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Roku Streaming Stick Plus vs. Chromecast with Google TV: Battle of the best $50 streamers

Both devices are excellent, but which is the best streaming stick for you?

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As the holidays approach, everybody is starting to look for deals on gifts. One category of gadgets that's more popular than ever are streaming sticks, the small dongles that bring TV shows and movies from Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus, HBO Max and Hulu to any TV.

CNET has reviewed nearly all of the major streaming devices, and our two favorites are Roku's Streaming Stick Plus and Google's new Chromecast with Google TV. Both devices, as well as Amazon's Fire TV Stick 4K, cost $50 and deliver most of the major apps you'll want to stream in 4K resolution and high dynamic range. In our book, the Roku and Chromecast outshine Fire TV on either functionality or ease of use, which is why we're focusing on those two here. 

To see how they stack up against one another, let's take a look at a few key areas: interface, features and remote. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Roku's Streaming Stick Plus has long been our Editors' Choice pick in the category for some pretty good reasons: it's super simple to use, has a robust selection of apps and streaming services (including HBO Max), supports 4K HDR and does a great job keeping its platform updated. The latest major update is support for Apple's AirPlay 2, a notable feature for iOS and Mac users to cast photos, video and more from their phones and computers to their TVs. Voice support, however, lags behind rivals.

Read our Roku Streaming Stick Plus review.

 

Juan Garzon/CNET

Google has tried various efforts to win the battle of the living room for years, but it finally has a worthy contender in the Chromecast with Google TV. The search giant's latest offering packs in Dolby Vision, an improved interface as well as excellent integration with its Google Assistant for voice control and search. Unlike Amazon and Roku, it has support for HBO Max and will add the Apple TV app and Apple TV Plus in 2021. Google's track record with TV, however, isn't as strong as Roku's, and the interface, while fine, isn't as simple as its rival.

Read our Chromecast with Google TV review.

 

Best interface: Roku Streaming Stick Plus

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The Roku interface is clean and simple, with large tiles for apps arranged in a grid. 

David Katzmaier/CNET

Roku's interface is as easy to use as it gets. A colorful array of app tiles are arranged in a grid that you can arrange to taste. Responses on the Streaming Stick Plus are super-quick, and within seconds I was inside services like Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu or Sling TV. There are no big recommendation tabs of what to watch, or posters of shows or movies cluttering the tiles (though there are some ads on the right side when scrolling through the grid). The app store, found in the left-hand section labeled Streaming Channels, is just as quick and easy to navigate as the main menu.

The Chromecast with Google TV makes nice progress compared to both earlier Android TV devices and Google's prior Chromecasts, which lacked any navigation at all. Although the menus look clear, and the main For You tab is fine, it is more cluttered than the "stick to basics" approach Roku takes, with no quick way to see a grid of all your installed apps. I also had moments where it lagged a bit. 

Google also needs more power than the Roku, so you likely won't be able to power it right off your TV's USB port (both include cables and adapters) and will need to find an open wall outlet.  

When it comes to ease of use, Roku wins. 

Best features: Chromecast with Google TV

01-google-tv-chromecast-launch-2020.png

The Google TV interface. 

Screenshot by Sarah Tew/CNET

Google wins the best features category, but it's a bit closer than the interface battle.

With support for Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos out of the box, support for gaming platforms like Google's own Stadia coming in 2021, and close integration with YouTube TV for streaming live television, Google does a really nice job creating a powerful streaming stick. Throw in the excellent use of its Google Assistant for voice search and control, which is miles ahead of Roku's voice assistant, and there is a lot to love.

Both Google and Roku will soon support all the major streaming services. HBO Max recently arrived on Roku, while Google will be adding Apple TV Plus and the Apple TV app to its platform in 2021. Here's a chart comparing the four major platforms' support for big new apps:

Major new apps by platform support

Device HBO Max Peacock Apple TV Plus
Roku Yes Yes Yes
Fire TV Yes No Yes
Chromecast with Google TV Yes Yes Coming in 2021
Apple TV Yes Yes Yes

As it does with menus, Roku's device isn't as flashy but it still has 4K HDR and new features like AirPlay support could be really useful for the millions of Apple users. Google's device supports casting from Android devices as well as casting from apps on iOS or other platforms that support Chromecast. 

Another reason why this is close is in the track record. Google has a notably checkered past when it comes to supporting devices past the first year or two (both TV and in general). It has gotten a lot better lately but still has a ways to go. Roku, by contrast, has shown support for older devices for a number of years, something that is evidenced by how many of its products are slated to get that AirPlay update. 

While the flashy features are impressive, unlike the menus -- a core component of both devices that everyone will need to use -- they are, for the most part, much more niche. Dolby Vision and Atmos only work if you have the right equipment, while Stadia and YouTube TV integration are only game-changers if you pay for either service. That said they all do add value, and that integration with Google Assistant is excellent and makes using the Chromecast feel a lot more modern. 

Putting it all together, and Google gets the edge here.

Best remote: Tie

Google finally includes a remote with a Chromecast, and it's a perfectly solid one. The size is compact but still comfortable to hold. It can handle input, power and volume control for your TV and all the plastic buttons are clicky and responsive with dedicated keys for Netflix and YouTube. A mic is present, as is a color-shifted button for summoning Google Assistant. 

Chromecast with Google TV

The Chromecast with Google TV's remote is a very welcome addition. 

Juan Garzon/CNET

Roku's remote, well, looks like a Roku remote. The company hasn't done much to change up what admittedly already was a good thing. Volume and TV power control are both here (though there isn't any input control), with rubberized buttons for navigation, media playback, and quick control to Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu and Sling. A microphone and dedicated mic button are also here. 

roku-voice-remote-in-hand

The remote for the Streaming Stick Plus is similar to most other Roku remotes. 

Roku

Whereas Google wins on getting input control, I do appreciate that Roku has dedicated buttons for popular streaming services like Disney Plus and Hulu, as well as a button to quickly jump back a few seconds (10 seconds on Netflix, for example, or 20 seconds on Disney Plus). 

Neither, sadly, has headphone jacks for private listening (though this could always be added later for Roku) or support for quickly finding the remote like Roku's pricier Ultra box. Ultimately, it's a toss-up. 

Best overall streamer: Roku Streaming Stick Plus

Roku Streaming Stick Plus

This year it's closer than ever, but the Roku Streaming Stick Plus is still our winner. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Both devices are excellent options and do a fantastic job covering all the bases of what you would want from a $50 streaming stick in 2020. A strong argument can be made that Google is the more feature-packed device, and if you subscribe to other Google services like Stadia or YouTube TV, it is almost assuredly the better option for you. 

But when it comes to the basics, Roku's interface is cleaner, easier and faster. The company's strong reputation for supporting older devices is worth taking into account as you probably will hold on to whichever streamer you buy for at least the next couple of years. For the purposes of this heads-up, those factors are enough to give Roku the win.