As streaming services have exploded in popularity over the past decade, the demand for access on every screen in the home has quickly grown with it.
While smartphones, tablets and PCs are well covered thanks to their access to an app store or web browser, it was easy for non-smart TVs to quickly feel out of date.
TVs which only had access to broadcast television could quickly feel limiting, particularly as they are typically updated far less frequently than other devices.
This is where media streamers have come in. They mean almost any TV or monitor can become a smart TV, provided it has an HDMI port. Streaming sticks in particular are incredibly portable, offering smart functionality in a compact package.
In this article, we will compare three of the most popular you can buy: Amazon’s Fire TV Stick, Google’s Chromecast and the Roku Streaming Stick.
Don’t want to read our full comparison? Skip to the verdict.
Which devices are available and how much do they cost?
All three company’s lineups have evolved significantly since the first streaming sticks, with most of the original devices now discontinued.
Google has kept its lineup very simple: the regular Chromecast costs £30, while you’ll pay £69 for a Chromecast Ultra.
The high-end model bumps up the resolution to stunning 4K HDR as opposed to 1080p. You should only get this variant if your TV supports it, but it might be worth considering if you plan on upgrading your TV at a later date.
Amazon also has just two choices of Fire TV Stick. The regular 1080p model costs £39.99, but you’ll pay just £49.99 for the 4K-enabled version.
Both models now have an Alexa-enabled voice remote, making the resolution it supports the major deciding factor.
Roku has three options to choose from. Its Express model is the cheapest device across all three providers, offering 1080p resolution for just £29.99. Roku Premiere offers 4K HDR for £39.99, while the main advantages with the £49.99 Streaming Stick+ is increased wireless range and enhanced remote.
However, adding TV power and volume controls brings the remote in line with the Fire TV Stick, so pricing is very similar.
All the companies also support streaming boxes, but we’re focusing on the affordable end of the market in this comparison.
Do they come pre-installed on other devices?
In short, yes. Google is leading the way in this regard, with Chromecast built-in to the majority of modern smart TVs. Check out the full guide to TVs with Chromecast built-in here.
You’ll probably have seen the Chromecast icon in a variety of different mobile apps too, as streaming is possible from any device that’s on the same Wi-Fi network. Just look out for something like you see below.
There’s a growing number of Fire TV Edition TVs cropping up too, with the likes of Toshiba, Insignia and PVC heavily investing in Amazon’s software. They’re also making their way into soundbars, with the Anker Nebula we reviewed among the highlights. This is a perfect solution if you’re looking to boost sound output and provide smart functionality at the same time.
Roku recently released its very first TV in the UK. A partnership with HiSense, this 4K HDR set comes in four different sizes, ranging from 43in to 65in. They’re relatively affordable, too, with the largest model still only costing £649.
With a number of smart TVs delivering a below-par user experience on the software side, it’s great to see Google, Amazon and Roku offering integrated TV solutions.
How do you control them?
The Fire TV sticks are both controlled wirelessly via the included remote. This is pretty simple and easy to use, and Amazon can walk you through each setting if you’re unsure.
Both of the latest remotes have Alexa support too, thanks to the built-in microphone on the remote.
It’s a similar story with the Roku remote, but voice search is only available on the Enhanced remote. All remotes have dedicated buttons for Netflix, Sling, Hulu and Starz, all of which are very popular in Roku’s native US.
The free Roku mobile app acts as a hybrid between Amazon and Google’s approach, allowing you to use your device to control any Roku stick on the same network, as well as acting as a virtual remote.
The Chromecast is controlled almost exclusively via a smartphone, tablet or laptop. As mentioned above, Chromecast is integrated into a wide variety of mobile apps, while on desktop we’d recommend adding the Cast button to your Google Chrome toolbar for maximum convenience.
This might make it harder to avoid the potential distractions of social media, but does mean you won’t have to worry about yet another remote. Settings can easily be managed via the Google Home app, which also serves as a hub for all your smart home devices.
However, there might be a way to integrate Chromecast controls into your regular TV remote. See the article by Chrome Unboxed for how it’s done.
Which streaming services can you get?
It’s unlikely that you’ll be disappointed by the services on any of the three platforms, with big hitters such as Netflix, YouTube, Prime Video and BBC iPlayer available regardless of which service you choose. However, there are a few inconsistencies between the three, which might have a big impact on which one you go with. See the table below for the full comparison.
|Fire TV Stick||Chromecast||Roku|
|Amazon Prime Video||Yes||Yes||Yes|
What other features are available?
The Roku Mobile app has lots of useful features in addition to controlling your TV. It provides an easy way to listen in private, as you’ll just have to connect headphones to your phone.instead of your whole TV. It also offers the ability to display your photo gallery on the big screen, similar to what Samsung offers with its Smart View app.
The Chromecast and Fire TV stick also can be controlled via your smart speaker, by virtue of Amazon and Google being the major players in this area. Roku has released a Smart Soundbar with its assistant built-in, but the entry point is nothing like as affordable.
A Fire TV stick is your best bet if you’d like to play games, with well known mobile games including Crossy Road, Asphalt 8: Airborne and The Chase all playable on your TV.
The selection on the Chromecast is more limited, although you can enjoy Angry Birds Go and Just Dance Now, while it crucially has support for Google Stadia.
On Roku, you’ll be taking a trip back in time, with its game lineup headlined by the likes of Snake and Tetris.
However, the fact of the matter is you probably won’t be buying any of these devices for their gaming prowess.
All three of the major streaming sticks are incredibly capable, so there’s not much to tell them apart in 2020. All offer similarly high level picture and audio quality for an affordable price, although the Chromecast Ultra will set you back a bit more than its competitors.
However, if we had to choose we’d give the edge to Roku. They offer three streamers, all of which offer excellent value for money. It might not have all the bells and whistles of the likes of the Fire TV Stick, but everything you need will probably be here.
It offers flexibility between a remote and mobile app, both of which are genuinely useful in a number of scenarios. There’s also an unrivalled range of apps, with the total number into the thousands.
If you already heavily lean on Amazon or Google services, the Fire TV Stick or Chromecast might make more sense for you. In reality, all three are excellent media streamers, and you’re unlikely to be disappointed regardless of which one you buy.