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Roku vs. Amazon Fire TV: Which streaming device is best in 2021?

Two heavyweights of streaming duke it out in an epic battle for living room supremacy. Ready, set, fight!

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Roku and Amazon Fire TV are locked in an epic battle for your living room. Lots of people want a cheap, easy way to get streaming video from Netflix, Amazon PrimeDisney Plus, HBO MaxHulu, YouTube and Apple TV Plus on their TV, and two companies make the most popular gadgets for doing just that. In one corner is Roku, the most popular name in streaming devices. In the other corner sits Amazon Fire TV, the streamer made by one of the most powerful companies in the world. Both boast over 50 million users and offer numerous devices with similar prices and features. But which should you pick?

At CNET we've spent countless hours testing both over the years, and in general both work really well. Most of the Roku and Fire TV devices we've reviewed have received an 8.0 (excellent) rating or higher, so it's tough to go wrong. Roku and Fire TV just announced brand-new players for the 2021 holiday season -- the Roku Streaming Stick 4K and Fire TV Stick 4K Max -- but they're very similar to existing products.

So how do you choose between Roku and Fire TV? To start, realize they have more similarities than differences. 

  • Both are super-affordable, starting at $30 for their cheapest players, and they often go on sale for less. 
  • Both have access to thousands of TV apps, including all of the major ones. Most apps look and behave basically the same on both.
  • The latest models of Roku and Fire TV 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 if you aren't bouncing around to other inputs. 
  • Both have multiple models, starting with basic streamers up to 4K-compatible versions with voice control built into the remotes.

So which one's better? 

Best overall: Roku

Our go-to recommendation is Roku over Fire TV. There are really just two major reasons.

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 to the apps and shows want quickly, without filling the screen with other junk. 

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Using a Fire TV device 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 you're in the middle of watching, or might actually want to watch -- something Netflix's menus do well. But more often than not, it is hard to care about the TV shows and movies on Fire TV's screen. They just seem like stuff Amazon or its partners want us to watch.

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Amazon

CNET's Ty Pendlebury summed up the difference in his review of the Fire TV Stick. "If you like to graze for content, the Fire TV might be more appealing. If you know what you want already, or at least what app you want to watch, a Roku is probably a better choice."

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."

Now playing: Watch this: Which Roku is the go-to? We break it down
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Which Roku or Fire TV streaming device is right for you?

Of course when you choose between Roku and Fire TV you're buying a specific device, not just the platform. For that reason, our advice below gets a little more specific. We break down our favorite devices in a variety of areas: price, 4K capability, voice control and more.

Here's a couple more things to keep in mind as we get into the recommendations.

  • We're talking only about streaming devices, not TVs. Both Roku and Amazon bake their platforms into TVs as well, which we also review. In general we prefer Roku TVs to ones that use Amazon Fire TV. Check out our Best TVs list for more details.
  • The newest streaming devices for 2021, the Roku Streaming Stick 4K and Fire TV Stick 4K Max, aren't yet available so we haven't reviewed them yet. See the 4K TV section below for more details.
  • Of course we've reviewed streamers from other companies too. Check out our list of best streaming devices for more options.

Best budget streamer: Fire TV Stick Lite

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The Fire TV Stick lite has voice control while the similarly-priced Roku Express does not.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Roku is our favorite overall platform, but the Fire TV Stick Lite offers more features at the entry level than the similarly priced Roku Express. The Fire TV Stick Lite includes a voice remote, while the Roku doesn't support voice commands via the remote. We found the Lite's built-in access to Amazon's Alexa particularly helpful when navigating through menus and searching for content.

The Roku Express is still a fine choice for a bare-bones streamer. It brings all of the advantages of Roku we mentioned above, and performs perfectly well, but the Fire TV Stick Lite ultimately offers more features for the price -- making it a better option for those on a tight budget. 

Both the Roku Express and the Fire TV Stick Lite are regularly priced at $30, but can sometimes be found for less. 


Of course, there are a bunch of other more expensive Roku players and 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.

Best for 4K TVs and best overall: Roku Express 4K Plus

Roku's $40 Express 4K Plus remains our favorite media streamer available right now. It offers the easy-to-use Roku interface, the voice remote that the cheaper Express lacks, 4K HDR streaming, wired Ethernet support with an optional adapter and only costs $40. That's $10 less than the competing Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K

The Fire TV Stick 4K's main advantage over the Express Plus 4K 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.

Meanwhile, the newly announced Roku Streaming Stick 4K fixes this problem by adding Dolby Vision support as well as a faster processor and long-range Wi-Fi for $50. Roku is also offering a $70 package called the Streaming Stick 4K Plus which includes the Streaming Stick 4K and the Voice Remote Pro

Not to be outdone, Amazon's new Fire TV Stick 4K Max also features an upgraded processor, along with Wi-Fi 6 connectivity. It will cost $55 -- $5 more than the Roku Streaming Stick 4K. 

Both of the new offerings from Amazon and Roku will be released in October, though it remains to be seen if either of these products can overtake the cheaper Roku Express 4K Plus as our top pick.

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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 Assistant/Alexa.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Best for voice: Fire TV with Alexa

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

Every Fire TV device from the Lite on up has Alexa voice capability built into the remote. Most Roku players also offer voice remotes using Roku's own voice system, but the cheapest models lack that feature. 

Both voice systems 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. 

Roku players work in the same way with both Alexa and Google Home speakers but not as well. Netflix doesn't work 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.

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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

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.

In addition, every Roku device offers private listening via the free Roku app on your phone -- just fire up the app and attach headphones to your phone. Roku is in the process of rolling out its OS 10.5 system upgrade which attempts to fix the audio lags that can occur when listening through Bluetooth headphones. Roku claims that up to four people can listen privately at the same time with audio that is automatically adjusted to work with each individual's headphones. 

Fire TV's only option for private listening is to pair Bluetooth headphones, but it's not nearly as effective. Amazon lacks a way to handle the 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.

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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 confirming it works -- but Fire TV is cheaper and more capable.

The cheapest Roku streamers that come with TV control remotes are the $40 Express 4K Plus and the new $50 Roku Streaming Stick 4K. The Fire TV Stick has a TV control remote for $40. These remotes have buttons for TV power and TV volume up/down and mute. 

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 soundbar, 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 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.

Now playing: Watch this: Amazon's Fire TV Cube gives you and Alexa hands-free...
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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's Chromecast with Google TV, the Apple TV 4K and the Nvidia Shield, check out our list of best streaming devices