This post has been updated to include information about the new Amazon Fire TV Stick, Google Chromecast Ultra, and 5 Roku box models announced in September and October 2016. I haven’t had a chance to use them yet, so some information is based on published specs and features.
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 previous versions of all four of the players I’m talking about here 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.
- When I discuss which content providers the players support below, note that many of these require you to pay additional fees or to have a cable or satellite TV subscription to be able to access the content.
- 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 players in the streaming media space, 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
The Fire TV comes in three flavors: box, stick, and gaming edition.
The Fire TV box supports 4K Ultra HD video, has an Ethernet port for a wired Internet connection, a USB port for extra app storage, performance enhancements, and a larger library of supported apps than the stick. Its remote 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.
The Fire TV stick, announced in the fall of 2016, now includes the same voice remote as the box, but doesn’t have some of the additional features like USB and Ethernet ports. The Fire TV Gaming Edition is the Fire TV box with a gaming console.
Although the Amazon Fire TV app store seems to list more apps than the Roku has channels, a very large number of these are games. It does support the Big Three of entertainment services—Netflix, Hulu and, of course, Amazon Video— as well as HBO GO/HBO NOW, Showtime Anytime/Showtime Now, Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, PBS/PBS Kids, WatchESPN, and YouTube among others.
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 providers that only let you watch their shows on those devices—for example, or for displaying non-streaming content, like photos or emails, on your TV. From my experiences, display mirroring is definitely still in the early technology phase and can be very unreliable.
You can mirror the screens from compatible Fire tablets and Android devices to your Fire TV.
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). Note: Even though the Fire TV box has a USB port, that is only for additional memory; you cannot use it to play media from your computer or other devices.
My Two Cents
I love my Fire TV Stick. (I also have the box, but don’t use it as often.) I 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 and the Fire TV’s interface is especially well-designed for these services. (Like how the Apple TV/iTunes ecosystem works so well together.)
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 want a dedicated gaming system like Playstation or Xbox
Roku has the most models available of the four companies with six current models (5 boxes and 1 stick) and several older ones that you can still purchase at Amazon. This lets people decide what tradeoffs they want to make between price and features. For example, the new top-of-the-line Roku Ultra, announced in October 2016, 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 to do 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). This is the only current model among all the Big Four companies that can be used with non-HDTVs.
The Roku’s biggest advantage over the competition is the number of content channels they support—more than 3,500 at the moment, including movies, TV, music, and games. It’s the only one besides Amazon’s own devices that supports Amazon Video and it also offers a wealth of niche programming.
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, I recently discovered a private channel for iTunes podcasts.
The only major content providers that Roku doesn’t support are iTunes and Apple Music.
The display mirroring feature is currently available with the Roku Streaming Stick and they’ve announced they will be rolling it out to the Premiere, Premiere+, and Ultra boxes in a future software update. You can mirror compatible Android and Amazon Fire devices to a Roku stick and, unlike the Fire TV, you can also mirror a Windows 8.1 or Windows 10 PC screen to it.
Here, again, Roku is one of the better options because it has channels for a number of personal media servers, including Plex, one of the best-known. It 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
List Price: $149 (32GB), $199 (64GB)
The current Apple TV was announced in the fall of 2015. At the moment, there’s no indication that a new model will be coming in 2016. At the time, there was some surprise that it did not include support for 4K video, which the new-at-that-time Amazon Fire TV and the Roku 4 had both added. It’s even more surprising that there’s been no indication of a new model for 2016, since the competitors have now also added models that support both 4K and HDR video, including the new Chromecast Ultra. (They have, however, discontinued the previous version of the player.)
The major new features that were added in 2015 were the touchpad remote that can also be used as a motion controller, integration with Apple’s Siri voice assistant, and a new dedicated app store.
The Apple TV obviously supports all things Apple and iTunes: music, movies and TV, and podcasts. It also supports most of the major TV streaming services including both the paid standalone and free cable-subscription-requiring versions of HBO and Showtime as well as ESPN, Disney and PBS’s offerings. The biggest missing one is Amazon Video.
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.
Other than Apple-based media, there’s no real option for accessing your personal media collection on the Apple TV. Thanks to T4L reader Eric for pointing out that the Plex media server app is also available for 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 iPhone or iPad to your TV. That would be the only reason to justify paying a huge price premium for a device that lacks what has now become standard features in other players (4K, HDR).
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
In October 2016, Google announced an addition to its line of Chromecast devices. So now, in addition to the standard Chromecast, they have the Chromecast Ultra, which supports 4K and HDR video. It also comes with an Ethernet adapter so you can connect the player directly to your router.
What makes the Chromecasts 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 possibly some others.
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 with the Amazon Fire Stick just a few dollars more, 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. If I had to choose just one, I’d probably go with the Fire TV Stick but, again, that’s because I’ve got a lot going on in the Amazon universe and I don’t need any of the extra features that come with the box.
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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