You don’t need a smart TV to watch content on streaming services. But you do need a device that connects to the internet so you can watch content on streaming services. That’s where a smart device comes in. You may have heard of Roku, Fire TV, Chromecast, and a few others, and here we will compare the popular ones to hopefully ease the confusion.
Roku is the most popular streaming device on the market, and it’s the one I generally recommend to the most people. Roku wasn’t the first to market a smart TV device, but they were associated with Netflix in the early days of their “watch instantly” streaming service back in 2008, back when few were looking for a streaming device. Now the device supports much more than just Netflix, and even has their own Roku Channel full of free and premium content.
There aren’t many services Roku doesn’t support, notably HBO Max was the big holdout when it launched, but has been on the platform for some time now. At the moment there is a YouTube TV dispute where the service was taken off the Roku, but we’ll see how long that goes on. Other than that, everything else I use is on Roku.
Even better is the variety of Rokus fit for all needs. For those who just want a basic device, there’s the $30 Roku Express. Jumping up to the $40 Premiere gives you 4K in the same Express body. The $50 Streaming Stick+ offers 4K, a faster processor, a remote with TV power and volume buttons and voice commands, all in a package that hides behind your TV. The $99 Ultra offers the fastest processor, better 4K HDR support, a remote with a headphone jack, and an Ethernet port for those who desire wired internet. Plus, the Roku can be bought integrated as a soundbar, and Roku even partners with many TV manufacturers as Roku TVs, notably TCL.
If you are just looking to buy a device, it doesn’t hurt to opt for the fastest model, but the Streaming Stick+ will do just fine for most people. The Express and Premiere are best for secondary rooms as the lower speed processor may be too slow for some.
Bottom line: You can’t go wrong with a Roku. The Roku has few services it doesn’t support, and the widest variety of hardware to fit your specific needs.
Amazon gave Roku some good competition with its line of Fire TV devices in 2014. Much like the Amazon Fire tablets’ main selling point being its low price, the same can be said for the Fire TV line. That low price does mean Amazon will push its own services and content first, but it isn’t too obnoxious. Fire TV is at its best when you live in an Amazon ecosystem, as it can be controlled with Alexa, show who’s at your Ring door bell, present your Amazon Photos, and play your Amazon Music and Prime Video. Even if you aren’t a Prime subscriber, it still supports the major streaming services.
The Amazon Fire TV comes in a few different models, so you have less to think about than with Roku. The $30 Fire TV Stick Lite is the basic model that includes the Alexa voice command remote. It’s worth it to note you have to pay $40 to get the voice command on Roku. The $40 Fire TV Stick includes the Alexa remote with TV power and volume buttons, and has a faster processor. The $50 Fire TV Stick 4K offers the higher 4K resolution with a faster processor. Plus, there’s the Fire TV Cube, which adds an Alexa speaker for hands-free TV commands with the Fire TV as well as the fastest processor, higher storage, and 4K for $119. And, just like Roku, there are several manufacturers that sell TVs with the Fire TV OS built-in, called Fire TV Edition.
Amazon also sells the Fire TV Recast, a smart TV tuner with a DVR that allows you to watch your local over-the-air channels on a Fire TV, iOS, or Android device. It’s easy to setup, works great, and if you have Fire TVs on all of your televisions, the channels show up on the Live tab. The device costs $150 on sale, normally $229.
You’re best off with the fastest device on your main television, but any of the Fire TV Sticks will work fine.
Bottom line: Fire TV is very similar to the Roku. They will both support roughly the same apps, except for some scenarios like the Peacock app not being supported on Fire TV. Fire TV is a great companion with your other Amazon devices and services, but even without them, it’s still a great device.
Back in the day, the Chromecast was the cheapest smart TV device. At $35, the cheapest Roku or Fire TV device was $50, so it was clear the Chromecast was the value leader. Unfortunately for Google, the competitors caught up with the price, and now the Chromecast is kind of an odd device.
It has no remote, so if you want to play something on TV, you have to use your phone, tablet, or computer to cast it to the TV through the app you want to use. This cast feature is seen in many major apps, and even works on other streaming device platforms. If you open the YouTube app, you’ll notice a symbol that looks like a square with a WiFi symbol in the bottom left corner. That button will cast what you are watching to a device, even if that device is a Roku or Fire TV.
There are few Chromecasts to choose from: Chromecast for $30, and Chromecast with Google TV for $50, which I’ll get into later.
Bottom line: If you live in a Google ecosystem, the Chromecast isn’t a bad choice. The lack of remote just makes this device cumbersome to use, but since we’re all on our phones all the time anyway, you might as well use that time to put something on your TV.
Chromecast with Google TV
Google has been attempting to crack the TV streaming world since before the Chromecast’s release in 2013. They tried it with a device in 2012 called the Nexus Q, which had Chromecast-like capabilities but almost zero third-party support, and was quickly discontinued. Then there was Google TV in 2010, which aimed to put Android on your TV, but suffered from an unrefined interface and near zero third-party support. Google has since tried to use Android as a streaming device operating system with limited success. Although the Fire TV uses Android, it contains very little Google software, and the only other devices to use Android for TV were no-name devices. The TiVo Stream 4K and NVidia Shield are the two biggest names in Android TV, and that isn’t saying very much.
This all changes with the Chromecast with Google TV device. Google is rebranding its Android TV name as Google TV, and is using the Chromecast with Google TV as its first first-party device. Other than the terrible name, the software competes really well with Roku and Fire TV, and sets itself apart by helping the user find shows within services.
I’ve been a big fan of Android TV since I bought the TiVo Stream 4K and the TVision Hub mainly because of the Google Play Store. When Peacock and HBO Max weren’t available on Roku and Fire TV for many months, they were available the entire time in the Google Play Store. That leaves a good impression with me.
Bottom line: I love the new software design of Google TV and the fact that carriage disputes will most likely not happen with Google TV. For those who don’t need Alexa, I’d say the Chromecast with Google TV should be higher on your list than Fire TV.
Apple was one of the first large companies to get into a streaming device, way back in 2007. It didn’t support HD, yet it required component cables which was something high end TVs only had at the time. Plus, it only worked with iTunes, so you had to be in the Apple ecosystem. Frankly, it didn’t sell well, and that still remains the case today.
One issue is it’s one of the most expensive streaming devices starting at $150, for just HD. The 4K model starts at $180. It comes with the fanciest remote with Siri voice commands and charging through the same cable iPhone uses. And for the longest time it was the only device to allow wirelessly sharing your iPhone, iPad, or Mac screen.
To create confusion, Apple also has an Apple TV+ streaming service. It has a ton of great content at a great price, however the name makes it sound like you need an Apple TV device, even though Apple TV+ is found on many competitors.
Bottom line: Unless you are very much in the Apple ecosystem, or you like Apple’s privacy and security-first mindset, I really don’t see a reason to spend over $100 on a streaming device that isn’t the NVidia Shield. It has a great slick interface, but I’d argue the Chromecast with Google TV does as well. The NVidia Shield can operate as a Plex Media Server, and simply do more. Yes, the Apple TV has the same A12 SoC as the iPhone XR so it has good graphic performance for games, no gamer would opt for the Apple TV over a console. The Apple TV is a premium device, and although it works very well, I’d suggest you try it first to see if it’s worth the $180 price.
At the end of the day, no matter what you choose, all the devices will support the major services. You may need to make sure the apps you want are available with what you choose, like Spectrum TV, but that doesn’t happen all too often. For the most people, I’d say go with Roku or Fire TV, but Chromecast with Google TV is also one to take a good look at. The regular Chromecast and Apple TV aren’t high on my list, but if they work for you, that’s fine too.