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Roku vs. Amazon Fire TV: Which streaming device is best for Netflix, Hulu, YouTube in 2019?

This battle of the sticks and boxes pits the streaming specialist against one of the most powerful companies on Earth. Who wins?

roku stick amazon fire tv stick
Sarah Tew/CNET

Looking for a cheap, easy way to get streaming video from Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube, HBO, ESPN and everything else on to your TV? You have two excellent choices: Roku and Amazon Fire TV

Roku has long been the most popular name in media streamers, but recently Amazon's Fire TV system has been gaining ground. In my in-depth reviews, both work great, and most of the Roku and Fire TV streamers I've reviewed have received an 8.0 (excellent) rating or higher. 

They have more similarities than differences.  

  • Both are super-affordable, starting at $30 for Roku and $40 for Fire TV. 
  • Both have access to approximately umpteen zillion TV apps, including all of the major ones (with some exceptions; see below), and most apps look and behave basically the same on both -- even YouTube on Fire TV.
  • The latest models are pretty much equally quick, responsive and reliable as long as you have a solid internet connection.
  • Both (except for the cheapest Rokus) offer remotes with TV volume and power buttons to control most TVs, so you can ditch the remote that came with your TV. 
  • Both have numerous models, starting with basic streamers up to 4K-compatible versions with voice, device control and headphone jacks built into the remote.

So which one's better? It depends on what you want. 

Disclaimer: CNET may get a share of revenue from the sale of the products featured below.

Best overall: Roku

My go-to recommendation is Roku. Here's why.

Better menus. Roku's no-nonsense menu system places the apps themselves front-and-center and lets you arrange them however you please, just like on your phone. It gets me to the apps and shows I want quickly, without filling the screen with other junk.   

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Roku's menus are all about the apps, just like your phone.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Using a Fire TV stick means wading through a bunch of TV shows and movies in addition to the apps themselves. That would be fine if they were the TV shows and movies I'm in the middle of watching, or might actually want to watch -- something Netflix's menus do well. But more often than not, I don't care about the TV shows and movies on Fire TV's screen. They just seem like stuff Amazon or its partners want me to watch.

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In addition to apps, Fire TV's menus are packed with stuff you may not care about -- much of it from Amazon itself.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Better search.  Search results on Roku are straightforward and price-centric. You're shown how much a movie or TV show costs and can click through to watch or buy it -- and if it's free because you're a subscriber, you'll see that, too. Fire TV's results are much more confusing, with multiple options and false positives. And once you find what you want, you're shown just one primary service, and you have to click through to see "more ways to watch."

More apps. Roku has pretty much every app you could want, including Amazon Prime video, of course. Fire TV also has pretty much every app under the sun, so this isn't a huge differentiator -- unless you want YouTube TV, one of our favorite live TV streaming services, or Vudu or Google Play Movies and TV, two major sources of recent movies to buy or rent that compete directly against Amazon video itself. Fire TV's Movies Anywhere app is a good substitute for those latter two, however.

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Cheapest: Roku Express (unless Fire TV is on sale)

The cheapest Roku player is the $30 Roku Express, a fine choice for a bare-bones streamer. It brings all of the advantages of Roku I mentioned above, and performs perfectly well, but lacks any of the extras discussed below.

The cheapest Fire TV is the $40 Fire TV Stick, which regularly sells for $40. It has more features than the Roku Express, including a voice remote and TV control, and often goes on sale for $30.

See the Roku Express at Amazon
See the Fire TV Stick at Amazon

Of course there are a bunch of other more-expensive Roku players -- six in all -- and two more-expensive Fire TV streamers. Many of them are better choices than these basic versions because they don't charge much more for additional very useful extras.

Speaking of extras, there's a variant called the Roku Express Plus ($35) that's designed for older TVs that lack HDMI ports. Every Fire TV device requires a TV with HDMI. 

See the Roku Express Plus at Walmart

Best for 4K TVs: Roku Streaming Stick Plus

This is a close one, but in my opinion the edge still goes to Roku. 

The main battle is between the $60 Roku Streaming Stick Plus and the $50 Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K.

See the Roku Streaming Stick Plus at Amazon
See the Fire TV Stick 4K at Amazon

Aside from the main advantages above (interface, apps and search), Roku also has access to more 4K content via the Vudu and Google Play Movies and TV apps, which Fire TV lacks. Amazon's own library of 4K HDR movies to rent and buy is paltry in comparison to Vudu's. Yes, you can always rent and purchase stuff via those services (or iTunes) separately and use the Movies Anywhere app on Fire TV to watch it, but it's convenient to do everything on a single device.

The Fire TV Stick 4K's main advantage over Roku is compatibility with the Dolby Vision HDR format, which might be important to you if your TV performs significantly better with DV than standard HDR. But for most people, that advantage doesn't overcome Roku's strengths, even at $10 cheaper.

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Want to watch TV hands-free, commanding the TV with just your voice? Fire TV + Alexa speaker, like this Echo Dot, works better than Roku + Google Home.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Best for voice: Fire TV + Alexa

If you care about using voice control to find TV shows and movies, Fire TV wins.

Yes, Roku offers voice search on its remote starting with the $50 Roku Streaming Stick and Premiere Plus, but every Fire TV has this feature, including the $40 basic Fire TV Stick. 

Both let you easily search, launch apps and control playback (fast-forward, pause, etc.) via voice, but Fire TV also lets you do everything Alexa does, including control smart-home devices, get a weather report and answer questions, complete with on-screen results. Alexa's voice also talks back through the TV's speakers.

If you have an Alexa speaker like an Echo Dot, you can do pretty much everything hands-free on Fire TV (no remote required) with standard Alexa commands. Say "Alexa, watch Roma" and Fire TV launches Netflix and starts playing the movie, for example. 

See the Fire TV Stick + Echo Dot bundle at Amazon
See the Fire TV Stick 4K + Echo Dot bundle at Amazon

Roku players work in the same way with Google Home speakers but not as well. Netflix doesn't work with Roku and Google Home and you have to remember to say "Roku" at the end of every command ("OK Google, launch Hulu on Roku"). Still, if you own a Google Home speaker already and want to use it for TV control, Fire TV isn't an option.

Roku streamers also work with Alexa speakers subject to the same restrictions (no Netflix support, must say "Roku" in the command). 

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You can use the Roku app on your phone for private headphone listening with any Roku player

Sarah Tew/CNET

Best for private listening via headphones: Roku (especially Roku Ultra)

Roku has long had a really cool feature on its higher-end players: A headphone jack built into the remote control itself. You just plug your headphones into the clicker and the audio on the TV or soundbar mutes automatically, and sound comes through the headphones instead, complete with volume control on the 'phones.

Unfortunately, among the latest Rokus, only the $100 Roku Ultra comes with a headphone jack remote.

See the Roku Ultra at Amazon

If you don't want to spend all the way up for the Ultra you have two options. You can buy the Roku Enhanced Remote, which has a headphone jack, for $30. It pairs with any recent Roku streamer and even adds voice search. Or you can use the free Roku app on your phone. It works exactly the same as with the Ultra -- just fire up the app and attach headphones to your phone. 

Fire TV's only option for private listening is to pair Bluetooth headphones, but it's not nearly as effective. Doing so can introduce audio lag (lip sync error) and you'll need to have a volume control built into the headphones.

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With a mute key and the ability to command sound bars and receivers in addition to your TV, Fire TV's remote is better for device control.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Best for TV and device control: Fire TV (especially Fire TV Cube)

Both Roku and Fire TV offer devices with buttons on the remote designed to control your TV. It's a great feature, because it allows you to ditch your TV's own remote and use the streamer's clicker for everything. In both cases setup is dead-simple -- the streamer automatically recognizes your TV and programs the remote wirelessly, without you having to do anything besides confirm it works -- but Fire TV is cheaper and more capable.

The cheapest Roku streamers that come with TV control remotes are the $50 Roku Streaming Stick and Premiere Plus. The Fire TV Stick 2019 has a TV control remote for $40.

Roku's remotes have buttons for TV power and TV volume up/down. Fire TV's remotes have those too, but add a mute button.

Roku's remotes can only control televisions, but with Fire TV you can also control sound bars and even AV receivers. Yes, if your TV supports HDMI CEC and you have an HDMI sound bar, the Roku's volume and power buttons can probably control it, but Fire TV's remote can control pretty much any bar.

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The unique Fire TV Cube can control your TV and a bunch of gear using "Alexa" voice commands.

Sarah Tew/CNET

And Roku doesn't have anything like the $120 Fire TV Cube. A little box designed to sit near your TV, it combines all the capabilities of the Fire TV Stick 4K (except for Dolby Vision HDR) and all the capabilities of an Echo Dot, plus the unique ability to control a full-on entertainment system via voice. Using it can sometimes feel like magic, but it's not for everyone. Check out the video below if you're curious.

See the Fire TV Cube at Amazon
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By this point you hopefully have enough info to decide for yourself which of the two most popular streamers works best for you. For our full reviews of Roku and Fire TV devices, as well as their competitors like Google Chromecast, Apple TV and Nvidia Shield, check out our list of Best Media Streamers