Update: Apple has just announced a new Apple TV. Called the Apple TV 4K, the new device brings support for 4K and HDR to Apple's set top box. We'll be revisiting this comparison piece in the coming months with more information on how the new device shapes up against the competition.
Original article continues below...
At this point, streaming video players are nothing new – they've been on our media shelves for over a decade at this point. With that perspective in mind and ample testing time under our belts, we thought now would be the best time to run through some quick pros and cons of each streaming video platform.
The goal here is to help you understand which of the streaming video players is the best for your setup, taking into consideration ease-of-use, content catalogue size and overall performance of each of the players.
By the end of the slideshow, you should be able to pick out which of the players makes sense for you and your family, as well as some information on some of the other players that you might need down the road.
Let's get this streaming party started!
- Don't forget, Amazon Prime Day 2017 is just around the corner
Which one has the easiest setup?
When looking for a brand-new streaming video player it's important to find one that's easy to setup – especially if you're buying it for someone who might not know their way around technology like you do.
That being said, all four of the major streaming video players are pretty easy to setup. Chromecast and Roku require you to connect the players to the web using a code that appears on your screen, while Apple and Amazon can connect to the internet without requiring you to go to a website to register them first.
While all four major players differ in the variety of ports offered along their backside, there's one common thread among all of them: the HDMI cable. What does that mean for you? Well, any TV you want to hook up to one of these players will require an HDMI port (except in the case of the Roku Express which can use standard composite RWY cables). You should also have a relatively fast internet connection (greater than 15mbps) if you plan on streaming 4K videos.
Winner(s): None of these players are hard to setup, but we quite liked how easy it was to setup both the Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV.
Which has the best interface?
Setup is one thing, but actually using the device on a day-to-day basis is another.
After using the interfaces for a number of years, we have to say, Roku probably has the best, most-intuitive interface. Why? Everything is easy to find and relatively straight forward. There's a spot for everything in the home channel, and while Roku doesn't have the most interesting app selection in the world (we'll cover that in a second), it's not hard to find something to watch.
Similarly, Amazon Fire TV has a pretty straight forward interface as well – however, it largely depends on you subscribing to Amazon Prime to function. If you're a Prime subscriber, you'll find recommended films and shows readily, with additional for-purchase options listed further on the home screen. It's easy to parse which content is part of Prime and which content is not, and we liked that Amazon's Fire TV Store includes games as well.
Well if there's one thing that's changed with the new Apple TV it's the interface (it sure isn't its physical appearance which is still a boring black box). It runs a brand new operating system called tvOS, which is clearly based on iOS 9 but with some Mac OS elements thrown in. While the old Apple TV rather enthusiastically offered you iTunes-based content above all others, tvOS actually integrates all your other apps in a more helpful way. It has games, productivity apps, music and video streaming apps from a number of high-profile developers, offering a great selection of content while still keeping everything organized and easy to find.
All of these options are clearly a lightyears ahead of Chromecast, which doesn't actually have a GUI as it's designed so you can simply 'throw' content at your TV from your phone or tablet. It's simple to throw content from any device on your Wi-Fi network, but it's not always the simplest thing to explain to people coming over and interacting with a Chromecast for the first time.
Winner: We like Roku's simple interface the best, but recognize that some might appreciate the Apple TV's flashy, colorful and well-organized aesthetic.
Which one offers the most content?
So which one offers the most content? Well ... the answer is a bit murky, unfortunately, and it largely depends on which ecosystem you're tied into.
The good news is that all four major players support Netflix and YouTube, the two staples of streaming video. Three of the four (Roku, Apple TV and Fire TV) also support native Amazon Prime Video apps as well – which is great for anyone interested in streaming award-winning hits like Catastrophe and Transparent off Amazon's video service.
At least you can rest assured knowing that whichever box you buy, you can watch most of your favorite shows.
So what are the differences?
Well, on Apple TV you have the ability to watch anything from an iOS device thanks to AirPlay – a technology that takes whatever you're seeing on your screen and sends it to your TV. That includes photos, music and more, and it's pretty convenient if you're big on Apple devices.
For Android fans, you've got a system called Google Cast that works much in the same way for the Chromecast and Chromecast Ultra. Pick out what you'd like to see on big screen, and press the Cast button to send it to the TV.
So what do Roku and Amazon bring to the table? A little thing called universal search that helps you track down the best places to stream shows and movies. Search "Guardians of the Galaxy" on either device, and you'll see a list of every streaming service offering the film, along with a price for each. This is really handy if you're a thrifty spender and you don't care where content comes from.
Winner: on content alone, all these options are great in their own way
Which one offers 4K and/or HDR streaming?
4K and HDR have become two big buzzwords in televisions over the last few years. 4K, also known as Ultra HD, refers to the amount of pixels a device can process and display, while High Dynamic Range (HDR) refers to the quality of each of the pixels in terms of color depth and contrast.
Ready for more good news? Three of the four players offer 4K streaming – Chromecast Ultra, Roku Premiere+ and Roku Ultra plus the Amazon Fire TV – while Chromecast and Roku offer HDR streaming.
That being said, Roku is the only streaming device that makes finding this content a cinch by providing a dedicated area on its interface for 4K content.
Winner: Roku offers both HDR and 4K streaming, and has a dedicated section of its interface to help you find that content.
Do any of them replace a game console?
This is where things start to get a bit more complicated.
In our opinion, none of these players replace a traditional game console (though the Nvidia Shield gets pretty close).
Of the four we've explored so for, Apple TV was built with apps and gaming at its heart and probably offers the biggest diversity on the matter. Roku has a few titles on its store, but the offering isn't great. It's a similar story for Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast, the latter of which requires you to download games from either the Apple App Store or Google Play Store and then Cast them to your TV.
Winner: The Apple TV has this one sewn up, but Nvidia Shield is your best bet
Which one has the best remote?
What's a streaming box without a remote? (Answer: it's a paperweight.)
Obviously a remote is a relatively important tool, and while it probably won't be a deal-breaker to have a less-than-ideal control pad, it's worth exploring which one of the four devices has the best one.
In practice, the Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV have the most similar remotes. Both offer built-in microphones and have buttons for going to the home screen and back one screen. Roku, similarly, has buttons for all of the above as well as dedicated buttons for popular streaming services like Netflix or Amazon Prime.
The black sheep of the bunch is Chromecast, which doesn't offer anything in the way of a remote and instead asks that you use a phone or tablet as a controller. It's not the worst thing to use a mobile device as a remote, and in some ways can actually be pretty handy, but we have noticed a few issues over the years of the Chromecast not transitioning properly from one show to the next, and we've been forced to get up and restart the Chromecast on more than one occasion.
Winner: This one's a three-way tie between Roku, Amazon and Apple.
Which one is the least expensive?
C'mon, you were thinking about this one the whole time weren't you? It's OK, there's no shame in being frugal!
At the top of the list in terms of content per dollar (or content per pound in the UK) Chromecast is the real winner here - it only costs $30/£30 for the 1080p streamer and $69 (£69 or about AU$90) for the 4K Chromecast Ultra.For an economical way of turning your dumb TV into a smart TV, it can't be beaten.
That said, the Fire TV stick is also super economical, costing just $39 (£39), it's another option that offers stunning value for money.
When you're talking about full-size boxes, the Roku Premiere+ is probably the best value for your money at $99 (about £80, AU$130), with the Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV coming in at a close second costing around the same.
Winner: Chromecast wins for its incredible value for money.
So which one should you buy?
Here we are at the end of the road. Hopefully you can point out the differences between an Apple TV and an Amazon Fire TV (hint: one requires Amazon Prime), and know which streamer costs the least. *Cough, Chromecast.*
You might even know which one you want to buy. But, if you don't, that's OK. Here's a wrap up that should help you make that decision:
Amazon Fire TV is perfect for the Amazon Prime watcher in your life or early smart home adopter. Alexa, Amazon Fire TV's built-in AI, can help direct you to tons of new shows at the best price, but will obviously steer you towards Amazon titles and services most of the time.
Chromecast and Chromecast Ultra are for the DIYers in your life. They are the most barebone of the bunch, neither one offering a remote or an interface to speak of, but that's part of the appeal. They allow anyone in the house to stream content from their mobile device making it a great companion for parties where everyone wants to share a funny YouTube video. They're also darn cheap.
Apple TV is for the people who don't want a 4K streaming device, but do want access to tons of neat apps and games. It's one of the more expensive options on the list, but it has the most potential as it continues to evolve.
Roku is our all-around favorite streaming video player platform. It might be basic by some people's standards, but it knows how to sniff out content from any of the major streaming services and can play nice with everything. It offers 4K and HDR streaming and the hardware is pretty future-proof.
Winner: Roku ... but now you have the knowledge to decide for yourself!