Roku vs. Apple TV vs. Chromecast vs. Amazon Fire TV: Which streamer should you buy?

Which has the most apps? Which has the coolest features? Which one is the best? The four most popular streamers each have their merits, so we'll help you decide which box is right for you.

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Sarah Tew

If you're looking to buy a streaming box, it's likely you'll end up choosing between three products: Chromecast, Roku, and Apple TV.

And if you're a frequent Amazon.com visitor, there may be a fouth option intruding into your thoughts: Fire TV.

These four aren't the only streamers on the market, but they're the most popular and for good reason -- they all cost under $100 and offer a lot of value for your money. Whichever one you buy, chances are you'll use it all the time.

The Roku platform remains our favorite of the bunch, and the best Roku, the Roku 3, is the CNET Editors' Choice. But it's not necessarily the best choice for every buyer -- cheaper Rokus are nearly as good, and the Google Chromecast and Apple TV are compelling alternatives. Amazon's box is the newest and has some intriguing capabilities, but among this group it's our least-recommended.

So which media streamer is right for you? Let's take a closer look at all of the options.

And if you just want to compare support for major apps, skip down to the chart below.

Roku ($49-99)

Sarah Tew/CNET

Why it's great: Choice of devices, more apps

Multiple hardware and pricing options: None of the other three platforms offers more than device, and Roku has four. If I could recommend just one, it would be the flagship Roku 3 ($99). But Roku also has cheaper options: the Roku 2 ($69), the Roku 1 ($49) and the Streaming Stick ($49). Each has its advantages and disadvantages, which I cover in-depth at Which Roku Streamer Should You Buy?

Over 1,700 apps: Roku is the undisputed winner when it comes to content (see the chart below), with a massive channel library that includes Netflix, Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Spotify, Rdio, MLB.TV, NFL Now, Amazon Cloud Player, Vudu, PBS, TWC TV, and, yes, YouTube. Roku is often the first to get new channels, plus the company has a good track record of bringing updates to its boxes and apps.

Headphone jack in the remote: Plug headphones into the remote (on Roku 3 and Roku 2 only) and you can listen to whatever you're streaming, while it automatically mutes your TV so nobody else in the room is bothered. It's a truly killer feature, especially for late-night viewing.

Blazing-fast: The Roku 3 has the fastest chip of any of Roku's boxes and it shows, making it feel more responsive than any other streaming box I've used, including the newer Amazon Fire TV. The other Rokus are slower than Roku 3 however.

Cross-platform search: No other device in this group offers the ability to search for a title or other keyword across so many services, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Vudu, Crackle, M-Go, and Blockbuster On Demand. Roku's search can also save you money by avoiding having to pay to rent a movie or show that might be available for "free" as part of a subscription.

Content-agnostic: Roku's interface doesn't push you toward one app or service. The platform has a refreshing "come one, come all" vibe that seems more customer-friendly than Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV, down to the ability to move any of the same-sized app tiles on its main interface to any position.

Why it's not perfect

No true AirPlay / Google Cast mirroring equivalent: Both Apple TV and Chromecast let you use native apps on your smartphone, tablet or computer to push content to your streaming box. Sometimes it's easier to use a smartphone than a remote, and mirroring can access services that don't have a dedicated app. Roku is starting to offer some of this functionality -- YouTube and Netflix are currently supported, plus you can push photos, music, and videos stored on your phone -- but it's not nearly as widely adopted as on the other boxes.

Google Chromecast ($35)

Google Chromecast
Sarah Tew/CNET

Why it's great: Cheap, simple, and small

$35 is tough to beat: There's something about the magic price of $35 that makes it the perfect impulse buy. Even if you only end up using it a handful of times, you'll feel like you got your money's worth. And Google seems committed to continuing to offer regular updates to the popular dongle.

Stick form is "not a box": All of the pucklike boxes are compact, but the Chromecast is a stickler for small. The dongle hides behind your TV, although it does need power either from your TV's USB port or the included power adapter. Of course, the $49 Roku Streaming stick offers the same design and includes an actual remote.

Major apps covered: Since its launch with just Netflix and YouTube, app selection continues to balloon. Chromecast now also works with HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Google Music, Plex, Vevo, MLB TV, Crackle, Rdio, Vudu and numerous other apps.

Why it's not perfect: No true TV interface or remote

No onscreen user interface or standard remote: By design, Chromecast doesn't have a true TV-based user interface. Everything is controlled through your smartphone or tablet, which means you may need to unlock your device every time you want to pause or rewind. The other boxes offer apps for smartphone/tablet control if you'd like, but the Chromecast can only be controlled one way. For the living room, I personally prefer real buttons over virtual ones, especially when combined with a universal remote, but it's somewhat a matter of preference.

App selection could still be better: The Chromecast has done a good job of adding more apps, but there are still some significant holes, including Amazon Instant, Vimeo, Spotify and numerous sports apps. Google has opened up the platform with a Software Development Kit (SDK) so more native app support should be on the way soon, but it will still be a while before it catches up to Roku. In the meantime "unofficial" apps like "Filmeo HD for Vimeo" and "Spoticast" help ease the pain.

No cross-platform search: There's no equivalent of Roku's (or Google's) cross-platform search capability with Chromecast. While some third-party apps offer similar functionality, I haven't found any that are quite as easy to use as Roku's integrated search.

Screen mirroring can be spotty: Screen mirroring or "TabCasting" is a beta feature on the Chromecast and it shows. While the ability to project any content from a Chrome tab to your TV sounds great, in reality I've found it doesn't always work well, especially compared with a similar screen-mirroring feature available on the Apple TV and recent Mac laptops. Google does say improved mirroring, along with native photo viewing, is coming soon.

Foiled by wi-fi login screens: The tiny stick might seem like great travel companion but it has an Achilles heel. Two, in fact: login screens and the need for excellent wi-fi, requirements that make it less-than-ideal for hotel use.

Apple TV ($99)

Sarah Tew/CNET

Why it's great: An excellent iOS companion

It 'just works' in the Apple ecosystem: If you own a lot of music, movies and/or TV shows on iTunes, the Apple TV lets you access all that content on your TV and connected sound system. And if you use iTunes Match, all your cloud-stored music is available as well. iTunes Radio was also recently added, giving you a free radio option in your living room too.

AirPlay is just awesome: If you have other iOS devices or a relatively recent Mac computer, it's dead simple to push music, photos, and videos from nearly any app to your Apple TV. It also gives you access to a lot of apps that aren't supported natively by the Apple TV. For example, there's no Pandora app on the box, but it's easy to stream Pandora from an iPhone or iPad.

Catching up with apps: The Apple TV used to get a lot of flak for its limited app support, but it's done a much better job recently, adding high-quality services like HBO Go and Watch ESPN recently.

Why it's not perfect: Showing its age

Fewer apps and features than Roku: Roku has (a lot) more apps, cross-platform search, and a remote with a headphone jack in it. None of those are essential features, but they're all nice to have, especially when the Roku 3 costs the same amount.

Very iTunes-centric: The Apple TV interface seems designed to push you toward iTunes content, with a non-customizeable home screen topped by iTunes movies, TV shows, and music. That's not a problem if you're all-in with the Apple ecosystem, but it's not ideal if you prefer to rent and buy content from other online stores, like Amazon or Vudu -- neither of which are currently available on Apple TV.

New model coming soon? One final thing to consider: there's a lot of speculation that Apple may release a new Apple TV soon. Those rumors have certainly circulated before, but considering how old the current Apple TV hardware is, I would be surprised if we didn't see a new box by the end of 2014, perhaps in partnership with a cable company.

Amazon Fire TV ($99)

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Sarah Tew

Why it's great: Amazin' for Amazon

Loads Amazon video content faster: The Fire TV is plenty speedy, but the box's "ASAP" feature--available only with Amazon Instant and Prime videos--takes fast to another level. Movies and TV shows start almost immediately after selecting them, far faster than any other streamer. The same goes for fast-forwarding and rewinding videos, which can often be clunky on streaming devices.

Voice search that actually works: Unique to any of these streamers, unless you count using voice with your phone and Chromecast (and crossing your fingers), is the ability to search by speaking into the remote. Unlike most such features it actually worked well in our tests, so much that you might actually use it. It's not cross-platform though, searching only Amazon Instant and Vevo for now. As of early August, the promised upgrade to enable voice search on some other apps, including Hulu Plus and Netflix, has yet to arrive.

The best gaming support: Amazon's Fire TV store is loaded with games that were originally designed for phones and tablets, and the box allows you to play them on the big screen. If you give two shakes about this feature, which far outstrips the other streamers' gaming support, you'll want to invest $40 in the optional controller.

Why it's not perfect: Pushy interface and fewer apps

Pushes Amazon content down your throat: Even more so than Apple TV with iTunes, the Fire TV puts Amazon Instant video front and center all the time. Many of the menu options (movies, TV, watchlist, video library, music) show only Amazon content and the home screen has a large section promoting shows recently added to Amazon Prime Instant. The home screen also doesn't allow you to pin your favorite apps, such as Netflix, for easier access, although the Recent menu helps.

Lags behind in apps: Roku and Apple have Fire TV soundly beat in the app arena, and even Chromecast offer a killer app still missing from Amazon's box: HBO Go. Music app support beyond Amazon music is likewise weak.

Feels relatively expensive: Fire TV's premium price point seems like a lesser value than the others. That becomes even more the case if you factor in the $40 controller and the need for a $99/year Amazon Prime subscription to get the most out of the box. Maybe a fire sale is in order.

The good news: they're all pretty good

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Sarah Tew

All four streaming boxes are capable and affordable, which is one reason they all received at least a "Very Good" rating in our reviews. A die-hard iOS user can get a lot of functionality out of the Google Chromecast, and an Android fan can get a lot out of an Apple TV.

As of now, the Roku 3 is still the best option for most buyers, but it's a quickly evolving space, as the Chromecast and Amazon Fire TV continue to add more apps, and the rumors intensify about a newer, better Apple TV.

The Chart: Major apps compared

Roku Apple TV Google Chromecast Amazon Fire TV
Netflix Yes Yes Yes Yes
Amazon Instant Yes AirPlay No Yes
YouTube Yes Yes Yes Yes
Hulu Plus Yes Yes Yes Yes
HBO Go Yes Yes Yes No
Showtime Anytime Yes Yes Yes Yes
Vudu Yes Yes Yes No
Flixster Yes Yes Yes Yes
Crackle Yes Yes Yes Yes
PBS Yes Yes TabCast Yes
PBS Kids Yes Yes Yes Yes
Disney Channels Yes Yes TabCast Yes
Time Warner Cable TV Yes No No No
SlingPlayer Yes AirPlay Yes No
Sky News Yes Yes No No
Starz Play No No Yes No
Watch ESPN Yes Yes Yes Yes
MLB.TV Yes Yes Yes Yes
NFL Now Yes Yes No Yes
NBA Game Time Yes Yes No Yes
Pandora Yes AirPlay Yes Yes
Spotify Yes AirPlay TabCast Yes
Rdio Yes AirPlay Yes No
Rhapsody No AirPlay Yes No
Beats Music No Yes No No
Vevo Yes Yes Yes Yes
"Radio" & iTunes radio No Yes No No
TuneIn Yes AirPlay TabCast Yes
iHeartRadio Yes AirPlay No Yes
Amazon Music Yes AirPlay No Yes
iTunes content No Yes No No
Google Play content No No Yes No
Plex Yes AirPlay Yes Yes

Chart Notes: Apps were selected based on editorial discretion. All of these devices support additional apps beyond those listed here. "Yes" means the device supports the app natively; "AirPlay" and "TabCast" mean the device supports the app using that mirroring function instead of natively; "No" means the device does not currently have the app or did not fully support it via mirroring in our tests. The list applies only to the U.S. market; app selection varies in other countries worldwide. App selection is current as of November 11, 2014.

 

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