This post has been updated to include information about new product models introduced in the fall of 2017 by Amazon, Roku, and Apple.
Every now and then I get a question from a reader asking me which streaming media player they should buy. This is a very difficult question to answer for a lot of reasons, but mainly because it really depends on how you’re planning to use the device.
While I’ve put together a comparison chart that directly compares multiple features of the four most popular players—Amazon Fire TV, Roku, Apple TV, and Google Chromecast—it doesn’t really delve deeply into how those features map to different TV viewer habits. So that’s what I hope to do with this post.
Before I get into the specifics of each of the four players, here are a few additional points to keep in mind.
- I have been using previous versions of all four of the players for years and I find them all to be high-quality products. They’re easy to set up and use, content streams smoothly, etc. If you just want a player to watch Netflix on TV, you really can’t go wrong with any of them. So this post is going to focus on other aspects of the players.
- All devices in the U.S. support Netflix, Hulu, Crackle, FilmStruck, Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, DIRECTV NOW, Hulu Live TV, HBO, SHOWTIME, PBS, PBS Kids, WatchDisney, WatchESPN, FOX NOW, Telemundo Deportes EN VIVO, YouTube, Plex, and Pandora (some of these may require additional fees or a cable/satellite TV subscription to be able to access the content). So in the descriptions of each player, I’ll only mention those content providers they support in addition to this list and popular ones they don’t support that the other players do.
- When I say that a device doesn’t support something, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some enterprising developer or enthusiast somewhere who has come up with some kind of hack/workaround to the problem. I’m talking about what’s standard—either available right out of the box or fairly easy to find and use.
- While these are the four major streaming player manufacturers, there are many more devices that you can also use to stream content from the Internet including gaming consoles, set-top boxes, and smart TVs.
- The Streaming Media Frequently Asked Questions post answers a lot of, well, frequently asked questions that apply to all the devices.
Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick
Models (List Price)
The Fire TV comes in two flavors: box and stick.
The Fire TV box supports 4K Ultra HD and HDR video (https://techforluddites.com/tv-tech) and has an attached HDMI cable so it hangs down from the HDMI port on your TV (Amazon refers to this format as a pendant). The Fire TV Stick, which has not been updated in 2017, supports regular high definition (1080p) video and plugs directly into your TV. The box also has some higher specs for performance, memory, and audio quality.
Both models come with a remote that has a microphone button that lets you do a voice search for videos and other content as well as use some of the capabilities of Alexa, Amazon’s cloud-based voice assistant software.
Note: The 2017 Fire TV box has removed some features from the previous generation (and reduced the price), including a microSD card slot and USB and Ethernet ports, although you can get an adapter for both the box and stick to allow you to connect to your router by Ethernet cable.
You can also get Element TVs that have most of the Fire TV capabilities built into them.
The box and stick support all the same providers, including Amazon Video and Music, Spotify, and PlayOn, which is software that allows you to record streaming media. They do not support FandangoNOW, Google Play, YouTube TV, VUDU, iTunes, or Apple Music.
Amazon Prime members can get another benefit for the Fire TV. You can subscribe to more than a hundred streaming channels, including HBO, SHOWTIME, STARZ, and ACORN TV, through your Amazon account.These usually have an additional fee but the benefit is that you can reduce the number of separate accounts you have to manage plus the movies and programs from those channels can be mixed in with your Amazon watchlist, search results, and more.
There are also hundreds of game apps available for the players and you can get a separate gaming console for those that need one to play them.
Display or screen mirroring is the ability to send whatever is on your computer, tablet, or phone’s screen to your TV (computer/mobile device must also support mirroring). This feature is helpful for content that is restricted to those devices or for displaying non-streaming content, like photos or emails, on your TV.
You can mirror the screens from compatible Fire tablets and Android devices to your Fire TV Stick, but it is another one of the features that Amazon has removed from the 2017 box model. 🙁
A lot of people aren’t only interested in streaming media from the Internet; they also want to be able to share photos, videos, and music from their computers or mobile devices to their TV. There are several services that provide this functionality; the best-known is probably Plex. (Note that you may need to purchase additional software for these applications.)
The Fire TV has a Plex app and a few others that I’m not familiar with. Also, you can access any content you store in the Amazon Cloud (and the device comes with free storage for all Amazon content).
My Two Cents
I love my Fire TV Stick and would consider it my default device. That’s mainly because I get a lot of my video content from Amazon’s own library and have most of my music stored on the Amazon cloud. Not surprisingly, the Fire TV’s interface is especially well-designed for these services. (Like how the Apple TV/iTunes ecosystem works so well together.) I have yet to try out the new Fire TV box, but would only recommend it over the stick if you have a 4K/HDR TV and access to content in those formats, especially since the stick has display mirroring capabilities, which I think is a great feature.
I think the only thing I can complain about my Fire TV Stick is that the Home button on the remote is mixed in with the navigation buttons and I’m frequently kicking myself out of whatever I’m watching/listening to by accident.
The Amazon Fire TV streaming media player is best for someone who:
- Is heavily invested in the Amazon ecosystem of devices and content
- Doesn’t need all the extra niche entertainment channels provided by the Roku
- Wants to play games but doesn’t need a dedicated gaming system like Playstation or Xbox
Models (List Price)
Roku has the most models available of the four companies with five current models (3 boxes and 2 sticks). This lets people decide what tradeoffs they want to make between price and features. For example, the top-of-the-line Roku Ultra supports 4K and HDR video and is the only model with a voice search option on the remote (the Roku mobile app can be used for voice search on other models). And the lowest-level version, the Roku Express, has a variant called the Express+ for an extra $10, which lets you use the device with older TVs that don’t have HDMI ports but do have composite ports (yellow/red/white connectors). In fact, this is the only current model among all the Big Four companies that can be used with non-HDTVs.
You can also get TVs from several manufacturers that have Roku features built into them.
The Roku’s biggest advantage over the competition is the number of content channels they support, including movies, TV, music, and games, partly because they are the only manufacturer of the Big Four that doesn’t also have its own video content. So it supports both Amazon Video and Google Play Video, while Amazon’s player doesn’t support Google’s content and vice versa. The only major content providers that Roku doesn’t support are iTunes and Apple Music.
In addition to all the official channels they have listed on their website, there are also hundreds of private channels that third-party developers have built using the Roku platform. For example, there’s a private channel for iTunes podcasts.
After removing display mirroring from the previous generation of players, Roku seems to have discovered the error of their ways :). All the current models now let you mirror compatible Android and Amazon Fire devices as well as Windows 8.1 and Windows 10 PC screens to them.
Roku has built-in channels for a number of personal media servers, including Plex, one of the best-known. The Roku Ultra also has a USB port that you can plug your computer, mobile device, flash drive or external hard drive into to watch your locally stored videos.
My Two Cents
The Roku was my first streaming media player (model 2XS, which still has one of the best combination of features to my mind). I now also have a Roku 3 and Roku stick and I use them almost as often as my Fire TV Stick.
The Roku streaming media player is best for someone who:
- Likes to watch content from a wide variety of sources, including niche providers
- Has a non-HDTV with A/V ports
- Wants to watch personal media they have downloaded to various devices on TV
Models: (List Price)
Apple TV 4K ($179/$199, 32GB/64GB)
In the fall of 2017, Apple introduced a 4K/HDR version of its Apple TV. You can also still get the previous version of the non-4K Apple TV (32GB).
The Apple TV obviously supports all things Apple and iTunes: music, movies and TV, and podcasts. The biggest apps it doesn’t support are Google Play, FandangoNOW, Spotify, Amazon Music, and PlayOn.
Note: Earlier in 2017, Apple announced they would be adding an Amazon Video app to the Apple TV. As I’m updating this post, it still hasn’t arrived but is still expected.
You can cast and mirror content from your iPhone and iPad to your Apple TV using a feature called AirPlay. Of all the various casting and mirroring technologies out there, I’ve found AirPlay to be the easiest to use and the most reliable. I guess that’s the advantage of having a closed ecosystem.
Note: You won’t see this option on your phone/tablet unless you’ve got AirPlay turned on in your Apple TV settings.
The Plex media server app is available for the Apple TV, plus you can watch content from your iTunes library on the Apple TV.
My Two Cents
I can’t see any reason to buy an Apple TV unless you have a large collection of iTunes videos or want the ability to cast/mirror content from your Mac, iPhone or iPad to your TV. That would be the only reason to justify paying a huge price premium for a device that doesn’t have any other obvious advantages over its competitors.
The Apple TV streaming media player is best for someone who:
- Is heavily invested in the Apple/iTunes ecosystem of devices and content because of the tight integration
Models (List Price)
There are two versions of this player: the standard Chromecast and the Chromecast Ultra, which supports 4K and HDR video. The latter also comes with an Ethernet adapter so you can connect the player directly to your router.
What makes the Chromecast models so different from the other players is that they don’t come with a remote and there’s no on-screen interface. Instead, you send content from Chromecast-supported apps on your Android or iOS mobile device or from a Chrome browser to your TV and you use the apps/browser controls themselves to control the stream.
It’s difficult to find a complete list of Chromecast apps but you can browse and search for them here. You can also use the Google Cast app on your mobile device to identify apps you already have that can be sent to your TV as well as to find other ones you may be interested in. The Chromecast doesn’t support Amazon or Apple apps, but in their place it has the Google Play library of content.
Another advantage of the Chromecast is that it lets you cast anything from a Chrome browser tab to your TV.
You can mirror compatible Android device screens to your Chromecast using the Google Cast app and mirror your PC screen using a Chrome browser. You can cast some apps from a Fire tablet to a Chromecast, but unfortunately Netflix isn’t one of them.
There’s a Plex app for Chromecast and you can use display mirroring to watch content stored on our computer or mobile device as well.
My Two Cents
I don’t use my Chromecast much at all, mainly because I like the old-school way of watching TV with an on-screen interface and remote. From my point of view, the Chromecast used to be the obvious option when you just wanted to watch Netflix or Hulu on TV (or a specific app unique to Chromecast) because the price difference was so great between it and the Roku and Apple TV. But now that Amazon and Roku have less expensive models, there aren’t a lot of instances where Chromecast would be the best option for people like me.
However, for people who use their phone or tablet all the time and are constantly using one app or another, the Chromecast is a very convenient way to send it to your TV without needing to find a remote and search through lists of apps and content.
The Google Chromecast streaming media player is best for someone who:
- Is heavily invested in the Google/Android ecosystem of devices and content
- Just wants to be able to cast whatever app they’re currently using to the TV, rather than working through a player’s TV interface
So those are my thoughts on why you might prefer one player over another. For people just starting out with streaming players who don’t care about 4K/HDR video, I think the Fire TV stick and Roku streaming stick give you the most bang for your buck. Otherwise, you’ll need to figure out which features are most important to you. And if you want capabilities that aren’t all available on a single player, you can always buy more than one! 🙂
Got anything you’d like to add to this post about which players are best for whom? Let us know in the comments!
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