THE ROUNDUP: STICK-STYLE MEDIA PLAYERS

Stick-style streaming media player review

We check out the Amazon Fire TV Stick, Google Chromecast, and Roku Streaming Stick

Published: July 21, 2015 02:20 PM

So you want to get a new streaming media player but don't want to deal with yet another settop box, even one as small as a hockey puck. My friend, you're what stick-style media players are all about.

Google Chromecast helped create the market, which now includes several other stick-style players, notably the Amazon Fire TV Stick and the Roku Streaming Stick. All are about the size of a USB thumb drive and plug into a TV's HDMI input, drawing power from a USB port on the set or via an AC adapter plugged into an outlet. They're all relatively inexpensive, ranging from about $35 to $50, though they're sometimes even cheaper during sales.

Which one to get? Despite their similarities, there are some significant differences among the players. Chromecast is the least expensive, and it's notable for being able to "cast" anything you call up in a computer's Chrome browser to your TV. The Amazon Fire TV Stick, the newest entry, shares some unique features with the company's larger, pricier Fire TV settop box. The Roku Streaming Stick has that platform's extensive assortment of content.

Here's a closer look at the pros and cons of these three top stick-style players.

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Amazon Fire TV Stick, $40

Amazon Fire TV Stick

When we first heard about Amazon's Fire TV streaming media platform, we cynically assumed it was just a guise to get you to buy more stuff from Amazon.com. But both the Fire TV and the Fire TV Stick are credible streaming media players with fine overall performance. The Stick has many, but not all, of the features found on the pricier Amazon Fire TV settop box (also in our full Streaming Media Player Ratings, available to subscribers). Fire TV Stick automatically loads your Amazon Prime account info, so setup is easy. But like Fire TV, the Stick favors Amazon content and services; it will let you know if a show you're searching for is available on another service, but only after Amazon content is displayed.

Also, the Fire TV Stick's remote is more basic than the Fire TV remote, and it lacks a built-in microphone for voice searches, though you can use this feature when using a phone or tablet loaded with the Fire TV app. The Stick has access to several major streaming services, including Amazon (Prime and Instant), Hulu, Netflix, Showtime, Sling TV, and YouTube.com. Earlier this year the company updated its software with several new features; though some are relegated exclusively to the bigger Fire TV player, the Stick can now be used in hotel rooms with Wi-Fi that requires authentication, and you can now tap into one of a number of curated playlists from Amazon Prime Music directly. Not all the Fire TV games are playable on the Stick, and the optional game remote costs as much as the Fire TV Stick itself. Also, Amazon's FreeTime area for kids, which includes parental controls for content and time limits, isn't available on the Stick.

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Google Chromecast, $35

Google Chromecast
Photo: Chrome

When it first came out, Google's low-priced Chromecast was markedly different from other streaming media players, in that much of its utility comes from being able to wirelessly send—or "cast," in Google's parlance—content from specific apps on a mobile device or from a PC or Mac using a Chrome browser to a TV set. Though some other players now have this capability in a more limited fashion, Chromecast--as well Google's more conventional Nexus Player—has more extensive casting abilities, since it can pretty much send anything found using the Chrome browser to your TV, or from any apps that support Google Cast.

Chromecast is the only streaming stick that doesn't come with a remote control; instead, you use a smart phone or tablet (loaded with the specific app) or computer to control the device. Also, it doesn't really have a TV interface, since most of the control is done via a mobile device. Since our early review, Google has continued to update Chromecast, so it now supports Google Play (Google Video, Google Music), HBO Go, Hulu, Netflix, Showtime Anytime, WatchESPN, and YouTube.

Roku Streaming Stick, $50

Roku Streaming Stick
Photo: Roku

If you like Roku's wealth of content but prefer an even smaller presence in your room, then the Roku Streaming Stick may be just the ticket. In addition to its ability to access tons of content, including streaming movies and TV shows from all the major services—including Amazon (Prime and Instant Video), Hulu, M-Go, Netflix, and Vudu, among others—the Streaming Stick has a beta version of screen mirroring--which has to be enabled in the menu first--and casting capability, letting you cast Netflix and YouTube directly from your phone or tablet to your TV. The player has dual-band Wi-Fi and the updated Netflix app, and it comes with a remote control; you can also use an app on a smartphone or tablet. The Play On Roku feature can stream photos, movies, and music stored on your mobile device to the stick. It's not as fast as the updated Roku 2 and Roku 3 players, and the included remote doesn't have the headphone jack found on the Roku 3, but its $50 price tag might make up for that.

And the winner is . . .

The Roku Streaming Stick and the Fire TV Stick both end up ahead of the Chromecast, which is really a different beast. The Roku has the most content, and it's a highly rated stick-style player. But if you're already an Amazon Prime member, you might want to opt for the Fire TV Stick. It's $10 cheaper, and it has most of the top services offered on the Roku, including HBO Go, which it was missing at launch. But we think either of these players will suit the needs of most families.  

If you're in the market for a new streaming media player and you'd prefer a more conventional settop box-style player, check out our recent streamer shootout, which compared Apple TV to the Fire TV and Roku 3 players. 

—James K. Willcox

 

 

 


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