereas the Roku Stick has none.
Make no mistake: The Fire TV Stick’s game store has more than 700 titles, and they’re mostly casual knockoffs that might keep a very young child entertained for 30 seconds at a time. Still, there are a couple of standout gems, like the party game Fibbage, the classic platformer Sonic the Hedgehog, and the cyberpunk mystery Read Only Memories. Given the choice between thousands of apps and a few decent games, and thousands of apps and no games, the former wins every time.
Winer: Fire TV Stick. All three devices offer thousands of apps, but only the Fire TV Stick has Amazon Video and a handful of decent games. The Roku has the most video apps by sheer numbers, while the Chromecast is missing Amazon Video.
With thousands of apps offering thousands of programs, a good search feature is absolutely vital to find what you’re looking for on the cheapest possible service. While all three sticks offer a search that trawls multiple services, the Roku’s is simply head-and-shoulders above its competitors’. The Roku Stick searches more than 20 different services, and is the only one of the three that includes Netflix in its results.
The Fire TV Stick and the Chromecast both trawl about a dozen services apiece. The former has a slight edge, as it can search through both Amazon Video and Hulu, while the latter has Hulu, but favors Google Play, which is an a-la-carte-only service. Still, since Netflix is generally the most content-rich streaming service available now, neither one holds up to the Roku’s unified search function.
Roku’s search is simply head-and-shoulders above its competitors’.
All three devices feature both voice- and text-based searches, but keep in mind that you’ll need either a specialized remote control or a mobile app.
Winner: Roku Stick. The Roku Stick’s unified search covers the widest base of services, and is the only one that includes Netflix. The Fire TV Stick’s search is slightly more useful than the Chromecast, since it covers an unlimited streaming service (Amazon Video) rather than an a-la-carte one (Google Play).
Remote Control (10)
While your TV remote may have dozens of buttons, some that you’ve never even pressed, streaming sticks prefer to keep things simple. The Roku Stick and the Fire TV Stick remotes have just a few buttons, like play/pause, rewind, fast-forward, back and home to help you navigate.
Both devices are perfectly competent, but there’s no denying that the Fire TV Stick’s remote is the much more attractive of the two. Rather than a blocky D-pad, it features a slick circular pad with a confirm button in the middle. Additionally, if you’re willing to dish out a little extra money, you can get a remote with voice search functionality. The Roku Stick remote has a few extra buttons that take you directly to Netflix, M-Go and Amazon Video, but there’s also a rather useless one for the defunct Blockbuster app as well.
The Chromecast has no remote control, save for your phone, tablet or computer. This isn’t much of a detriment, since Chromecast users know what they’re getting into, but the other two sticks also have fully functional mobile apps in addition to their remotes.
Winner: Fire TV Stick. The Fire TV Stick has an attractive remote with no wasted buttons, while the Roku Stick’s feels a bit clunky, and the Chromecast doesn’t have one at all.
With the Chromecast at $35, the Fire TV Stick at $40 ($50 with a voice-search remote) and the Roku Stick at $50, there’s not a huge difference in price between the three gadgets. Value is also a tricky thing to gauge, as the perfect product for one viewer may be unenticing for another. Still, there are a few things that might make one stick more or less appealing in the long term than the others.
As stated above, the Roku Stick is probably nearing the end of its product cycle. It’s beginning to run slowly, and Roku seems to have shifted most of its attention to its 4K-capable Roku 4. Of the three, it’s probably the weakest long-term investment.
The Chromecast, on the other hand, is not only inexpensive, but brand-new. Google will probably continue putting a lot of marketing and development resources into this product for the foreseeable future.
The Fire TV Stick is harder to gauge. It’s been out for more than a year, but Amazon recently refreshed it by including the voice-search remote. Amazon is clearly not done with its inventive little stick just yet.
Winner: Chromecast. Between the Chromecast and the Fire TV Stick, it’s tough to pick the better value, but the Chromecast is a little newer and a little cheaper, which helps its long-term prospects.
While the competition between the three devices was heated and close, the Chromecast eked out a victory over its competitors (85 points out of a possible 100), with the Fire TV Stick second (81/100) and the Roku Stick last (80/100). The Chromecast simply excels when it comes to design, setup and usability, even though it’s not quite as robust as the other two sticks in terms of channel selection and search features.
The Chromecast is indeed an excellent little gadget, but the Fire TV Stick and Roku Stick are worth some praise in their own rights.
The Fire TV Stick is a snappy little device that puts the Amazon Prime experience front-and-center. Not only is the experience optimized for Prime subscribers, but it also has a fairly decent selection of games and a slick remote control.
On the other hand, the Roku Stick is a dependable workhorse, which boasts second-to-none search features and arguably the widest selection of video and music apps. The device is beginning to show its age, but for finding your favorite content, then organizing it in a way that suits you, the Roku Stick is hard to beat.
Now that 4K content is beginning to take center stage, it will be interesting to see what the future holds for streaming sticks, which are 1080p only. No matter what happens, they’re a good — and inexpensive — investment right now.