2014 Digital Media Player Comparison Review

Rating:

Google Chromecast vs. Roku Streaming Stick vs. Apple TV

We hardly need cable subscriptions anymore with all the streaming services available. Some of the best TV shows can be found on Netflix now. But people run into the issue of how to integrate these services into the living room. PCs and iPads are nice for single-user viewing, but what if you want to have a House of Cards marathon with your friends?

 

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Home theater PCs and gaming systems, like Xbox One and PS4, are always an option, but the barrier to entry is expensive (over $250). These systems offer versatility for the price with options to play DVDs, video games, and download “free” media (if you catch my drift), which is good if you’re looking for all that. But if you want a simple, inexpensive, low-energy solution, a streaming media device may be the better option.

The Google Chromecast ($39.00), Roku Streaming Stick ($59.99), and Apple TV ($109.00) all offer their own benefits and specialties, which will suit some users more than others. But the best part about these devices is their nonintrusive designs—their so small you’ll hardly know they’re there. The only thing left to ask is which one is the best for you?

Google Chromecast

Small and discrete, the Google Chromecast is only a little bigger than a USB storage stick. It plugs right into the back or side of your HDTV (wherever an HDMI port is available). If the Chromecast is blocking another HDMI port, you can use the HDMI extender—a very useful addition and one Roku should consider packaging in with their Streaming Stick. There’s a regular AC adapter to plug the device into an electrical outlet. But if you don’t unplug it after you’re done, the Chromecast will remain on. I recommend plugging it in via USB to your TV, so it turns off and on with your TV. Otherwise it will sip away electricity.

 

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The Chromecast has no remote; it’s quite different and a little less intuitive than the other two options below. You need to download the Chromecast app to your iOS, Android, Mac, or PC device. The Chromecast pairs with these devices over your home’s Wi-Fi network and streams what’s on them straight to your TV.

Also, you can’t stream your entire computer screen to the TV, like you can with the Apple TV—you may only cast a tab in your Chrome browser to your TV. This system has its benefits and drawbacks, which allows you to cast a Netflix movie and open a new tab to browse freely while everyone is watching.

I do commend Google for not forcing you to become part of their network while setting up the Chromecast. If you simply want to use their hardware for watching Netflix, Google lets you. If you want to rent a movie from Google Play or any of Google’s other services, you will need to sign in or create a Google account. While you can cast anything in the Chrome browser to your TV, there are limitations. Unless a site is a part of its numerous Chromecast-compatible sites, streaming has a considerable lag-time. The full list of apps can be found here ( http://www.google.ca/chrome/devices/chromecast/apps.html ), but it pales in comparison to Apple’s TV and Roku’s Steaming Stick. However, the open API is letting more and more developers add services to support it.

Roku Streaming Stick

The Roku Streaming Stick is about the same size as the Chromecast (only a little fatter) and connects in the same way via HDMI. It lacks the HDMI extender, which the Roku could benefit from. It comes with a simple remote and takes two AA batteries (included). The design of the remote felt good in hand. On the underside, there’s a little indentation for your trigger finger to rest, which makes it easy to grip.

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Setup for the Roku was frustrating, the most out of any three of the devices. It takes the Roku 3 minutes to boot up every time, so you can feel free to grab a coffee or make some popcorn while you wait. After start up the Roku makes you go to its website, sign up for an account, and enter your credit card information. While this may be a minor niggle to some people, when I purchase a product I expect to be able to use it out of the box, and if I want to give you my credit card information to buy or rent a movie later, I’ll do so when necessary. But doing it right off the bat and forcing you to do so in order to use the product put a bad taste in my mouth.

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After that it was smooth sailing. Performance was fluid with some minor stutters booting up apps or taking remote commands, but hardly anything that would annoy. If you want to watch a movie, you can search across all apps available on Roku to see where you can watch and the price it costs (or doesn’t cost) to rent. It will show you if it’s streaming on places like Netflix too. However, selecting one of the subscription streaming services won’t take you directly to the movie on Netflix, you’ll have to search for it within the app. After years of being at the whim of choosing from what was available on Netflix, this feature allows users to search for what they want to watch right now. It’s a good feeling.

If you don’t want to use the remote to search for movies or shows, using Roku’s smartphone app to type is a great option. There’s even a remote interface to play/pause shows if you wish.

Apple TV

Compared with the Google Chromecast and the Roku Streaming Stick, the Apple TV is a giant. Compared to my girlish hands, though, it’s a sleek, tiny black box. It has a matte finish on the top with a glossy black band outlining the rounded sides. Handle this device with white gloves, otherwise any oils from your hands will make its mark.

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It comes with a silver aluminum remote that felt great in hand. The remote uses an IR sensor to navigate, which requires a direct line of sight to the Apple TV box. This caused some moments of scooting and leaning, trying to find the sweet-spot where the Apple TV would respond to my button presses. This means you can’t hide the Apple TV or tuck it away, like the Roku or Chromecast—no, it has to be front and center.

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The Apple TV has way more options to connect, which will delight media mavens, but offers none of the cables to do so. HDMI, mini-USB, Ethernet, and optical audio inputs were among the hardwire connections available. You’ll have to provide your own HDMI cable, but you can easily get one at Staples. A TV Tuner would have been a nice addition. Wi-Fi is onboard if you don’t have an Ethernet jack nearby. Performance was quick and smooth over Wi-Fi, and pages and channels loaded quickly.

Apple has added its own spin to every channel’s interface, giving it a sleek black look that mimics the iTunes store. It’s about the prettiest UI out of all the streaming devices listed here. All the big media apps are available, Crackle, Netflix, YouTube, and more. All the apps are laid out for you right from the start. If you’ve ever used an iPhone or iPad, you’ll feel right at home. You can move and arrange the apps by clicking and holding the center button, once it starts vibrating, use the arrow buttons to place it where you want it. The Apple-centric apps, like iTunes, Home Share, iRadio stay planted at the top of the screen.

You’re not required to login or create an Apple ID until you want to buy, rent, or sync to your iTunes account. You boot up, select your language, and the Apple TV was ready to use. Hardware that’s ready to go out of the box is one of the greater joys in life.

AirPlay is Apple’s trump card feature, which lets you mirror your Mac, iPhone, or iPad screen to your TV. You’re not restricted to streaming just from your web browser, like with Chromecast. Your whole screen is up there for the world to see, which makes sharing or streaming other media you’ve downloaded for “free” a breeze.

Which streaming device is best for you?

Despite its frustrating setup scheme that forces users to input their credit card before they can even use the device, the Roku Streaming Stick offers a great balance of performance and features for the price. It has an intuitive, easy to use interface, and its search feature frees users from asking the question “what are my options” to asking, “what do I want to watch”.

If you don’t have $59 to spare, the Chromecast is a great option for budget users and those who want to tinker with its open API. While Google’s Chromecast won’t blow you away with great search features like the Roku or an intuitive interface, for what it offers for the price it’s a good deal.

The Apple TV has won me over, but if you’re not as deep into Apple’s market or ecosystem as I am, then the Apple TV may not be the right option for you. It’s the most expensive out of all the other media streaming devices (over twice as expensive as the Roku), but you’re paying for sleek interface and seamless integration with all your Apple products and purchases, which may be worth it.

Summary
2014 Digital Media Player Comparison Review
Article Name
2014 Digital Media Player Comparison Review
Description
As more people move towards replacing cable with digital media players, Natalie Shoemaker looks at which media streaming device is best for you. She compares Apple TV, Roku Streaming Stick and Google Chromecast.
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Natalie Shoemaker

Natalie found her passion for writing about tech when she started with PCMag. She has also written for Geek, GDGT and TechnologyTell.

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