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Chromecast vs Roku Streaming Stick - which is best?

David Ludlow
21 Aug 2014
Chromecast vs Roku Streaming Stick
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Chromecast may be cheaper, but can the remote control and apps make it a win for the Roku Streaming Stick?

When looking at cheap media streamers, the obvious choice seems to be between Chromecast and Apple TV, but the real competition could come from the Roku Streaming Stick. We take a look at both of these devices here to help you decide which one is best for you.

Price

Chromecast is the cheapest media streamer you can buy at just £30. That pretty much makes it an impulse buy for a lot of people and helps explain why so many of them have been sold. Roku's Streaming Stick is a little more expensive at £50, but that doesn't mean it's worse value. In fact, you pay a little extra for the Roku Streaming Stick because of the way it works and the extras it ships with.

Design

Both products have a very similar design. They look like USB memory sticks, only there's an HDMI adaptor at one end so that they can plug directly into a spare HDMI port on the back of your TV.

Roku's Streaming Stick is a little bit narrower at 28mm than the 35mm Chromecast, which has a bulbous end. We've not seen either product get in the way of other HDMI ports, but the Chromecast ships with an HDMI extension lead to avoid this problem; the Streaming Stick does not.

Chromecast vs Roku Streaming Stick size comparison

 

Both products need to be powered via USB. You can use a USB port on your TV for this job, but if you don't have any or they don't deliver enough juice, you can use the bundled power adaptors. Neither product has any other outputs, so if you want surround sound you'll need to hook them straight into an HDMI-enabled AV amp.

Networking

Both products have 802.11n Wi-Fi built in, although the Streaming Stick is the only one to support both 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks. We prefer 5GHz networking, particularly for streaming, as this band is less cluttered and doesn't suffer from the same interference as the 2.4GHz band. The downside is less range, although that shouldn't be a problem in most homes.

Interface and local apps

The Chromecast doesn't have any kind of local interface and runs no apps natively. Instead, everything you view on it must be beamed to it from a computer, smartphone or tablet - a process that Google calls Casting (see more later).

With the Streaming Stick, it's completely different, as you get a full OS, which you navigate using the simple bundled remote control. You can also control it using the Remote for Roku apps (Android and iPhone), which has the advantage that you can use the phone's soft keyboard to enter text for searching.

Roku Streaming Stick

New features are added to the Streaming Stick by downloading new apps (called Channels). There are more than 450 Channels available, and it's a little annoying that you can't search through them; you can only browse by category. Still, there's a decent range available (more of that later).

 

Roku 3 My Channels Screen

Our one minor complaint is that the Streaming Stick can be a little bit sluggish and some of the Channels take a while to load. This isn't an issue on the more power and expensive streamers, such as the Roku 3.

Casting and streaming

With the Chromecast, you send content to it via Cast-enabled apps. For example, if you start watching a film on Netflix on your iPad, you can tap the Cast button and send the content to your TV. At this point the Chromecast takes over the actual stream, so you can continue using your tablet, phone or computer for other tasks, or even turn the screen off. However, there's still a connection of sorts there, as you can pause, rewind and fast forward what you're watching on the Chromecast from your original device.

Google Chromecast casting Netflix TV show from iPad

Apps that support Chromecast are quite varied, but it's not just about video, as you can also send music and photos from your Android device. This makes the Chromecast quite flexible. It's also relatively easy for app developers to add Chromecast support into their existing apps (both for Android and iOS), so support should grow.

With the Streaming Stick there's no way to send content from any device to it. It's a shame that it's not a DLNA media renderer, as this would give you similar functionality to the Chromecast on top of what the device is already capable of.

Platform support

Aside from the optional remote control apps, the operating system you run has no impact on the Streaming Stick, as you control it all from the remote. The Chromecast is different, as it needs you to send content to it. Currently, the system supports web apps via the Google Cast Chrome extension (Windows, Mac, Linux and ChromeOS on Chromebooks), Android and iOS. Generally speaking, if an app has Chromecast support for one platform, it will have support in all platforms. For example, Netflix works with Chromecast via the internet, Android and iOS.

App Support

Content is kind when it comes to a product like this and it's fair to say that the Streaming Stick is the hands-down winner. It has apps available for Netflix, BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD, Demand Five and Sky Now TV. Then there are tons of Channels available, ranging from cookery shows to Kung-Fu movies. It's good to see that music hasn't been forgotten either, with Spotify support.

Some of the Channels require a subscription service or one-off payment to rent content, so there's a good mix available. For example, the Flixster service lets you rent or buy films. Regardless of what you're interested in, then, there's something available for everyone.

Neither product supports Amazon Prime Instant Video at the moment. If you use this, you'll need an iPhone or iPad and an Apple TV. It seems strange to us that Amazon hasn't improved support as it tries to compete with Netflix.

Chromecast is a lot more limited at the moment. UK-wise, there's support for Netflix, BBC iPlayer and BT Sport. You can buy and rent content from the Google Play store, too Other smaller apps support the product, but at the moment the range isn't as good as for the Roku - see our best Chromecast apps feature to see what else is available.

You can get round some of the issues with mirroring, where you send what you see on your screen to the Chromecast. Currently, mirroring works on the Chrome browser and some Android handsets. The issue with this is that video can often lag (a recent update has improved things, but it's still not perfect) and you may have problems elsewhere: Sky Go users have complained that they don't get audio, for example.

The bigger issue with mirroring is that you can't use the original device for anything else or turn its screen off otherwise you lose the feed. In short, native support is much better and the Streaming Stick is streets ahead.

US Netflix

One of the best things about Netflix is that you can fool it into thinking that you're in the US, getting access to a much larger catalogue of shows and films. Unfortunately, it's rather tricky with both the Chromecast and the Streaming Stick.

Getting these products to work requires the use of a Smart VPN system, which routes your Netflix traffic to the US. Using these means changing your device's DNS settings, but both Google and Roku have locked access to this part of the system and have hard-wired settings.

That's not to say that it's impossible to do, but you need a router that supports some advanced features to get around the problem, and you have to make a network-wide change. See our guide on how to get US Netflix on Chromecast and Streaming Stick for the full details.

US Netflix

Surround sound

Both products support surround sound in content where it's available, although you'll need to plug them into an AV amp to get this working. While the Chromecast will turn on surround sound automatically, you have to enable the option in the Streaming Stick's Settings menu.

DLNA media server

If you want to access files that are stored on your network, you can access them via both the Chromecast and Streaming Stick. With the Streaming Stick you can use the basic Roku Media Player. With the Chromecast, you can use an app from your smartphone or tablet. With Android, the excellent BubbleUPnP will do the job; iPhone or iPad users will have to use the GoodPlayer app, which isn't that good, to be honest.

One thing to look out for is that neither product has very good video support, with H.264 video the only real codec that's supported. As a result you may need to convert video files so that they can play. Check out our guide on how to convert video for the Apple TV, as the same video formats will play on these devices.

A second option is to use Plex, which both products support. The advantage of this system is that the server can be set up to transcode video on the fly, automatically converting files to play on your Chromecast or Streaming Stick. Our guide on how to set up Plex will tell you how to get it working.

Conclusion

It's a tough-fought battle, but the Streaming Stick is currently the best product when it comes to content. It has access to all of the services that the Chromecast does, plus a whole range extra. That definitely makes it worth the £20 extra.

Roku Streaming Stick

That's not to say that you should write off the Chromecast, though. The way it works makes it simpler and quicker to use: you use the same brilliant touchscreen app on your device (or via your web browser) and then just beam the content to your TV. If you're only really after Netflix and maybe iPlayer, then the Chromecast makes a lot of sense and at £30 is a bargain; plus app support is likely to get better the more devices that are sold.

Specs
ManufacturerGoogleRoku
ModelChromecastStreaming Stick
Hardware
Audio inputsNoneNone
Audio outputsNoneNone
Video outputsHDMIHDMI
Dock connectorNoneNone
USB portMicro USB (for power)Micro USB (for charging)
StorageNoneNone
Networking802.11n (2.4GHz only)802.11n (dual band)
NFCNoNo
App supportiOS, Android, Windows, MacAndroid and iOS
Dimensions72x35x12mm78x28x12mm
Weight34g23g
Streaming
Streaming formatsChromecastUPnP, Plex
Supported serversDLNA (indirect)DLNA, Plex
Audio formatsAAC, MP3, Ogg Vorbis, WAVAAC, MP3, WMA, FLAC, WAV
Video formatsH.264H.264, VC-1
Video file extensionsN/A (no direct streaming)MKV, MP4, MOV, WMV
Image formatsBMP, GIF, JPEG, PNGJPG, PNG, GIF
Internet streaming servicesBBC iPlayer, BT Sport, NetflixBBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD, Demand Five, Netflix
Buying information
Price including VAT£30£50
WarrantyOne-year RTBOne-year RTB
Part codeGA3A00030A233500EU

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