By Ryan Waniata


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Streaming sticks and compact dongles used to exist solely as low-budget alternatives to bigger, better, and more powerful set-top boxes. Nowadays, though, these tiny little tech marvels can often perform the same tasks as their larger brethren, but at more manageable prices (and sizes).

Google, Roku, and Amazon are the biggest players in this market, with each touting signature streamers at reasonable rates that are packed full of desirable features. But which one is best? Google’s hockey-puck-shaped Chromecast and Chromecast Ultra are monsters of their respective domains. Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K isn’t too shabby either, and both Roku options — the Streaming Stick+ and the Roku Premiere — have plenty of streaming muscle.

We decided to pit them all against one another in the categories that matter most, from ease of use to price and features. Take a look to see which streamer should win your heart (and your wallet).

Film buff? Once you’ve officially opted for a streaming device, take a look at our guides to the best Netflix movies, the best movies on Hulu, and the best movies on Amazon Prime.

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Google Chromecast (2nd generation)

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Google Chromecast Ultra

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Roku Streaming Stick+

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Roku Premiere

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Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K

Price$30$69$70$40$50
Video1080p4K UHD4K UHD4K UHD4K UHD
Dedicated remoteNoNoYesYesYes
Controller appAndroid, iOS, MacOS, Windows, Chrome OSAndroid, iOS, MacOS, Windows, Chrome OSAndroid, iOS, Windows Phone, BB10Android, iOS, Windows Phone, BB10Android, iOS
Voice searchYes, via Home appYes, via Home appYesYesYes, via app or remote
Cross-platform searchLimitedLimitedYesYesLimited
DT ReviewYesYesYesYesYes
Available hereBest Buy, Various retailersBest Buy, Various retailers
Amazon, RokuAmazon, RokuAmazon

Ease of use

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Even though they let you access the same content, the Chromecast and Chromecast Ultra function quite differently than the other devices. Since Chromecasts use your mobile device or computer to “cast” content to your TV, they’re devoid of a traditional menu-based user interface, a remote control, and onboard storage. In fact, in a world of smart devices, the Chromecast is perhaps the dumbest of them all.

But when it comes to simplicity and ease of use, that’s a very good thing. Chromecast devices leave all the smarts to your device, simply acting as a conduit through which your TV can access content. Find what you want to watch or listen to on your personal device, “cast” it at the Chromecast with the tap of a button and, voil, it’s on your TV. That includes any content you can put on a Chrome browser window, i.e., anything on the web. It’s not that the other options here are complex — in fact, they’re all quite manageable — but the Chromecast takes the top spot here.

Winner: Chromecast, Chromecast Ultra

Processing power

Amazon tech deals Fire TV with 4K Ultra HD and Alexa Voice Remote

Well, technology moves fast, so the winner in this category is generally the most recently released product. As of our most recent update, that would be the Roku Premiere and the Fire TV Stick 4K, but as the Fire TV Stick 4K packs a bit more punch, that’s our pick. Moving on!

Winner: Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K

Games

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Sure, the Roku devices will let you play Angry Birds and a handful of other cute games, but the Fire TV Stick 4K has access to a huge library of more advanced titles (like Machinarium and Minecraft). These games are highly appealing to casual gamers and represent more than just a novelty. Chromecast’s games are fine, but you won’t find much to please the console crowd. Most are multiplayer party titles such as Risk, Scrabble, and Monopoly. Amazon recently dropped support for its own game controller in newer models, but you’ll find third-party solutions if you really want to get your game on with your Fire TV Stick 4K.

Winner: Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K

App library

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Caleb Denison/Digital Trends

When it comes to the sheer number of available apps (not counting games), the Roku devices, with access to thousands of apps (or channels, as Roku calls them), win by a landslide. You can also use the official Roku app to select content on your smartphone.

Chromecast apps (“Cast Enabled” apps) also number in the thousands now, but support for the casting platform between PC, Android, and iOS devices varies, which can be frustrating. The good news is that, unlike Roku and Amazon Fire TV, any Android or iOS app can be Cast-enabled if the developer chooses, making for an ever-growing selection. But Chromecast still can’t natively play Amazon Prime Instant Video due to the ongoing war between the two megacorps. All of this to say, Roku is still king of app mountain.

Winner: Roku Premiere, Roku Streaming Stick+

User interface

We’ve owned one Roku device or another for the last several years but also have put some serious time into testing Fire TV set-top boxes and streaming sticks. As we’ve now come to use both the Roku and Fire TV interfaces regularly, this has become a tough call to make. The Roku interface is extremely user-friendly — some might even call it “bubbly” — whereas the Amazon Fire TV interface has a little more techno-flash, yet is still very able to take care of business. We enjoy using both for different reasons, and neither is significantly better than the other by any objective measurement, so we’re calling this one a draw.

While Chromecast does have a lot of functionality via the Home app, it doesn’t really have a traditional user interface, per se. Instead, you’ll be navigating apps and content libraries through your phone, tablet, or PC. While that does technically put it behind the other devices, as long as you’re comfortable with your casting device of choice, Chromecast is incredibly simple.

Winner: Roku Premiere, Roku Streaming Stick+, and Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K (tie)

Search

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Caleb Denison/Digital Trends

When it comes to finding what to watch, where to watch it, and how much (if anything) it will cost you, the Roku devices win. They can search through text or voice, whether you use the remote or the mobile app, across a vast channel library.

For its part, Amazon forces you to use voice search, with no text-based option available. That means Fire TV Stick users have to use either their smartphone or spend an extra $10 to get the voice search-enabled remote that comes free with the Fire TV set-top box. That said, consistent updates have made Fire TV a serious contender here, with Amazon bragging that it has the “broadest cross-provider search of any streaming media player.” Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa also now allows users to say things like “rewind 20 seconds” for more attuned searching, and the system will also show you where the video you want can be found. Still, Roku is more transparent in its search about cost, while Amazon tries to push its own product a bit too much.

Google Chromecast devices include both text and voice search, which put them ahead of Amazon purely because of the broader search choices. Like the Fire TV, however, Chromecast search favors content from certain apps and services, especially proprietary ones. So, unless you’re really into the Google Play store, finding the best place to watch what you’re looking for can be a bit more of a hassle here.

It’s extremely close any way you slice it, but we still feel Roku comes out on top here.

Winner: Roku Premiere, Roku Streaming Stick+

Remote control

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Caleb Denison/Digital Trends

Frankly, the best remote is your smartphone running the Roku app, but we digress. Both Rokus have a leg up on Amazon here for a couple of reasons. First, when it comes to the included remotes, Roku’s offer just a bit more functionality, with shortcut buttons to some of the most popular apps, including Netflix and Amazon Video. Both platforms offer free remote apps for iOS and Android, but here again, Roku has the upper hand. Not only is Roku’s app available on every platform (including Windows and even BB10), it allows you to launch any channel instantly. No matter which device you choose, Roku remote includes voice search and dedicated volume buttons for your television (as does the Fire TV Stick’s). As mentioned, Chromecast devices don’t use a remote.

Winner: Roku Premiere, Roku Streaming Stick+

Casting, mirroring, sharing

Cast from Chromecast

When it comes to playing content that doesn’t come from a streaming service, the Google Chromecast and Chromecast Ultra win the day. While it’s just as easy to stream Netflix, YouTube, or Hulu to a Roku device, sharing personal videos or photos on the Android platform is a tad easier with Chromecast. For iOS users, the process of casting personal photos or videos to a Chromecast requires the use of a third-party app, whereas Roku users with iOS devices have to share from within the Roku remote app.

When it comes to mirroring, it’s pretty close between all four streamers, but Chromecast is easiest. Thanks to Miracast, screen mirroring for Android and Fire device users isn’t much of a chore. But iOS users will need to use a third-party app. Chromecast users can easily and quickly mirror their desktop to put anything and everything you can find online (legally, of course!) up on your TV screen from a PC or an Android device. Though mirroring isn’t available via iOS devices, Chromecast streamers still edge out a win here.

Winner: Chromecast, Chromecast Ultra

Video and audio quality

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Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

The only device on this list that doesn’t support 4K UHD video is the second generation content, so for the most part, it would appear we’re starting on a level playing field. When it comes to the quality of streaming content, the biggest factor is often the quality of the connection, not the device’s claimed specs. Unless your home network is sporting the latest and greatest standards, though, this will likely make little difference.

Like the Chromecast Ultra, the Roku Streaming Stick+ and the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K also support dual-band a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, which makes the well-equipped to handle 4K streaming provided your home network is up to the task. This leaves out the Roku Premiere, which is limited to b/g/n connections.

Winner: Roku Streaming Stick+, Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K, Chromecast Ultra (tie)

Value

roku premiere cheapest 4k streamer

The Roku Premiere is the most affordable of the four platforms at just $40, which really is an incredible bargain for all that it offers. But before we hand this one to the Roku Premiere, we would be remiss if we didn’t point out one of the best features of the Fire TV Stick 4K: Voice search is connected to Amazon’s hugely popular Alexa intelligent assistant. This means that even owners of the $50 Fire TV Stick 4K now have access to a better A.I. than the one Apple provides on its (far more expensive) Apple TV 4K streaming box. Still, when all is said and done, the Premiere’s low price and extensive Roku feature set take the cake here.

Winner: Roku Premiere

And the winner is …

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The Roku Premiere is a fantastic pick, offering up 4K resolution for just $40, but for $10 more, the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K has the same resolution, but offers HDR10+ and Dolby Vision HDR while the Roku offering only manages HDR10. Amazon’s offering also has 802.11ac Wi-Fi, which could just make the difference between a smooth streaming experience and a stuttering one, depending on your network. At $50, that’s hard to say no to.

You really can’t go wrong with any of the selections on our list. If you regularly use your phone, tablet, or computer for streaming, you might as well grab a Chromecast and streamline your viewing experience (and, again, if you want a 4K-capable version and don’t mind paying extra, there’s also the Chromecast Ultra). If you’re more budget minded and don’t need more than HDR10, the Roku Premiere is an incredibly solid buy. When all is said and done, the decision is yours and yours alone. Choose wisely.


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