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 most popular media streamers all have their merits, so we'll help you decide which box is right for you.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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

If you're a frequent Amazon.com visitor, there may be a fourth option intruding into your thoughts: Fire TV. And if you happen to be a hard-core Google fan, you might be considering the Google Nexus Player and Android TV.

These five 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.

Simple answer: Just buy the Roku 3

The Roku platform remains our favorite of the bunch, and the best Roku, the Roku 3, won a CNET Editors' Choice Award. Despite being released in March 2013, it still delivers a better overall experience than any of the other boxes or sticks, with the most apps and the best search, as well as a lightning-quick interface.

That said, 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. The boxes from Amazon and Google are the newest and have some intriguing capabilities, but among this group we're less likely to recommend them. Then there's the $39 Amazon Fire TV stick, which we really like for the price -- albeit not as much as Roku's stick.

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

But first, if you're looking for a more granular comparison of the $35-$50 streaming sticks, check out Measuring the Sticks. And if you just want to compare support for major apps, skip down to the chart below.

Roku ($50-100)

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Why it's great: More choice of devices, more apps

Multiple hardware and pricing options: CurrentlyRoku has four different players, not counting Roku TV. If I could recommend only one, it would be the flagship Roku 3 ($100). But Roku also has cheaper options: the Roku 2 ($70), the Roku 1 ($50) and the Streaming Stick ($50). Each has its advantages and disadvantages, which I cover in depth in "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. In the latest example, it added Google Play Movies and TV almost the same day the Nexus Player launched.

On December 16, 2014, Comcast lifted its long-standing ban on HBO Go and Showtime Anytime, finally allowing Roku to stream the apps to its subscribers.

Headphone jack in the remote: Plug headphones into the remote (for the 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, but still plenty speedy.

Best-in-class 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 letting you know when you can avoid paying to rent a movie or show that might be available for "free" as part of a subscription. You can also search via voice using Roku's remote app for iOS and Android.

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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, Amazon Fire TV or Android TV, which all more or less push you toward the hardware makers' own content. One manifestation of this egalitarianism is that you can move any of the same-sized app tiles in its main interface to any position.

Why it's not perfect: Weak mirroring and gaming

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. The company also added screen mirroring to the Roku 3 and Streaming Stick, but it's a beta feature that only works with recent Android devices, Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone. See our How To for details.

Sparse gaming support: Compared with Android TV, Fire TV and even Chromecast, Roku's selection of games is pretty weak. But hey, it's better than Apple TV's.

Google Chromecast ($35)

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

$35 is tough to beat: There's something about the magic price of $35 that makes this 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 $40 Fire TV Stick and the $50 Roku Streaming stick offer the same design and include an actual remote.

Major apps covered, catalog growing: Since its launch with just Netflix and YouTube, app selection continues to balloon. Chromecast now also works with HBO Go, Showtime Anytime, Starz Play, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Google Music, Plex, Vevo, MLB TV, Crackle, Rdio, Vudu and numerous other apps. The ease of adding "Cast" support to pretty much any existing Android or iOS app has also helped the Chromecast library expand very quickly recently.

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

No onscreen user interface or standard remote: By design, the 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: An increasing number of apps offer Cast support, but there are still some significant holes, including Amazon Instant, Vimeo, Spotify and numerous sports apps. Google's open Software Development Kit (SDK) means more apps get updated with the Cast feature all the time, 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 Amazon's, or Google's) 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 being able to project any content from a Chrome tab to your TV sounds great, in reality it doesn't always work well, especially compared with a similar screen-mirroring feature available on the Apple TV and recent Mac laptops. You can TabCast Amazon Instant, for example, but the quality is worse and dropouts common in our experience.

Apple TV ($99)

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Why it's great: An excellent iOS companion

It 'just works' in the Apple ecosystem: If you own a lot of music, movies 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 gives you a free radio option in your living room too.

AirPlay mirroring is just awesome: If you have other iOS devices like an iPhone or iPad, 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. The same goes for Vudu, Plex and SlingPlayer, to name a few. AirPlay also works with web pages, providing access to video-heavy sites like ComedyCentral.com.

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. Aside from Amazon Instant, pretty much every major video app is now available on Apple TV.

Why it's not perfect: Showing its age

Fewer apps and features than Roku: Roku has (a lot) more apps and a remote with a headphone jack. Those are significant differences, especially when the Roku 3 costs the same amount.

No games or cross-platform search: Even Roku's paltry game selection is better than Apple TV's, which has no games at all. Even if you don't care about playing games on your streaming device, you might miss the option to search across different apps for content.

Very iTunes-centric: Although it's not as pushy as Amazon or Android TV, the Apple TV interface is still designed to steer you toward iTunes content, with a 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 have apps 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 in 2015, perhaps in partnership with a cable company.

Amazon Fire TV ($39-99)

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Why it's great: Amazin' for Amazon

Choice of stick or box: The newest streaming device here, the Amazon Fire TV Stick, costs just $39. It offers almost all of the functionality of the $99 box, making it one of the best values available in streaming. No wonder it sold out almost immediately, and is difficult to find during the 2014 holiday season.

Loads Amazon video content faster: The Fire TV box and stick are both plenty speedy, but the "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: Like the Nexus Player, the Fire TV offers the ability to search by speaking into the remote (with the Fire TV Stick that voice-capable remote is a $30 option, but you can still voice search via the app). Unlike most such features it actually worked well in our tests, so much so that you might actually use it. Since launch Amazon has enabled voice search across numerous other apps too, including Hulu Plus, HBO Go and Showtime Anytime, although results from Netflix are still conspicuously absent.

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The best gaming support: Amazon's Fire TV store is loaded with games that were originally designed for phones and tablets, and both the Fire TV box and the stick allow you to play them on the big screen (the box supports more games than the stick). If you give two shakes about this feature, which far outstrips most other streamers' gaming support, you'll want to invest $40 in the optional controller. The exception is Android TV with the Nexus Player, which also offers robust game support and an optional controller.

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

Pushes Amazon content down your throat: 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, watch list, 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 offers more apps. Music app support beyond Amazon music is pretty weak too. That said, the Fire TV platform took a major step forward in December 2015 when Amazon made good on its promise to add HBO Go. The downside? It won't be available on the Stick until Spring 2015.

And despite reaching a deal with Roku, Comcast still doesn't allow HBO Go and Showtime Anytime streaming to Fire TV for its subscribers. Neither does Charter.

Google Nexus Player ($99)

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Why it's great: The best voice search, Android openness

Conversational voice search: The company behind Google Now gets voice search, and the Nexus Player does it better than even the Fire TV. Not only will it return results for titles and actors, but it can handle complex queries like "Science fiction new releases" with aplomb.

Combines traditional native apps and casting: Like the innovative Chromecast, the Nexus player is compatible with Google's Cast service in addition to its (for now tiny) selection of native apps. It also works with TabCast from a Chrome browser and Android phone screen mirroring.

Gaming and the potential of Google Play: At launch the Fire TV offers more games, but Android TV and the Nexus Player's selection is a close second, and far outpaces the others. If developers and Google open up more games and apps currently available on the Play store, it will get even better.

Why it's not perfect: Pushes Google content, paltry native app selection

Tied too closely to unpopular Google Play Movies and TV: With the current Android TV interface on the Nexus Player, Google is even more obnoxious than Apple and Amazon about force-feeding users its own content. Compared with those two ecosystems, the Google Play video service lags far behind in popularity.

Voice search only works with Google services: Sure, it works great, but for now voice search only finds results from Google and YouTube. Google says the selection of searchable apps will expand eventually.

The smallest selection of native apps: It's early days yet, but so far Android TV had fewer native apps (as opposed to Cast-compatible apps) than any of the other platforms. Since launch only MLB TV and NBA Game Time have been added as major native apps.

No Ethernet: All of the other $99 boxes offer a wired Ethernet port, which is great if you don't have reliable Wi-Fi near your TV. The Nexus Player (like the sticks) is Wi-Fi-only.

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The good news: They're all pretty good

All of these streaming devices are capable and affordable, which is one reason they all received at least a "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, Nexus Player and Amazon Fire TV continue to add more apps, and the rumors intensify about a newer, better Apple TV.

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The Chart: Major apps compared

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

*HBO Go is available now on the Fire TV box, but not coming to the stick until Spring 2015.

Other 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," "Cast" 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 December 19, 2014.

 

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