Streaming Stick Showdown: How Different Dongles Measure Up
Google Chromecast, $35
Features we love:
Chromecast’s small form factor and low price created a big ruckus when it launched back in the fall of 2013, even though the content selection was pretty much limited to YouTube and Netflix at that time.
But because it’s relatively easy to add “Cast” support to most iOS and Android apps, the Chromecast library continues to expand quickly and now most of the major video apps are represented – including HBO Go, Showtime Anytime, and Hulu Plus, in addition to YouTube and Netflix.
We also like the experience of browsing for content on our mobile devices, versus scrolling through titles on a big screen – to a certain point. Which brings us to the next section.
Things we’d change:
The thing that we find most compelling about Chromecast is also the thing that drives us nuts: No physical remote. Initially we found the simplicity charming – just a device that catches whatever streams you throw at it from your phone or tablet.
But the lack of remote really backfires when pausing involves fumbling for a smartphone, closing the email you were typing, etc. Back in September I was still quite enamored with the Chromecast. But I got increasingly frustrated as I battled frequent connection issues that caused the transport controls (rewind, pause, etc.) to stop working.
Fortunately, a recent Chromecast update largely resolved this issue, by allowing Chromecast to accept signals from most TV remotes. This uses the same CEC (Consumer Electronics Control) function that allows you to power on your TV and control the volume using Chromecast, only in reverse. It worked like a charm on my Samsung Smart TV, but may not work with all TV models.
As of today, this feature works with almost all the Chromecast-compatible apps – with the big exception of Netflix. No word on when that update will drop (Netflix is often a little slower to build new Chromecast features into its apps), but by incorporating a remote without adding another one to our pile, Chromecast is back in our good graces.
Roku Streaming Stick, $45
Features we love:
Roku is always near the top of nearly every streaming device roundup we’ve posted over the years, mainly because it has the widest variety of content. It still does, and tends to be on the forefront whenever a new app is released.
We also like Roku’s universal search feature, which ties together all the major content sources so that you can search in a single interface.
Things we’d change:
With all its good features, it hurts us to say that the Roku Streaming Stick falls a bit short. It packs considerably less power than the Roku 3 or the Fire TV. Where Roku 3’s WiFi remote is responsive to every button press, the Streaming Stick lags and seems to have difficulty getting signals from the remote (also WiFi) when plugged in to the back of the TV.
Last Spring, we wrote about the Streaming Stick’s issues with DIAL – the process of casting content from Netflix or YouTube to the TV was buggy, and often didn’t work reliably. This is still largely the case, but it’s true for Chromecast too.
Roku is certainly the winner in terms of sheer content, but that might be a dubious honor. Sometimes all that content can be overwhelming, as is definitely the case when I look at all the free niche channels in Roku’s channel store.
Amazon Fire TV Stick, $39
Back in December, Amazon started offering Fire TV in dongle form. It sports a dual-core processor instead of the quad-core found on the larger Fire TV, but we didn’t notice much of a difference. Content between the two devices is the same, other than the $99 version having access to a larger selection of games (probably where that quad-core processor comes in handy.)
Features we love:
Amazon’s Fire TV devices support a bunch of different video services, but do a particularly excellent job of highlighting Amazon’s own video selection (both Prime and additional content to rent or buy.) If you mainly watch Amazon Prime, you’ll enjoy this feature. The Prime content also includes metadata from IMDB, making it easy to browse for other titles that include the same actors or director.
Like Chromecast and the Roku Streaming Stick, Fire TV also allows you to “Cast” content from your phone or tablet – and if you have a premium subscription to Spotify, Fire TV lets you control the music with your phone via Spotify Connect (a feature that is sorely lacking on Chromecast and Roku).
Like all Amazon devices, installation was a breeze. The Fire TV showed up pre-authenticated to the account it was purchased from — you’ll still have to sign in to Netflix, Showtime, and the other services on the box, but you can start watching video right out of the box.
And like Roku, Amazon also offers a (nearly) universal search feature. You can search across Amazon and other services like Showtime and Hulu Plus – just not Netflix. Which brings us to the next section:
Things we’d change:
If you like to get your content from multiple sources, the Amazon-focused UI on the Fire TV can be a bit over-the-top (see what I did there?). Most of the screen space is devoted to layers upon layers of Amazon content, with the other services jammed into a single row.
Netflix titles are conspicuously absent both from the search feature and the IMDB recommendations, which is annoying, if somewhat understandable. Sure, Amazon would probably prefer that I pay $2.99 for an episode of Mad Men instead of watching it on Netflix at no extra charge – but I wouldn’t.
Also worth considering, if you’re a premium cable subscriber in the market for a new streaming device: While all three devices have apps for HBO Go and Showtime Anytime, not all of them will let you sign in. If you’re a Comcast or Charter subscriber, you won’t be able to watch Showtime or HBO on your Fire TV until they strike a deal – and in the case of Roku, that process took years.
So which dongle is our favorite?
We get this question a lot, but it’s never an easy one to answer. The Fire TV stick is currently getting the most screen time in my farm lab, and at the lab-lab, and at Leslie’s house – but the Roku Streaming Stick still has a solid content selection. Chromecast was falling short, but controlling it with the TV remote is a game-changer. One thing we know for sure is that these services and devices can look very different in a year, or a few months. Stay tuned for our next update.
Another Device on the Lab Bench: Amazon Fire TV
One more device showed up in the lab recently, once again filling up the shelf space we so recently decluttered. Joining the ranks of Roku, Apple TV, and Chromecast is the long-awaited new streaming device from Amazon: Fire TV.
Fire TV’s hardware is a small box, a bit slimmer than an Apple TV but with a slightly larger footprint – not the dongle form that some early reports predicted.
Fire TV has 2 GB of RAM, roughly 4 times that of Apple TV, and a 1.7GHz quad-core Qualcomm CPU (which in theory should make it about 3x faster). While both devices are plenty fast for the moment, we did notice that Fire TV’s UI is extremely responsive, with no noticeable lag when responding to button presses on the remote. It makes quick work of scrolling through a bunch of titles, and stops scrolling immediately when you take your thumb off the button – I found myself “overshooting” a lot less on Fire TV than the other devices.
The remote control is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch. With 8 buttons plus a directional pad, it falls in between Apple TV and Roku on the button tally. It’s simple yet functional, and the size is just right – it doesn’t disappear into my hand (and the couch cushions) like Apple TV’s, and it doesn’t feel overly thick and chunky like Roku’s. The voice search button is well-placed, and actually works (more on that in a bit).
Fire TV also has 8 GB of internal storage, and works with Bluetooth gaming controllers for casual gaming. We’ve yet to try this out, but the buzz is that while it’s a solid effort, it won’t be competing with game consoles like the Xbox One anytime soon.
When we started up the Fire TV, a cartoon man immediately launched into a very thorough explanation of how to use our new device. While this might well be helpful for someone new to streaming devices, I always like to jump in and start exploring right away, so I found this really grating. Especially when I pressed the home button, thinking I could bypass the video, and the enthusiastic cartoon spiel started over from the beginning.
Once we finally got past the intro video, Fire TV has a pretty nice user interface (UI), with (of course) a big emphasis on titles offered through Amazon. The home screen intersperses Amazon titles with other apps such as Hulu and Netflix, and has a section at the top for titles and apps that you’ve accessed recently.
I did find myself wishing that I could filter some of the categories to only display content offered for free through Amazon Prime – though it’s not hard to imagine why Amazon might not want to do this. Leslie also commented that the menu items in the left pane of the home screen were hard to read when not selected, and in fact I could barely get them to show up when snapping photos of the UI.
Fire TV’s virtual keyboard is right up there with Apple TV, using shortcut buttons to switch keyboards (CAPS, special characters, etc.) so that I don’t have to scroll all over the place to put in a password.
Fire TV also wins the prize for best screensaver, knocking Chromecast’s pretty pictures out of the way with some stunning photos and a nice “Ken Burns” effect.
Voice recognition technology is finally getting to the point where it works pretty well (with the exception of Siri, who doesn’t understand a word I say.) Fire TV is no exception – just say a title or actor while holding down the microphone button at the top of the remote, and it’ll pull up a list of related content.
In our tests, it recognized speech correctly about 99% of the time. However, at launch there was something notably missing with the voice search function – content from providers other than Amazon. This is changing; Hulu content is already appearing in voice search at the time of this writing — though when I searched for The Daily Show, I had to wade through several seasons of “unavailable” episodes to get to the more recent episodes that are currently on Hulu.
Clearly there are still some kinks to work out. Showtime and Crackle are integrating their catalogs with Fire TV’s voice search in the coming months, but we haven’t heard any word on Netflix yet.
If you’re self conscious about talking to your devices, you can also do a text search on Fire TV. However, for some reason Amazon doesn’t use their excellent virtual keyboard here – instead you have the painful process of scrolling through a single row of letters and numbers.
Fire TV also uses DIAL for its “second screen” experience, allowing you to control the video from a compatible mobile device and read more information about what you’re watching using Amazon’s “X-Ray” feature. However, this is currently only true for Kindle Fire HD and HDX devices – our earlier Kindle Fire doesn’t give us the option to send video to the Fire TV, nor do any of our iOS devices. Amazon says that the second screen feature will be coming to more Android and iOS devices at some point in the future, but with all the DIAL-compatible devices in our lab it seems a bit short-sighted to not have that functionality working right out of the box.
We like Fire TV for its interface and responsiveness, and think it has a lot of potential. It does an excellent job of highlighting Amazon’s own content, but we’re looking forward to a more unified search experience and being able to take advantage of the second-screen features on more devices. At this point we’d have a hard time recommending Fire TV (at $99) over Roku ($50-100) or Chromecast ($35) as an all-around streamer, but it’s a great choice for anyone getting most of their streaming video from Amazon.