It's a good time to start looking for an affordable streaming stick like Amazon's Fire TV Stick 4K media streamer.
The new Chromecast with Google TV. It comes in colors.
The Roku Ultra and Streaming Stick + remote controls: The buttons on the front are also different.
In 2021, as we all continue to spend more time in front of screens than expected, most of us have a short list of requirements for a modern streaming stick. We just want one device that is compatible with our favorite content and everything else in our living space.
As one of the earlier providers in this space, Google's Chromecast streaming device has changed this generation considerably with a remote control and a suitable user interface. So far, Chromecast has relied entirely on streaming content from a separate device (phone, computer, tablet) to play content on your TV. With the new features, Google's latest Chromecast with Google TV is finally competing with other popular 4K streaming sticks under $ 50 like the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K and the Roku Streaming Stick +. It might even be an attractive alternative to the Apple TV 4K for $ 179.
So the 2020 Chromecast seems like the perfect inexpensive yet highly compatible cross between a streaming stick (for viewing content from your phone) and a remote set-top box (for controlling apps like Netflix, Prime Video and HBO Max remotely) . The only way to know for sure was to allow a little more screen time. We recently compared the latest Chromecast to Amazon's Fire TV Stick 4K and Roku's Streaming Stick + in a few Orbital HQ tests to see which $ 50 streaming stick was the best value for money – and that causes the fewest headaches when you just want to step back and watch something, maybe even something in 4K.
The short version
- Google's 2020 Chromecast with Google TV is the best streaming stick you can get for $ 50. It offers extensive compatibility between platforms and devices, fast performance, a simple and well-designed remote control, and support for Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos. With a price tag that's one-third the cost of an Apple TV, it also offers Apple's streaming box a run for its money. It excels beyond Roku and Fire TVs and has a more sophisticated and effective user interface that will serve you well.
- Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K has the advantage of being on the market longer and having more time for development. As such, it was a top choice for under $ 50 streamers – but mostly by default. The Fire TV Stick isn't hard to use, but it's harder to find quality content compared to the latest Chromecast. The Fire TV Stick 4K is often primarily a device for viewing Prime Video. You can still head over to Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, and the like to find a specific title you're looking for. However, if all you're looking for is something to watch through the UI, you're hardly going to be forced to find something not on Prime Video. While Prime Video has a large movie library, it gives you limited, sub-par options for finding new content. That said, the Fire TV Stick 4K is still fast and supports useful features like Dolby Vision HDR and more robust user profiles for kids.
- The Roku Streaming Stick + doesn't suffer as much from a biased user interface as the Fire TV Stick 4K, but that's still partly due to a lackluster user interface. It's not meant to be rummaged around – or at least not very well. You should know what you want to see before turning on any Roku device as the best way is to go straight into the app which can see it there. Roku's user interface is easy to read, has all the major streaming services and useful tricks like AirPlay 2 support, and Windows and Android screen mirroring. But its day-to-day ease of use falls flat, which makes it worse than the Chromecast in solving the ever-looming existential crisis of what to see next. Dolby Vision HDR is also missing.
Google Chromecast with Google TV
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All three streaming sticks have similar setup processes that will walk you through downloading and / or discovering your favorite services and linking the streaming sticks to control your TV. There's no fuss when it comes to the latter; All of our competitors are virtually automatically synced to the volume and power controls on my TV.
As for setting up your services on the Fire TV Stick and Roku Streaming Stick +, this is the same rig marole you'd expect – entering email and passwords with a D-pad, a tedious task that Chromecast bypasses. Using the Google Home app and Face ID on my iPhone, I was quickly logged into my respective accounts on Chromecast, and I didn't even have to type anything on my phone (Wi-Fi passwords, account logins, or otherwise). All of my relevant information was retrieved from the Google Home app, a feature that we missed a lot when boarding Ouija in our passwords with the Roku and Amazon remote controls.
Roku tries to emulate an in-app setup process similar to Google's (after you've already entered at least two logins) by emailing you a link to a setup webpage, unlike Amazon, which is exclusively through the Fire TV stick takes place. This is where you choose the apps and services to download, although the Roku process throws a lot more junk at you in the form of numerous free trials compared to Amazon and Google.
With both the Roku and Fire TV Stick, this initial setup is just the first step. After all the apps are downloaded, you need to open them and sign in again. Another tedious task that Chromecast largely avoids by using the Google Home app and the passwords stored in your Google account. Some post-Chromecast registrations are still required, but nowhere near as many.
Noteworthy: Amazon does give you the option for sub-profiles, however, which is lacking on both Chromecast and Roku sticks.
Regardless of form or function, Google's Chromecast simply leaves our other two options behind. The Chromecast aesthetic is the most sophisticated and the functionality the most useful of the three. While Amazon's Fire TV experience has a similar setup – a top row of tabs and tiles with content or apps on each page below – Amazon is trying to do more by neglecting to clear out the tiles.
In practice, it's just a bit busier than the Chromecast interface, which is also a bit more intuitive visually. However, this bug could be overlooked if the Fire TV's media tiles weren't just one row at a time with Prime Video content and ads. If a page has 10 rows of tiles, eight out of ten are either ads or linked directly to Prime Video. This is not a problem with either Chromecast and Google services or Roku.
Amazon places great emphasis on its Prime Video service in terms of content delivery. It's not the worst as Prime has an extensive library, but so does most streaming sticks. They all have access to most of the same things, with a few notable exceptions, which we'll get into later. Amazon's obsession with providing you with original or other content is a serious obstacle to the usefulness and fun factor of this device. The Fire TV Stick offers you rather poor quality content recommendations given the multitude of streaming platforms it contains. It's recommended that you prefer an F-list movie from Prime Video over a decent movie that you might actually enjoy from another platform.
The Chromecast home screen is spacious and aesthetically pleasing.
Well curated content is offered from a variety of sources.
Amazon Fire TV is similar, but busier.
It also jams as much Prime Video content down your throat as possible.
Roku's home screen is rather rudimentary, more like a smart TV than a streamer.
You have to open an app if you want to find something to watch.
Roku is the simplest user interface offered here. It's so simple that it gets dated in the looks department. In comparison, it is still nice to browse titles in peace. While testing Roku, it didn't live in constant fear of autoplay trailers that threatened to interrupt my thoughts at any second (watch you, Fire TV). I know you can just mute your TV, but I could feel my anxiety ease as I scrolled through Roku's interface.
At the same time, I was overwhelmed with the Roku and couldn't find out much about a piece of content without having to open the app it was in. With that in mind, Roku's UI feels more like a smart TV, as you can easily access apps to see what you want there. In contrast, both Fire TV and Chromecast serve as media for collecting and presenting content for you to explore. In this regard, Google's new Chromecast leads the way.
Amazon recently announced a major update to the Fire TV user interface that included a streamlined main screen, user profiles, and a Search tab to make content easier to find. This should roll out on the Fire TV Stick 4K as well as the 1080p Fire TV Stick and Fire TV Stick Lite in the coming weeks. We'll update this section when it hits our Fire TV Stick 4K.
Find what you're looking for
All three streaming sticks have a voice control button on their remote controls. These can be used to find content and open apps. While none of these implementations are perfect, in most cases voice is the best way to search on any device. Similar to how you navigate through the individual user interfaces, Google's Chromecast search performed by the Google Assistant is more accurate and often more useful with results than the other two.
Suppose you feel like watching a good documentary. If you say "Documentation" to the respective voice controls, Amazon Alexa brings back about five lines of different categories, which mainly consist of the content available in Amazon's Prime Video service. Categories include a selection from your subscriptions, free with ads, trends, latest news, and movies and TV. By combining some random, non-based recommendations and most of the results from Amazon Prime, you feel you are not getting the highest quality or the most extensive options.
It's nowhere near as bad as Roku's handling, however. Searching here brought in a handful of documentaries, a ton of reality TV shows, and a good amount of both in the results.
Google Assistant, on the other hand, creates a fairly comprehensive, well-thought-out, and fully targeted list of lists in the same carousel form as Fire TV. Unlike what Amazon did, the options listed here allow you to create the picks you want. Categories include Popular, Oscar-winning, War Documentaries, Religious Documents, and Politics, among others. In general, Chromecast will return a number of results from different platforms. Hence, Google has clearly prioritized getting high quality tips rather than forcing you onto Google's services … as opposed to Amazon's reverse approach.
If you search for documentation on Google Chromecast, you'll get the latest trending results as well as useful categories like "Award Winning".
Amazon's results include some trending documentation, but also a clear bias towards Prime content, which hurts quality.
Google is Google and will give you information and content when you search for "Dave Chappelle".
Amazon Fire TV is similar, but not without flawed suggestions.
The same tendencies arise when looking for a specific performer. For example, if you search for "Dave Chappelle", Google spits out two simple carousels of results – one with titles with Dave Chappelle and a carousel with "People are also looking for" related people whose images you can click on to discover more of them works .
It is clearly based on the same algorithms as Google searches and provides results that include spouses and children (marked as such), as well as related performers, including biographical blurbs taken straight from Wikipedia. The only thing we can blame Google for here is for missing certain results, in this case a recorded awards show for Chappelle, who wins the Mark Twain Award for American Humor (which is available on Netflix). If you're a Chappelle fan, you may want to see this in your search results.
Amazon Fire TV offered this result in its top picks, just like the other works displayed by Google, but Google kind of missed it. In fact, the search race between Amazon and Google was much closer as they offered almost the same content, with the exception of the only omission by Google. Roku didn't lag too far behind either, as it found much of the same result, while lacking darker results than either (including the same awards show that Google missed).
Between the three, voice search for specific movies or shows works as well as intended. Hit the button, say the words and in a second you can hit play. The only slip-ups to speak of come from Roku, which has a hard time making out some words, especially those with alternate spellings. For example, "Inglourious Basterds" is a movie that you just have to type in to find it on Roku – it won't show up at all if you do a voice search. This is not the case with Amazon and Google.
Roku, who again feels more like a virtual redbox than anything else, doesn't offer much in the content descriptions when search results are called up. The plot summary usually consists of one sentence. The star rating doesn't tell you where it came from, and you can't see the trailer.
All of those missing items from the Roku are on the same screen in the Chromecast, and you can even view Rotten Tomatoes' ratings and reviews in a little pop-up browser. Once you've seen it, you can give a thumb up or thumb down to a title to tweak your recommendations. The Fire TV Stick doesn't go that far, but it still offers trailers and a more detailed description than Roku. The inferior, sometimes useless recommendations for related content below the result are another aspect that holds Amazon back a fair bit behind Google.
Whether you know exactly what you want to see or if you are unsure and want to read something, watch trailers, check reviews and then decide, Google Chromecast is the most effective, powerful, and fun browsing around.
Find new things to look at
The same key differences between the three make Google Chromecast best for quickly and easily discovering new or related content that you are likely to enjoy. As mentioned earlier, finding quality content on the main Chromecast screens is a more accurate and fruitful endeavor. This is true even if you've just finished a movie or show that you loved but don't know where to go from there.
For example, let's say you've just finished Kill Bill and are now on a kung-fu kick, feeling past Uma Thurman, or especially enjoying the quirky Tarantino films. With Chromecast, just scroll down the movie's main page and either click on one of the stars to see more of their work (plus a little biographical blurb), or scroll down another line for recommendations on various aspects by finding the movie, the genre, or the creators and stars themselves. Options for that particular title have included action films, Oscar-winning titles, and an “If You Like X” option that actually appears to be correct. Different movies trigger different categories based on their own unique aspects.
At the very bottom of Google's landing page for Kill Bill, you'll find star content as well as various aspects of the genre.
Amazon's bottom landing page for Kill Bill is again at risk from Prime content that "customers saw" and 50 lines of content related to each of the main characters. It's pretty useless.
But no more useless than Roku, which just shows you where to see it.
In stark contrast, the Fire TV Stick gives you a completely useless "Customers, Too" line, which contains completely independent and often wildly deviating suggestions, most of which you guessed came from Prime Video. This includes up to 50 lines of content, each of which is based exclusively on the main actors – no matter how big or small their role is. It really is unnecessary and completely ineffective when it comes to finding content that you are going to love.
Finding meaningful suggestions in Chromecast is intuitive and useful – the direct opposite of the experience offered on the Fire TV Stick. Roku, on the other hand, simply doesn't offer such a feature to find related content.
One final thing to note here is the implementation of watch lists, another feature that the Roku lacks. Both Fire TV and Chromecast offer it, but for some reason Amazon isn't always available as a storage option for content you come across. We'd say it's available about seven times out of ten, but we couldn't find a rhyme or reason for the absence.
The Google watchlist not only provides Amazon with the storage options that are always available, but is also of paramount importance for integration into your Google search. When you google a show or movie, you can easily add it to your watchlist at the top of the results when you are signed in to your Google account. It'll instantly appear on your Chromecast watchlist – a feature I really enjoy now and which I'm sure to love even more when I get out of the house.
Each of these streaming sticks do much of the same basic things. As we just discussed, of course, some do better. However, there are a few features that set them apart and these may define their usefulness to you.
Additional functions of Google Chromecast
The standout feature of Google's Chromecast is without a doubt the ability to stream content directly to your TV from a phone, tablet, or computer through a variety of compatible apps. In fact, it was the only feature on Chromecast, and after more than seven years of development, it has put together an impressive list of compatible apps. Basically, almost any app that you use to listen to music or watch videos can be streamed from your phone to the Chromecast. On computers, the Google Chrome browser does this job. This is a feature that neither the Fire TV Stick nor the Roku Streaming Stick + can emulate in its seamlessness and wide-ranging compatibility, although Roku comes very close.
You can also use a Nest or Google Home device to turn on your TV and control basic functions with your voice (although Alexa can do this on the Fire TV Stick, of course).
Additional features of the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K
The Fire TV Stick doesn't have much of what the other two don't have. As mentioned earlier, you can turn the TV on and off using an Echo device. Otherwise no other outstanding functions are integrated.
However, it's worth noting that jailbreaking these devices or otherwise looking for ways to install free media services like Kodi is a popular pastime among Fire Stick owners. Such optimizations can and often will affect the reliability of the Fire Sticks. While they are generally easy to fix (resetting to stock), having a Fire Stick with a boot loop is a bit of a pain when problems arise.
Roku Streaming Stick + additional functions
Roku's trick up his sleeve, like Chromecast's, has to do with streaming from mobile devices. It's Airplay enabled so you can stream music and videos to it or use it as a secondary display for an Apple device. Additionally, you can mirror an Android or Windows computer through Roku, largely emulating what Chromecast can do with your devices. In essence, it has all of the same basics as the Chromecast, albeit a little less streamlined.
You didn't think that during the ongoing streaming wars we could talk about streaming sticks, not missing services, did you?
Again, these three streaming sticks generally cover the same area in terms of major streaming platforms. However, there are a few notable exceptions that, unfortunately, can make or break a particular device for you.
Google Chromecast missing services
The never-ending war of attrition between Apple and Google continues as new devices and new services emerge. In this case, Apple TV + is the service you can't get on a Google Chromecast, but which you can stream through your computer's Chrome browser. This might not be a big deal for anyone who isn't interested in the original movies, shows, and documentaries that Apple produces, but the fact that they're available on the Fire TV Stick and Roku makes it all the more frustrating. As with Apple TV +, most other minor omissions can be made up by streaming from a compatible mobile device.
Amazon Fire Stick TV missing services
The Fire Stick currently lacks NBCUniversal's free streaming service Peacock TV, which excludes free access to all NBC shows and many Universal Studios films. As one of the few free services that offers some major titles, this is a pretty difficult omission. An agreement is expected to be reached at some point, but there is little indication of the timing.
In addition, in practice you feel like you are browsing just one platform – Prime Video. Of course, you can go straight to the apps that you know have the content you are looking for. As we discussed earlier, this essentially defeats the purpose of a streaming stick (as compared to a smart TV) by significantly reducing the effectiveness of quality content that you will actually enjoy.
Roku Streaming Stick + missing services
Roku just got access to HBO Max, which was a pretty big loophole for both companies over a period of several months. However, with this addition, Roku has all of the big names you're looking for. And like the Chromecast, it can compensate for minor omissions via Airplay and Android or Windows screen mirroring.
Live TV and premium channels
You can watch live news, shows and sporting events on all three devices through various TV network apps and league partnerships (e.g. Comedy Central, TBS, ABC, NBA, MLB and ESPN).
The Fire TV has a "Live" page – one that Roku and Chromecast don't – that even has a channel guide. It's a bit of a misnomer, however, as the site consists mostly of the apps mentioned above and the channel guide is entirely from IMDbTV, a free streaming platform that offers movies and shows. While IMDbTV isn't available on Chromecast or Roku devices, you can always stream it from a compatible mobile device to either device. (Regardless, it's not true live TV anyway.)
Enlarge /. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, always a winner. And in the Great Streaming Stick Wars of 2021 ™, the winner is …
Winner: Google Chromecast with Google TV
In the end, competition between similar devices with almost identical functions and similarly low prices was not too tight. In almost all areas, the Chromecast with Google TV proved to be more effective, more user-friendly and looked better than the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K or the Streaming Stick + from Roku.
Google does an excellent job of turning up quality content that piques your interest. Its algorithms seem to take quality and relationship into account, and pick up on more nuanced issues that ultimately produce better results. For example, "Dysfunctional Family Comedies" is a category offered by Google that focuses on a narrower aspect than "Comedies" alone. Again and again, Google's recommendations have a high success rate in every category.
In connection with the almost universal device compatibility, the Chromecast is hard to beat. And at $ 50, it blows past the Fire TV Stick and Roku devices, which are offered for the same price (though the Amazon and Roku devices are often on sale). In fact, the new Chromecast seems to be one of the best streaming experiences out there at any cost. I am certainly wondering what else I need my Apple TV for.
Listing image by Corey Gaskin