TIME Gadgets

Amazon Fire TV Stick vs Google Chromecast vs Roku Streaming Stick

TV Sticks
Clockwise left to right: Amazon's Fire TV Stick, Google's Chromecast, Roku's Streaming Stick Amazon : Google : Roku

Amazon has jumped headfirst into the streaming stick game, squaring off against Google’s Chromecast and Roku’s Streaming Stick with its new Fire TV Stick. Here’s how the devices stack up against one another. Spoiler: They’re all good.

Price

Chromecast costs $35, Amazon Fire TV Stick costs $39 and Roku Streaming Stick costs $49.99. If you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber, Amazon’s Fire TV Stick costs $20 until 6am Pacific on October 29, though.

Winner: Chromecast

Remote Control

Chromecast has no remote, so it sits out this round. You’ll need to run everything from your phone, tablet or PC, which is great if you’re the type of person who loses remotes all the time. If you’re hungover on the couch or watching stuff in bed, it’s marginally less relaxing than using a trusty remote, though.

Both Amazon and Roku include remotes, and both remotes work well. I’ll give Roku the slight edge here, as its remote has four quick-launch buttons — two of which are for Netflix and Amazon. The other two are for the far less-popular M-Go and Blockbuster On Demand.

Winner: Roku

Available Content

If you’re going for quality over quantity, all three sticks support just about every major streaming service. Notable omissions: Amazon’s stick doesn’t support HBO Go and Google’s stick doesn’t support Amazon content. Roku, on the other hand, has been around forever relative to its competitors and supports just about everything. And if there’s not an officially supported channel on Roku, chances are good that there’s an unofficial version that you can manually connect to the device.

Winner: Roku

Games

Amazon takes the cake here. Since the launch of the Fire TV box earlier this year, the company has done a good job porting games over, with the current tally sitting somewhere north of 200. The Fire TV’s $40 game controller works with the Fire TV stick, too.

Winner: Amazon

Performance

On paper, the Fire TV Stick handily bests its competitors, with double the processing cores, double the RAM and eight gigabytes of storage. The Chromecast has two gigabytes of storage; the Roku has 256 megabytes. Amazon needs more storage because of its emphasis on games and apps that can be loaded onto the Fire TV Stick, though: Storage isn’t really an issue on the other two sticks. Amazon also packs a better Wi-Fi chip than the Chromecast, though it’s on par with the Roku.

Winner: Amazon

Interface

I’m going to throw a curve ball here and say that the Chromecast’s utter lack of an interface makes it the best interface. You use the same apps you always use and, provided they have a Chromecast button, simply tap it to start playback on your TV. There’s no need to learn a new interface. Not that Amazon’s and Roku’s interfaces are overly complicated in any way — there’s really no bad interface for this category — there’s just something elegant about the Chromecast’s simplicity.

Winner: Chromecast

Device Compatibility

Chromecast works with certain iOS and Android devices and Google’s Chrome web browser on various computers. Roku works with certain iOS apps and Android devices and has beta computer and mobile screen mirroring features that are just getting off the ground for Windows 8.1, Windows Phone and Android. The Fire TV Stick works with certain iOS apps and Android devices, as well as with Amazon’s line of tablets. This one’s really close to a tie: Slinging your current browser tab to your TV is a great Chromecast feature; being able to use Amazon’s tablets with the Fire TV line is a great addition, and Roku has some interesting stuff in the works, too. In the end, however, the broader range of computers that can mirror Chrome to your TV means Chromecast takes a slight edge.

Winner: Chromecast

Which One Is Best?

Luckily, you have three dynamite options for under $50. You really can’t go wrong with any of these. If you have a lot of Amazon content and own an Amazon tablet or two, the Fire TV stick is a no-brainer. Same deal if you want to play games. If you don’t want to futz around with menus and you don’t want to spend a ton of money, go with the Chromecast. If you want a great remote and a nearly unlimited selection of content — both mainstream and off-the-beaten-path — head straight for the Roku.

Winner: Consumers

Here are some more in-depth specs from our friends at FindTheBest:

 

Read next: It’s Time to Seriously Start Expecting an Apple TV Again

TIME video

VIDEO: Here’s What’s Next for Google (in Two Minutes)

Wherein we smoosh Google's 2014 developer conference keynote from 2.5+ hours down to just under two minutes.

TIME Gadgets

Aereo Arrives for Chromecast As Supreme Court Decision Looms

Google Chromecast
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Delayed by a week, Aereo's TV-streaming service is finally available for Google Chromecast players.

Aereo, the Internet television streaming upstart currently embroiled in a historic Supreme Court showdown with broadcast companies, is finally available for Google Chromecast. Its arrival on Google’s streaming media dongle Thursday comes one week after its intended debut.

Aereo wrote on Twitter last week that it was delaying Chromecast support until June 4 “to work out a few kinks.” Make that June 5 then: the Aereo app is live now on the Google Play store. The move adds another significant Aereo player to a lineup that includes browsers for Windows PCs, Linux PCs and Macs, iOS devices, Apple TV and Roku set-top boxes.

If you have a Chromecast dongle, you live in an Aereo coverage area and you’re willing to pay the company’s monthly subscription fee ($8 for 20 hours of DVR space, $12 for 60 hours and the option to record two shows at once), you can connect online to Aereo’s local antenna bank to receive and record live broadcast TV. There’s no additional subscription fee — Aereo handles all storage of recordings on its end and you don’t need to have an existing cable subscription to view the antennae-captured shows.

The catch — and this is why signing up today isn’t risk-free — is that Aereo is smack in the midst of a momentous Supreme Court battle, squaring off with indignant broadcast companies for its right to exist. Since Aereo streams over-the-air content it intercepts via antennas — each the size of a dime and leased to one user — it claims it’s doing nothing you couldn’t yourself, and thus it owes broadcast companies nothing.

The broadcast companies (naturally) disagree. They claim Aereo is in violation of federal copyright law. At issue is whether Aereo’s service qualifies as a public or private performance: if SCOTUS deems it public, Aereo’s in trouble, whereas if it’s deemed a series of private transmissions, the company may be able to continue unperturbed.

A ruling is expected any day now.

TIME FindTheBest

18 Streaming TV Boxes Ranked from Worst to First

Quick: which type of device is currently dominating Amazon’s Best Sellers list, holding the top two overall spots (as of this writing)?

A) Smartphones

B) Tablets

C) Headphones

D) Laptops

E) Streaming Media Players

Answer: E. And it’s not close. Between the Amazon Fire TV, Google Chromecast, Roku 3, and Apple TV, streaming media players are lighting up online retail. As customers continue to cut cable, the streaming box (or stick) is the hottest new device, a product that is somehow both affordable (usually, sub-$100) and magical (can beam just about any media from one screen to the next).

But which streaming device should you pick? Clearly, a lot comes down to content. If you’re a Yupp TV fanatic, you’ll pick the Sony NSZ-GS8, ASUS Cube, or VIZIO Co-Star LT. Decision made. Suppose, however, you’d simply like a nice blend of Netflix and Hulu, plus the ability to use your friend’s roommate’s password to access HBO Go? Good luck choosing: You’ve still got a dozen different boxes, sticks, and hockey-puck-shaped streamers that meet your needs.

Since we have no way of know whether you’re a Mad Men junkie or Game of Thrones fan—and since all the top boxes seem to be getting all the same services anyway—let’s put the actual content aside.

Instead, we set out to rank the 18 most recent streaming media players based on specs, features, usability and expert reviews. We considered every major streamer released or updated since January 2013, looking at the following factors:

- Specs and features: This primarily includes output resolutions and audio support, but also factors in wireless connectivity and features (like voice control, screencasting, and DVR functionality).

- Expert reviews: What do the likes of PC Mag, CNET, TechHive, TechRadar, LAPTOP Mag, Home Theater Review, and Wired think? We aggregated review scores to get the best big picture perspective.

Here’s what we found:

The Rejects

18. Sony NSZ-GS8

17. TiVo Roamio

16. ASUS Cube

Like a rejected TV script, these media players simply don’t have the mass appeal or originality to become a true success. With limited inter-device streaming (the NSZ-GS8), clunky user experience (the ASUS Cube), and lackluster file-format support (the TiVo Roamio), they’re all stuck in pre-production. You can feel bad for them, but let them die their natural death. It’s better this way.

The Cancellations

15. Roku LT (2013)

14. TiVo Roamio Pro

13. TiVo Roamio Plus

Give these players credit for trying: Each brings something unique to the market. The Roku LT offers a low-priced, lower-resolution alternative to its cousins (the more popular Rokus 1, 2, and 3), while the TiVo Roamio Pro and Plus provide a strong feature set and all the familiar benefits of pause-and-rewind TV. Unfortunately, each ends up feeling a little like a lesser version of a more popular show, like Last Resort was to Lost or like Low Winter Sun was to every detective show ever made.

The One and Dones

12. Philips HMP2000

11. Samsung Smart Media Player

10. VIZIO Co-Star LT

Each of these players gets a lot right, with reasonably simple set-up, moderate feature sets, and decent compatibility. Still, clicking the Co-Stars’ retro-style remote or navigating the Smart Media Player’s menus has a subtle, dated feel—the kind of feeling you get when watching Seinfeld, licking an envelope or signing a check. These players had their day, but the world is moving on. Oh well. We’ll always have that one season.

Renewed for a Season

9. Matricom G-Box Midnight MX2

8. PLAiR 2

Unique, intriguing, and capable, both the Matricom G-Box Midnight MX2 and PLAiR 2 offer something special. The MX2 features full Android-based web browsing, something none of the top-selling players allow. Meanwhile, the PLAiR 2 is among the cheapest streamers you can buy (as low as $25), a good Chromecast alternative for Google haters and capitalization ignorers across America. Still, neither device is as polished or as reliable as any of the products below. Keep these options in mind, but don’t be surprised if they fade off in another year, like a once-renewed, forever-forgotten sitcom.

Network TV

7. Roku 1

6. Roku 2

Solid, predictable, and popular, the Roku 1 and 2 are a great choice for anyone who can’t afford the more full-featured Roku 3. Each offers top output resolutions, compatibility across dozens of file formats, and low prices to match (approximately $45 for the Roku 1 and $65 for the Roku 2). Like CSI and Law & Order, expect the two entry-level Rokus to stick around for several more years.

Cable TV

5. Google Chromecast

4. Roku Streaming Stick (HDMI Version)

Compared to the bulky shells of their competitors, Google’s Chromecast and Roku’s Streaming Stick feel like the future: lighter, more efficient, and best of all, under $50. Experts say Roku’s Streaming Stick is roughly comparable to the Roku 2 in features and capabilities, while Google’s Chromecast oozes the company’s commitment to simplicity and user-friendliness. If you’re always using a tablet, laptop, or phone anyway, consider saving the extra cash and grabbing one of these.

Emmy Winners

3. Apple TV

2. Amazon Fire TV

It’s one thing to make a popular TV show. It’s quite another to bring home the hardware year after year. Whenever they present their new streaming media players, Apple and Amazon don’t walk on stage: they swagger. Where their competitors make simple streaming gadgets, the two tech giants create whole entertainment ecosystems, complete with industry-leading features and seamless operation. Even if you can’t stand one (or both) of these companies, it’s hard to argue that their offerings are simply bigger and better than most. If you already own three Apple products, or if you’re a long-time Amazon Prime subscriber, look no further than the company’s corresponding streamer.

The All-Time Classic

1. Roku 3

Sometimes focus is more important than money and talent. The Roku 3 is the best product of the bunch, with the snappiest operation, top-tier video and audio support, and extra features that make each part of the experience just a little better (for example: the headphone jack on the remote allows for convenient, private listening). Better yet, a Roku 3 won’t lock you into the Apple or Amazon ecosystem. Yes, you can guarantee some success if you hire all the best actors and spend the most money. But Roku understands that the best shows aren’t always about star power and special effects, but rather about tight execution and smart, ensemble casting. For the best overall streaming experience, get the Roku 3.

This article was written for TIME by Ben Taylor of FindTheBest.

TIME streaming video

Why ‘Android TV’ and Chromecast Should Coexist

Jared Newman for TIME

Google is reportedly working on another TV platform, but the goal may be different.

Over the weekend, The Verge published a glimpse of “Android TV,” yet another attempt by Google to sneak into the living room.

The screenshots and details aren’t confirmed, but they show a much simpler approach than Google TV, the search giant’s previous effort that didn’t get much traction. Instead of trying to fuse cable, apps and streaming websites into a single interface, as Google TV did, Android TV will focus on apps and games, tied together by recommendations and search. If The Verge’s screenshots are accurate, Android TV looks a lot like Amazon’s Fire TV, which launched last week.

There’s just one nagging issue, which The Verge alludes to toward the end of its story: Why is Google pursuing Android TV when it has the makings of a hit with Chromecast? And what should developers make of the possibility that Google will soon have two streaming platforms to build around?

I’d like to take a crack at this dilemma.

Chromecast is not meant to be a complete platform. While I find it extremely useful, as I’m always watching TV with a phone or tablet in my hands, it has limitations. You can’t control it with a dedicated remote, and the fact that there’s no interface on the TV itself eliminates the communal aspect of finding something to watch. More importantly, there’s no centralized way to search for content or get recommendations with Chromecast. All the apps you might use are stuck in silos.

So think of Chromecast’s technology as a supplement to a more traditional TV interface. The big potential for Chromecast isn’t as a $35 dongle, but as a technology that TV and set-top box makers can add to their products. “Our broader goal is for Google Cast to be established as a standard,” Google’s vice president of product management, Mario Queiroz, told GigaOM in December.

Currently, no TV or set-top manufacturers have announced Chromecast capabilities, but at least you can see the appeal: Companies such as Samsung or Sony could still build their own smart TV platforms, while offering Chromecast support as an extra feature.

It’s a different strategy compared to Google TV, which Google saw as a replacement platform for smart TVs. Google TV was meant to do for television what Android did for smartphones, giving TV makers a platform to build upon. But that idea failed because TV makers were reluctant to bet the farm on Google and give up control. With Chromecast, they don’t have to.

But as I said before, Chromecast isn’t a complete solution, and its siloed nature prevents Google from putting its own content–videos from Google Play Movies & TV in particular–at front-and-center.

A reinvented Android TV would fill the void. It provides a way for Google to recommend its own content to users, while offering a full-blown TV interface with support for dedicated remote controls. It also allows for gaming, which Chromecast can only support in limited fashion.

I’m skeptical that TV makers would adopt Android TV, because the fears around betting on Google and giving up control are the same as they were for Google TV. With that in mind, the rumors of Google building its own set-top box are all the more credible. Chromecast would be the platform that’s more widely adopted by other hardware makers, while Android TV is the device that Google builds itself.

The one lingering issue is developer support. Chromecast seems to be gaining momentum, both from major streaming services and from smaller app developers. By pushing Android TV, Google may risk losing support for Chromecast, or vice versa.

The extent of that risk, however, will depend on how nicely Chromecast and Android TV play together. Perhaps Google has come up with a way to easily build upon Chromecast apps to include full Android TV support. I wouldn’t rule it out, given that Google is applying that very strategy to Android Wear.

At least that’s what I’m hoping. For me, Chromecast fills a need even if I’ve got another set-top box or game console hooked up, and if I was in the market for a new television, I’d be more likely to consider one that had Chromecast capabilities built-in. Android TV sounds interesting, but only if it doesn’t prevent Chromecast from realizing its potential.

TIME Google

New Apps Have Taught Us Something About Chromecast

Rdio

Services that compete with Google appear to be welcome.

If you subscribe to Rdio’s streaming music service or purchase videos from Vudu, you’ll be pleased to know that Chromecast support has arrived.

But even if you don’t use either of those services, the new arrivals are good news: Rdio and Vudu are the first two Chromecast apps to compete directly with Google services. It’s a sign that Google’s relatively new — and apparently successful — streaming TV dongle won’t discriminate against competing music and video offerings.

Vudu is an a la carte video service, letting you purchase or rent individual movies for streaming. That puts it in direct competition with Google Play Movies, Google’s own video service.

Likewise, Rdio is a $10 per month subscription service that offers on-demand access to a huge library of music. It competes directly with Google Play Music All Access, which also costs $10 per month.

While other streaming music and video apps had been available on Chromecast already, none of them are quite like Google’s offerings. Netflix and Hulu Plus are subscription-based video services, and HBO Go only works if you already get the channel through your regular TV provider. Pandora and Songza are mainly ad-supported, and they don’t let you choose exactly which song or album you want to hear.

Chromecast isn’t the only media streamer that welcomes competing services. Microsoft’s Xbox 360 has several video apps that rival its own Xbox Video store, and Rhapsody’s Xbox 360 app is a direct competitor to Xbox Music. The PlayStation 3 has apps for Vudu and Amazon Video, which compete with Sony’s own video offerings. Apple TV is a bit less friendly to the competition, as iTunes is your only option for a la carte video and streaming music on the device itself, but you can still access competing services via AirPlay on an iPhone or iPad. Even Amazon will reportedly include streaming video rivals Netflix and Hulu on its rumored TV device. Thankfully, Chromecast is not an exception to the rule.

The difference is that those other devices still give top billing to their own services, and make it easy to purchase music or video without entering more billing information. That’s not exactly the case with Chromecast, where everything’s controlled through apps on your phone, tablet or computer. Without a traditional interface on the television, Google has no way to promote its own services over all the other apps that Chromecast supports. The only exception is on Android devices, where Google can hawk its music and video services through the Google Play Store.

This makes me wonder about the business model for Chromecast, since there can’t be much profit in the $35 hardware itself. Perhaps Google is just happy to have one way to bring Google Play services into the living room, even if there’s not much pressure on users to take advantage. Or maybe we’ll see users’ data spun back into Google’s ad business somehow. Whatever the case, Google is just trying to get as many people to use Chromecast as possible for now, and that means letting competing services come along for the ride.

TIME Amazon

Amazon Free Streaming Media Service Likely to Launch Soon

Amazon.com Illustrations Ahead Of Earnings
Andrew Harrer—Getty Images

The online retailer appears ready to revamp its video streaming model in a bid to resemble and compete with free, advertising-supported TV services like Hulu and YouTube. It is expected to include the company’s original video content as well as licensed programming

Amazon is reportedly expected to launch a free, advertising-supported TV service similar to YouTube or Hulu sometime in the near future. The new service represents a dramatic shakeup for the company, which will be ditching its previous video strategy to make way for its new offerings.

The Wall Street Journal reported the development in Amazon’s video plan Thursday citing anonymous sources, adding weight to rumors reported by Ad Age last month. Amazon’s new service will likely include the company’s original series as well as licensed programming. Amazon also plans to offer free music videos that will carry ads to people who visit the site.

Amazon has spent $1 billion acquiring content and producing original programming for its streaming service. However, it hasn’t yet caught up with competitors like Netflix. Amazon’s current advantage over Netflix, however, is that an Amazon Prime membership brings access to the company’s original video content as well as benefits across the site, such as free high-speed shipping.

Amazon is also expected to release a streaming video set-top box that can compete with devices like the Roku, Google’s Chromecast and Apple TV at a media event next week.

[WSJ]

TIME Home entertainment

Coming Soon to Chromecast: A Lot More Apps

With the launch of a public developer software kit, more apps will be able to add support for Google's Chromecast.
With the launch of a public developer software kit, more apps will be able to add support for Google's Chromecast. Jared Newman for TIME

With the launch of a public software development kit, any developer can add Chromecast support in apps for Android, iOS and the web.

Chromecast is about to get much more interesting now that Google has opened the door to more apps.

With the launch of a public software development kit, any developer can add Chromecast support in apps for Android, iOS and the web. This doesn’t just include video and music apps; it also allows for wilder ideas such as using your phone to control a Game Boy emulator on the television.

The idea with Chromecast — a $35 dongle that plugs into your TV’s HDMI slot — is that you use your phone, tablet or laptop in place of a remote control for streaming media. Apps that support Chromecast display a small “Cast” icon on the screen, and pressing it sends instructions to the television to start streaming that content. With certain TVs, Chromecast will also turn the television on and switch to the correct input when you begin casting.

Until now, Google has tightly controlled which apps could work with Chromecast. Netflix, YouTube and Google Play were available at launch, and a handful of other apps including Hulu Plus, HBO Go, Pandora and Songza came later. But a lot of other developers have added Chromecast support, and have simply been waiting for Google to let them in. The public SDK should usher in support from many more apps, though it’s not clear when we’ll start seeing the new additions.

I already use Chromecast regularly for most of the apps listed above, but ideally I wouldn’t even have to think about app support. Although Chromecast has improved over the last six months, it won’t hit its full potential until the Cast button is ubiquitous in smartphone and tablet apps.

For now, here’s a list of noteworthy apps that have pledged support for Chromecast, but have not yet added the capability (mostly via Wikipedia):

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