In 2021, as we all continue to spend more time in front of screens than anyone anticipated, most of us have a short list of requirements for a modern streaming stick. We just want a device that’s compatible with our favorite content and all the other devices in our living rooms.
One of the earlier entrants into this space, Google’s Chromecast streaming device underwent a significant transformation this generation with the addition of a remote control and a proper user interface. Previously, Chromecast relied entirely on streaming content from a separate device (phone, computer, tablet) to play content on your TV. But with the new features, Google’s latest Chromecast with Google TV finally competes with other popular, sub-$50 4K streaming sticks like the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K and Roku Streaming Stick+. It might even be an attractive alternative to the $179 Apple TV 4K.
So the 2020 Chromecast seems like it could be the perfect low-cost yet highly compatible cross between a streaming stick (to watch content from your phone) and a remote-controlled set-top box (to control apps like Netflix, Prime Video, and HBO Max via remote).The only way to know for sure, however, was to put in a little more screen time. Recently, we placed the latest Chromecast up against Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K and Roku’s Streaming Stick+ in some Orbital HQ testing to see which $50 streaming stick gives you the most value for your money—and which delivers the fewest headaches when you just want to kick back and watch something, maybe even something in 4K.
The short version
- Google’s 2020 Chromecast with Google TV is the best streaming stick you can get for $50. It has wide-ranging compatibility across platforms and devices, speedy performance, a simple and sensibly laid-out remote, and Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos support. With a price tag a third the cost of an Apple TV, it also gives Apple’s streaming box a run for its money. It excels beyond Roku and Fire TV devices with a more polished and effective user interface that does well to serve you up something you’ll enjoy watching.
- Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K has the benefit of being on the market longer and having more time to develop. As such, it was a top pick for under $50 streamers—but mainly by default. It’s not hard to use the Fire TV Stick, but it’s harder to find quality content in comparison to the latest Chromecast. The Fire TV Stick 4K can often come across primarily as a device on which to watch Prime Video. You can still hop over to Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, and the like to find a specific title you’re looking for, but if you’re just browsing through the UI looking for something to watch, you’ll be hard pressed to find something not on Prime Video. While Prime Video does have a large library of movies, this leaves you with limited, sub-par options for finding new content. That said, the Fire TV Stick 4K is still fast, and it supports useful features like Dolby Vision HDR and more robust user profiles for children.
- The Roku Streaming Stick+ doesn’t suffer as much from a biased user interface as the Fire TV Stick 4K, but that’s still partly due to a lackluster user interface. It’s not built to browse—or at least not very well. You ought to know what you want to watch before turning on a Roku device, as you’re best served going directly into the app that has it to watch it there. Roku’s UI is simple to read, has all the major streaming services, and does have useful tricks like AirPlay 2 support and Windows and Android screen mirroring. But its everyday usability falls flat, which makes it worse than the Chromecast at solving the ever-threatening existential crisis of what to watch next. Plus, it lacks Dolby Vision HDR.
Google Chromecast with Google TV
All three of these streaming sticks have somewhat similar setup processes that walk you through downloading and/or discovering your preferred services and linking up the streaming sticks to control your TV. There’s no fuss when it comes to the latter; all our contenders pretty much automatically synced up with my TV’s volume and power controls.
As far as setting up your services on the Fire TV Stick and Roku Streaming Stick+, it’s the same rigmarole you’d expect—typing in emails and passwords with a directional pad, an onerous task which the Chromecast circumvents. With the help of the Google Home app and Face ID on my iPhone, I was logged into my appropriate accounts quickly on the Chromecast, and I didn’t even have to type a thing on my phone (Wi-Fi passwords, account logins, or otherwise). All of my relevant information was pulled from the Google Home app, a feature we missed sorely while Ouija-boarding in our passwords with the Roku and Amazon remotes.
Roku attempts to emulate a similar in-app setup process as Google’s (after you’ve already typed in at least two logins) by emailing you a link to a setup webpage, unlike Amazon’s which is done solely through the Fire TV Stick. Here is where you choose the apps and services to be downloaded, though the Roku process throws a ton more garbage at you in the form of numerous free trials, compared to Amazon and Google.
With both the Roku and Fire TV Stick, this initial setup is just step one. After all the apps are downloaded, you have to open them and login all over again—another cumbersome task the Chromecast largely avoids with its use of the Google Home app and passwords saved to your Google account. Some logins will still be required after the fact with Chromecast, but not nearly as many.
Of note: Amazon does give you the option for child profiles, though, which is a missing feature on both the Chromecast and Roku sticks.
Whether discussing form or function, Google’s Chromecast leaves both of our other options behind quite easily. Chromecast’s aesthetics are the most refined, and its functionality is the most useful of the three. While Amazon’s Fire TV experience does have a similar setup—a top row of tabbed sections and tiles of content or apps on each page laid out underneath—Amazon tries to cram in more by neglecting to space out the tiles.
In practice, it’s just a bit busier than the Chromecast interface, which is also a bit more visually intuitive. but this flaw could be overlooked if the Fire TV’s wall of media tiles weren’t just row after row of Prime Video content and ads. If a page has 10 rows of tiles, eight out of the 10 are either ads or directly tied to Prime Video. This isn’t a problem you’ll find with the Chromecast and Google’s services, nor with Roku.
Amazon puts a heavy emphasis on its Prime Video service in terms of how it offers content. It’s not the worst thing, since Prime does have an expansive library, but so does most any streaming stick. They all have access to most of the same things, save for some notable exceptions we’ll touch on later. Amazon’s obsession with feeding you Prime content, original or otherwise, is a serious hindrance to this device’s usefulness and fun factor. The Fire TV Stick gives you rather low-quality content recommendations given the myriad of streaming platforms housed within, and you can tell. It favors recommending an F-list movie from Prime Video over a decent film you might actually enjoy from another platform.
Roku is the simplest UI on offer here. It’s basic to the point of being dated in the looks department. Still, in comparison, it’s nice to browse titles in peace. While testing Roku, it did not live in constant fear of autoplay trailers threatening to interrupt my thoughts every second (looking at you, Fire TV). I know you can just mute your TV, but I could feel my anxiety levels lower scrolling through Roku’s interface.
At the same time, I was also underwhelmed using the Roku and unable to explore much about a piece of content without having to open the app that houses it. In this sense, Roku’s interface feels more like a smart TV in that it simply gives you access to apps so you can watch what you want there. In contrast, both the Fire TV and Chromecast serve as mediums for aggregating and presenting content for you to explore. And in that regard, Google’s new Chromecast handily leads the pack.
Amazon’s recently announced a significant update to the Fire TV user interface, which will include a more streamlined main screen, user profiles, and a “Find” tab to discover content more easily. This should start rolling out to the Fire TV Stick 4K in the coming weeks, as well as on the 1080p Fire TV Stick and Fire TV Stick Lite. We’ll update this section when it hits our Fire TV Stick 4K.
Finding what you’re looking for
All three of these streaming sticks have a voice control button on their remotes. These can be used for searching up content and opening apps.Though none of these implementations are perfect, voice is the best way to search on each device in most cases. Much like we saw in navigating each UI, Google’s Chromecast search, run by Google Assistant, is more accurate and often more useful with its results than the other two.
Say you’re in the mood to watch a good documentary. If you say “documentaries” to the respective voice controls, Amazon’s Alexa will bring back about five rows of various categories, mostly comprised of what’s available on Amazon’s Prime Video service. Categories include a selection from your subscriptions, free with ads, trending, latest, and movies and TV. The combination of some random, off-base recommendations and the majority of results coming from Amazon Prime make you feel like you’re not being presented with the highest quality or most expansive options.
It’s not nearly as bad as Roku’s handling, though. Search here brought a handful of documentaries, a ton of reality TV shows, and a good amount of neither within the results.
Google Assistant, on the other hand, pulls up a rather comprehensive, thoughtfully organized and wholly on-target set of lists in the same carousel fashion as the Fire TV. Unlike Amazon’s results, options found here are effective at producing picks you might like. Categories include popular, Oscar-winning, war documentaries, religious docs, and politics, among others. Generally, Chromecast returns a mélange of results from different platforms, so Google’s clearly prioritized offering quality picks over forcing you onto Google’s services… in contrast to Amazon’s reverse approach.
The same tendencies surface when searching for a specific performer. Searching “Dave Chappelle,” for instance, Google spits back a simple two carousels of results–one comprised of titles featuring Dave Chappelle, and a “people also search for” carousel of related people, whose pictures you can click to explore more of their works.
It’s plainly powered by the same algorithms used in Google search, offering results that include spouses and children (who are noted as such) as well as related performers, complete with biographical blurbs sourced straight from Wikipedia. The only thing we can fault Google for here is the omission of certain results, in this instance, a taped award ceremony for Chappelle receiving the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor (which is available on Netflix). If you’re a Chappelle fan, that might be something you’d like to see in your search results.
Amazon’s Fire TV did offer this result in its top picks, right along with the other works Google displayed, but somehow Google missed it. In fact, the search race was much tighter here between Amazon and Google, as they offered just about the same pieces of content, save for Google’s one omission. Roku also didn’t lag too far behind as it found much of the same while missing more obscure results than either of the two (including the same award ceremony Google missed).
Between the three, voice searches for specific movies or shows work as well as intended. Press the button, say the words, and in a second you’re ready to click play. The only slip ups to speak of come from the Roku, which has a tough time recognizing some words, especially those with alternate spellings. “Inglourious Basterds,” for instance, is a movie you’re just going to have to type out to find on Roku—it won’t come up at all from a voice search. That isn’t the case for Amazon and Google.
Roku, again feeling more like a virtual Redbox than anything else, doesn’t offer much in the content descriptions when search results are pulled up, either. The plot summary is usually one sentence, the star ratings don’t tell you where they’re coming from, and you can’t watch the trailer.
The same screen on the Chromecast has all of these missing items from the Roku, and it even lets you explore the Rotten Tomatoes ratings and critiques in a little pop-up browser. Plus, once you’ve watched it, you can give a title a thumbs up or thumbs down to help fine tune your recommendations. The Fire TV Stick doesn’t go quite as far, but it still offers trailers and a more in-depth description than Roku. The low-quality, sometimes useless related content recommendations below the result are another aspect that keep Amazon lagging a good bit behind Google.
Whether you know exactly what you want to watch, or you’re not sure and want to do some perusing, watch some trailers, check some ratings, and then decide, the Google Chromecast is the most effective, most capable, and most fun to browse on.
Finding new things to watch
The same key differences between the three make Google’s Chromecast the most adept at quickly and easily helping you discover new or related content that you’re genuinely likely to enjoy. As mentioned earlier, browsing for quality content on the main screens of the Chromecast is a more fine-tuned and fruitful endeavor, and the same is also true when you’ve just finished a movie or show you loved but don’t know where to go from there.
Let’s say, for instance, you just finished Kill Bill and are now on a Kung Fu kick, feeling über Uma Thurman, or are particularly enjoying the quirky Tarantino movies. With Chromecast, on the main page of the movie, simply scroll down and either click one of the stars to see more of their work (as well as a little biographical blurb) or scroll down one more row to find recommendations based on various aspects of the movie, genre, or the creators and stars themselves. Among the options for this particular title were action movies, Oscar-winning titles, and an “if you like X” option that actually seems accurate. Different movies will elicit different categories based on their own unique aspects.
In stark contrast, the Fire TV Stick gives you an entirely useless “customers also watched” row offering completely unrelated and often wildly off-target suggestions which, you guessed it, are largely from Prime Video. Below that you have as many as 50 rows of content, each one based exclusively off each of the starring actors—no matter how big or small their role. It’s truly unnecessary and wholly ineffective in helping you find content you’ll love.
Finding meaningful suggestions on the Chromecast is intuitive and useful—the direct opposite of the experience offered on the Fire TV Stick. Roku, on the other hand, simply doesn’t offer such a feature to find related content.
One last thing to note here is the implementation of watchlists, another feature which the Roku lacks. Both the Fire TV and Chromecast offer it, but for some reason Amazon’s isn’t always available as a save option for content you come across. We’d say about seven out of 10 times it is available, but we couldn’t find a rhyme or reason to the absences.
Google’s watchlist doesn’t just edge out Amazon for its consistently available saving options, but it also reigns supreme for having the benefit of integration into your Google searches. If you Google a show or movie, you can easily add it to your watchlist right from the top of the results when you’re logged into your Google account. It’ll show up on your Chromecast watchlist immediately—a feature I’m fond of now and I’m sure I’ll love even more when I can leave the house again.
Each of these streaming sticks, for the most part, do the same basic things. As we just discussed, of course, some do it better. But there are a couple features that set these apart, and these could potentially define their usefulness to you.
Google Chromecast extra features
The standout feature for Google’s Chromecast is without a doubt the ability to stream content from a phone, tablet, or computer through a myriad of compatible apps, directly to your TV. In fact, it used to be the only feature of the Chromecast and, after more than seven years of development, it’s amassed a formidable list of compatible apps. Essentially, most any app you use to listen to music or watch videos can stream from your phone to the Chromecast. And on computers, Google’s Chrome browser takes over any such duties. This is a feature neither the Fire TV Stick nor the Roku Streaming Stick+ can emulate in its seamlessness and wide-ranging compatibility, though Roku does come close.
You can also use a Nest or Google Home device to turn on your TV and control basic functions with your voice (though, of course, Alexa can do the same on the Fire TV Stick).
Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K extra features
The Fire TV Stick doesn’t have much of anything that the other two don’t. As mentioned, you can use an Echo device to turn the TV on and off, but otherwise there’s no other built-in standout features.
It is worth noting, though, that jailbreaking these devices or otherwise finding ways to install free media services, like Kodi, is a popular pastime among Fire Stick owners. Such tweaks can and often do affect reliability of the Fire Sticks and, although generally easy enough to fix (by resetting it to stock), it’s a bit of a pain having a boot-looping Fire Stick if problems do arise.
Roku Streaming Stick+ extra features
Roku’s trick up its sleeve, like the Chromecast’s, has to do with streaming from mobile devices. It’s Airplay-enabled, so you can stream music and video to it or use it as a secondary display for an Apple device. Furthermore, you can mirror an Android or Windows computer through Roku, emulating in large part what the Chromecast can do with your devices. In essence, it has all the same bases covered as the Chromecast, albeit in a slightly less streamlined way.
You didn’t think we could talk streaming sticks during the still ongoing streaming wars and not talk missing services, did you?
Again, generally, these three streaming sticks cover the same ground in terms of the major streaming platforms. But there are some notable exceptions which, sadly, could make or break a particular device for you.
Google Chromecast missing services
The never-ending war of attrition between Apple and Google still slogs onward as new devices and new services come about. In this instance, Apple TV+ is the service you can’t get on a Google Chromecast, but you can stream it from your computers Chrome browser. This may not be a huge deal for anyone who’s uninterested in the original movies, shows, and documentaries Apple’s been producing, but the fact that it’s available on the Fire TV Stick and Roku does make this all the more frustrating. Like Apple TV+, most any other smaller omissions can also be made up for by streaming it from a compatible mobile device.
Amazon Fire Stick TV missing services
The Fire Stick is currently missing NBCUniversal’s Peacock TV free streaming service, and that excludes it from free access to all of NBC’s shows and many of Universal Studios’ films. Being one of the few free services that offers some major titles, this is a pretty tough omission. It’s expected that a deal will be made eventually, but there’s been little in the way of clues as to the timeline.
Furthermore, the brute force with which Prime content is shoved down your throat, in practice, makes you feel like you’re only browsing one platform—Prime Video. Of course, you can go directly into the apps you know house the content you’re looking for, but as we explained earlier, this essentially defeats the purpose of a streaming stick (versus a smart TV) by severely hampering how effectively you can find quality content that you’ll actually enjoy.
Roku Streaming Stick+ missing services
Roku just gained access to HBO Max, which was a pretty big omission for both companies during a span of several months. With this addition, though, Roku has all the big names you’re looking for. And like the Chromecast, it can make up for smaller omissions via Airplay and Android or Windows screen mirroring.
Live TV and Premium Channels
Through various TV network apps and league partnerships (Comedy Central, TBS, ABC, the NBA, MLB, and ESPN for example), you can watch live news, shows, and sports events across all three of these devices.
The Fire TV has a “Live” page—it’s one the Roku and Chromecast don’t have—which even includes a channel guide. It’s a bit misleading though since the page consists mostly of offering the aforementioned apps, and the channel guide is exclusively sourced from IMDbTV, a free streaming platform offering movies and shows. While IMDbTV isn’t available on the Chromecast or Roku devices, you can always stream it from a compatible mobile device to either one. (Regardless, it’s not really live TV, anyway.)
Winner: Google Chromecast with Google TV
In the end, a competition between similar devices with nearly identical features and similarly inexpensive price tags wasn’t all that close. In nearly every aspect of use, the Chromecast with Google TV proved to be more effective, easier to use, and looked better doing it than either the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K or Roku’s Streaming Stick+.
Google does an excellent job of surfacing quality content that piques your interest. Its algorithms seem to account for quality and relation, picking up on more nuanced themes which ultimately offer better results. “Dysfunctional family comedies,” for instance, is a category Google offers, and that zeroes in on a narrower aspect than “comedies” alone could. Again and again, Google’s related recommendations, in any category, carry a high success rate.
Coupled with nearly universal device compatibility, the Chromecast is hard to beat. And at $50, it blows past the Fire TV Stick and Roku devices found at the same price (though the Amazon and Roku devices are often on sale). In fact, the new Chromecast seems to be offering one of the best streaming experiences at any price. It certainly has me wondering what I still need my Apple TV for.
Listing image by Corey Gaskin