What’s the difference in these streaming devices and which one is right for you?

  Streaming TV options are plentiful. Depending on your taste in movies and TV shows, you can subscribe to streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, YouTube, YouTube TV, HBO Max, Triller, and lots of other offerings. There are also dozens of free options such as Pluto TV, Tubi, and Crackle. 

One question I get frequently is “what’s the best way to view these streaming options?”

Most TVs these days are smart, meaning those streaming services can be viewed without any additional equipment. Those smart TVs have operating systems similar to web browsers. LG smart TVs use WebOS, SAMSUNG TVs use Tizen and Vizio has its own operating system called SmartCast. 

What if you don’t have a smart TV? What if you do but you’d like to have another option? What if you’d like to take your smart TV options and streaming services with you when traveling? In those cases, you’ll likely want to invest a few bucks for a streaming device. 

The most popular choices right now are the Roku, Amazon FireStick, Chromecast, and Apple TV. You can find them in almost any big-box retailer and online. So what’s the difference? Which one should you get for yourself or gift someone?

First, these secondary devices are very similar. They can all stream the popular services. For the most part, they plug into an HDMI input and some with their own remote control.

The Amazon FireStick, Roku, and Chromecast all have devices that do not require a set-top device although the Roku also has a small set-top box with more features. The Apple TV is a set-top box.

The biggest difference between all of these devices is the interface. Here’s what you can expect:

The Amazon FireStick displays available content on the screen with tiles showing the movie and shows title. The thing about the FireStick device is that it places Amazon Prime content in front of any other service. You can still open the Netflix or Hulu tiles for instance to browse content, but clearly, Amazon hopes you’ll choose something from Amazon Prime Video.

Chromecast with Android TV displays content similarly but Google doesn’t play favorites. Based on what you most recently watched, the Chromecast displays movie and show titles it thinks you’ll want to watch next. The interface is easy to navigate. 

The Roku interface is very simple and basic. After launching Roku, you’ll see tiles of all of your streaming options. You won’t see content suggestions until you choose a service.

The Roku is much better at searching. Enter a search term such as a movie or show title, or an actor or actress name and the Roku will search all of the available services for results. 

For example, when I entered “Ted Danson movies”, the Roku found just about every movie the actor appeared whether it was on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, AppleTV+, Disney or any of the free options.

When I want to find a specific movie or actor, I use the Roku search function. If I want to just browse what’s playing, I’ll use the FireStick or Chromecast.

Each of the companies has devices that stream 4K and UHD content where available.  

So which is right for you?

If you need or want quick suggestions on what to watch next: Amazon FireStick or Chromecast with Android TV

If you want a simple interface and great search: Roku

If you have purchased movies, shows, and music from Apple: Apple TV

One final note and a tip:

You can purchase 9 Roku or FireSticks for the price of one Apple TV device

No matter which device you go with, download the companion app. Roku and FireStick have their own remote control apps while Chromecast can use the Google Home app. The included remotes are somewhat fragile and I’ve lost a few Roku and FireStick remotes as well as had some damage after getting caught in a sofa or someone sitting down on one. Without a remote or the remote app, you will be unable to control the streaming device. 

Amazon, Best Buy, Walmart, and Target have already dropped the price of Roku and FireStick devices to around $20. The Google Chromecast with Android TV is around $50 but you won’t find the latest version on Amazon. 

One more (and most important) tip:

Whichever streaming device you choose, keep in mind not all work with other devices in your home. Some smart doorbells work only with Google’s devices. Others work best, or only with FireStick streaming devices.

Like other smart home devices, it’s best to choose one ecosystem and stick with it. Adding smart bulbs, thermostats, doorbells, and security cameras to your home could mean you need multiple apps to control each device individually.

Check the box, and do some research before making a purchase. Make sure it works with your other devices.