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Chromecast vs. Roku Streaming Stick: A hands-on look

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June 9, 2014

Google Chromecast and the Roku Streaming Stick are two competitors in the over-the-top con...

Google Chromecast and the Roku Streaming Stick are two competitors in the over-the-top content market

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Google's Chromecast and Roku's Streaming Stick have both been around for a while now. When Roku was first released, more recently, it touted itself as having a huge number of channels, something Chromecast didn't. But gradually, Google has been catching up. Gizmag decided to compare the two.

I've used both the Chromecast and the Roku Streaming Stick for some time now. That I'm not a massive TV viewer undoubtedly makes that a sign of our increasingly fragmented over-the-top content market. Access to the handful of things I do like to watch has ended up being spread across a variety of different delivery channels and devices.

Nonetheless, I'm always intrigued to see what the each new device has to offer and, invariably, each has something – or a combination of things – that the others don't. Chromecast and Roku are two of the better known over-the-top devices available, and yet each goes about the business of delivering its content in a different way. So without further ado, let's see how they stack up against each other.

Both the Chromecast and Roku devices connect to an HDMI port in a TV and are powered by a ...

Approach

Of the two devices, Roku takes a more traditional approach to bringing content to your TV. Both it and the Chromecast are plugged into the appropriate input on the back of a TV (an HDMI port with a USB port used for power). As with cable or satellite boxes, games consoles or DVD players, though, a remote control is provided to navigate Roku's on-screen interface. The user selects the app or channel that they want to watch and the content is then streamed to the TV from the internet.

Chromecast, on the other hand, turns that approach on its head. The apps or channels are not selected on-screen, but rather Chromecast is built into the services themselves. So, whereas to watch a video on YouTube via Roku the user would select the YouTube app via Roku's on-screen menu and then find the video they want to watch, with Chromecast they would navigate to the video on YouTube via a desktop browser or a YouTube mobile app and click the Chromecast icon next to the video to stream it on the TV. Your laptop, smartphone or tablet is, essentially, your remote control and the Web is your menu.

That, I'm sure you'll agree, is pretty grandiose stuff; the idea that wherever you are on the Web and whatever service you're using, it may be "cast" to your telly. To some extent, Google has ensured that this is actually the case by adding an extra, ever-present Chromecast extension to its Chrome browser that will cast any web page to the TV, but it's a bit hacky and there are distinct performance issues, which we'll come to later.

The blue-sky at which Google is aiming, has every user with a smartphone in their hand and every app on that device being compatible with Chromecast. So long as they're connected to the same Wi-Fi network, users could then throw the content from any app onto their telly without leaving the app itself. Chromecast is, effectively, invisible.

Hardware

Physically, the two devices have a lot in common

There's not a great deal of difference between the two pieces of hardware. They are both small Wi-Fi-connected dongles that plug into an HDMI port on your TV. Both need to be powered and both can use a neighboring USB port to do so. The Roku device also comes with a mains adapter for power, should that be to the user's preference.

Interface

Roku's interface looks very similar to other streaming devices, including the Apple TV and...

The Roku interface is about as straightforward as you can get. Simple menus and big block graphics dominate, all navigated via the four-way arrow controller on the device's remote. It's a bit laggy and very purple, but the big home button on the remote means you can always find your way back to the start should you get lost, if getting lost is even possible.

This is as close as you'll get to a Chromecast 'interface'

Chromecast's "interface" is less straightforward. Really, all it comprises is the discrete Chromecast button that shows up next to a video. You need to know that the website or mobile app you're using supports Chromecast to be sure that icon should appear. Google is perhaps banking on Chromecast becoming so ubiquitous that it will be compatible with virtually every relevant service, or at least all the major services. If so, it's a long game to play, but, should it come together, then Chromecast would have the most ubiquitous and, arguably, best interface of any such device.

Content

Chromecast lets you beam content from your mobile device to your TV

Both Chromecast and the Roku Streaming Stick are platforms on which to watch existing third-party services. Enablers, if you will. You'll find nothing on either that you can't find elsewhere. Both, therefore, have a vested interest in ensuring that they can provide access to the most popular services and, therefore, you're able to access the likes of YouTube, Netflix and BBC iPlayer via both.

Things rather diverge at that point. Roku's channels become increasingly niche and obscure. Examples include the Vatican Channel, Pranks, a channel about aliens and UFOs and, I kid you not, the US Weed Channel – "a network of internet video streaming content created to entertain and educate the general public about Cannabis." This is not to take anything away from any of those channels, but to point out that all of this content is available on the Web and much more of its ilk. With Roku there's the sense that these specific channels have somehow been specially created for your viewing pleasure, which simply isn't the case.

Chromecast meanwhile has far fewer official apps, or more accurately, services with which it's integrated. Notable ones other than those already mentioned include Google Play Music, TV and Movies, Plex, Vevo and Wuaki. Chromecast's wild card is that its Chrome browser extension means you can cast the contents of any browser tab to your TV. Theoretically, you can stream any Web page and the video content therein.

Performance

Both devices have varied performance. I've had virtually no problems streaming content from the official apps on either. The one issue I've with Roku in this area was when it had trouble handling the transition between the content and ads on one of its services. This may well have been a third-party issue though. Both seem to stream video from their official apps flawlessly and in good HD quality. Each has a significant problem of its own, however.

For Roku this is simply the the speed and clunkiness of its interface and apps. While it's simple to navigate your way around, it may take you some time. As I mentioned in my review of the device, the loading time can be painstakingly slow and the apps are then reliant on everything working at the third party's end. When it works, it's great; when it doesn't, it can make for a frustrating experience.

Chromecast's big issue is that the hacked-up Chrome extension, which should step into the breach to cast a browser tab when there is no integration with a particular service, works in a different way to the official integration. When using an officially integrated service, your computer or mobile device tells the Chromecast dongle where the content can be found online and the dongle connects to it directly. The extension, meanwhile, sends the content to the dongle over your Wi-Fi connection, adding in an extra point of failure and a great deal more lagging, dropped signal and loss of quality. The extension can surely only be viewed by Google as a band-aid until enough services are properly integrated.

Price

In the US, Chromecast retails for US$35 and the Roku Streaming Stick for $50. Roku, of course, comes with a remote control, which inflates that price a little.

Verdict

I'm loathe to give a verdict one way or the other here. Personally, I prefer the Chromecast – and I think it will continue to improve. That said, the Roku Streaming Stick is simpler and will better suit people used to browsing content via a TV rather than online. In the big scheme of things, though, neither is as good as they could be and I expect that's probably the case right across the over-the-top content market at present. All you can do is try to work out which device most fits your needs.

Product pages: Chromecast, Roku Streaming Stick

About the Author
Stu Robarts Stu is a tech writer based in Liverpool, UK. He has previously worked on global digital estate management at Amaze and headed up digital strategy for FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology). He likes cups of tea, bacon sandwiches and RSS feeds.   All articles by Stu Robarts
8 Comments

Not technically, complete. In the UK at least the Roku Streaming stick is dual Band, Chromecast uses 2.4 Ghz band only. I can't comment about the Roku Streaming stick as I have both the Chromecast and the Roku 3 box, a Chromecast is a vote for the future, being supported by Google no doubt channels will come in time. For now though the Roku 3 is faster than the Chromecast, has more channels, is dual band and has a remote that allows you to attach headphones (not on the streaming stick). The Roku, as with most smart TV's, now also has the ability to cast Youtube.

The only things that the Chromecast has to offer in the UK over the Roku is the BT sport channel (if you are a subscriber or you have it has part of your BT Broadband package free) and price at the moment. Roku 3 is the best streaming device at the moment as it has the most channels and is very fast. As for the streaming stick, it is worth the extra £20. Don't underestimate the usefulness of a dedicated remote, though there is a remote app for wifi in both the IOS and android app stores too.

The future may belong to Chromecast 2 with more supported apps and Dual Band being introduced, but the presence is undoubtedly in the hands of Roku.

Mark50
9th June, 2014 @ 04:07 pm PDT

I was surprised to discover "casting" ability on my Roku2 recently with YouTube. I had looked up a video on my phone's app, and to my surprise it asked me if I wanted to display it on my living room TV via my Roku! Worked great. I think as more apps support this function, the distinction between the two will continue to blur. Also, the whole headphone-thru-the-remote feature is unbeatable. (Yes, an audio splitter does allow you to watch with your spouse and not wake the kids!) ☺

MzunguMkubwa
10th June, 2014 @ 05:21 am PDT

When the UFC moved its steaming content to Fightpass, I started looking for options and started with Chromecast. I found the streaming content through the browser very choppy. The extra layer of working through the laptop didn't allow for a smooth playback on a large screen TV.

I then purchased the Roku as there is a UFC app for that and have been much happier with the results. It has also worked well for streaming movies through Netflix and Amazon.

At some point maybe the Chromecast may be the future, but I don't think its there yet. We will see.

George Snyder
10th June, 2014 @ 08:18 am PDT

The Chromecast dongle also comes with a mains adapter (in the UK) for use on TV's with no usb ports to power it from

MisterH
10th June, 2014 @ 10:00 am PDT

I've got both, and found Roku a bit easier to navigate with the family, and does not require a smart-device handy.

The Chromecast has worked in social situations where any friend on my wifi can play whatever the group wants to watch...casted from their smartphone. That's pretty cool.

The downside to the Chromecast is that once you start a video, and want to use your phone for something else...there seems to be no nearly instant way to get to a screen to "pause" or "rewind", which can be awkward when you need to silence the thing quickly. With the Roku, that is a hard-wired play/pause button on the remote. Easy, especially for kids, and less "techy" adults.

But, we are up to five Roku devices all over the house, and seems to be the "go to" device for streaming via the apps: Netflix, TheBlaze, Pandora, iHeartRadio, HuluPlus, Anime channels, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox news outlets, and about 40 others...

My Vote: Roku, with the caveat that Chromecast has a place in our home, too.

matthew.rings
10th June, 2014 @ 10:37 am PDT

I set up this chromcast last month it barely works with youtube using the Chromebrowser. Go to a video from Crackle or another site and the video will stutter. Even if you set it up on a nweer machine you still have to find a version of Chrome newer then 27 and then find the add on. Once you get all that done if you launch it with XP it just stalls. 2 weeks ago I bought Amazon FireTV. Its far far more better than google chromecast with 99$ only. http://www.gizmag.com/amazon-fire-tv-set-top-box/31470/

likilose.com
10th June, 2014 @ 09:13 pm PDT

Roku supports Amazon videos, Chromecast doesn't...

Ron Stidmon
11th June, 2014 @ 08:31 am PDT

Use the chromecast dongle with the EZcast app, flawless. Stream local video, dedicated channels, any Web page.... All with 0 stutter and no lag. This set up makes the chromecast the undisputed king. It's all about the app you use to handle the device.

R.j. Kellam
7th September, 2014 @ 01:04 pm PDT
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