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Chromecast vs Amazon Fire TV Stick - which is best?

Tom Morgan
30 Oct 2014
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Amazon's new Fire TV Stick is cheaper if you have Amazon Prime, but does Google's Android support give Chromecast the edge?

When Google released its Chromecast streaming dongle last year, it became the obvious choice for anyone looking to add on-demand video or smart TV features to their existing television. Cheaper than Roku's streaming stick and not tied to iOS products like the Apple TV, it was a winning formula that proved succesful on both sides of the Atlantic. Amazon is now looking to challenge Chromecast with a streaming stick of its own; the $39 Fire TV Stick, which is due to go on sale on the 19th of November. We've compared the two based purely on specifications to see whether you should wait for Amazon to bring the Fire TV Stick to the UK, or bite the bullet on a Chromecast now.

PRICE

At £30 here in the UK or $35 in the US, Chromecast is the cheapest media streaming dongle around. That's still true now that the Fire TV Stick has arrived - if you aren't an Amazon Prime member. Amazon is charging $39, but Prime customers are able to pre-order one today for as little as $19, which makes it look like something of a bargain if you haven't already bought the Fire TV set-top box. The Fire TV Stick ships with a remote control, whereas Chromecast forces you to use a smartphone or tablet. You'll have to spend a little more to get voice control built into the remote control though; by default this feature, which comes as standard on the Fire TV box, isn't included, but you can add it for an additional $30.

Although Amazon hasn't confirmed UK prices or availability, we would expect it to be very competitive with Chromecast - meaning £40 for new customers and £20 for Amazon Prime members. We'll update this comparison when we learn official prices.

DESIGN

Both Chromecast and the Fire TV Stick have very similar designs, looking a lot like USB flash drives - albeit with an HDMI adaptor at one end to plug directly into a spare HDMI port on the back of your TV. Chromecast is bulbous at one end and thicker than Amazon's stick, but is around 12mm shorter. It's unlikely that either are large enough to get in the way of your TV's other HDMI ports, but both include HDMI extension leads to make sure it isn't a problem.

Both sticks have to be powered, but only Chromecast can be powered using one of the USB ports built into your TV. According to Amazon, the Fire TV Stick draws too much power to do the same and includes a power adapter in the box. That means you'll have to plug it into the wall, assuming you have any free power sockets next to your TV. 

Neither dongle has any audio outputs, so if you want surround sound you'll need to hook them straight into an HDMI-enabled AV amp.

NETWORKING

Both dongles use 802.11n Wi-Fi, only Amazon's Fire TV Stick supports 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 major issue in most homes.

INTERFACE AND LOCAL APPS

With no kind of local interface, Chromecast can't run apps natively; instead, everything you watch through it has to be beamed from a PC, smartphone or tablet. Amazon's Fire TV Stick has a full operating system, which can be navigated using the simple remote control. You can also use the free Fire TV Remote App if you prefer to control everything from one device; it should also make it easier to search for content using the onscreen keyboard or voice control, if you don't pay extra for the upgraded voice remote. It's already available on Amazon Fire devices and Android, and should be headed to iOS soon.

The Fire TV Stick has 8GB of built-in storage, which can be used to install additional services, apps and games beyond what comes pre-installed. Chromecast has a smaller amount of onboard storage, but this is only used for caching content - you can't install anything directly to the dongle.

CASTING AND STREAMING

Chromecast relies on content sent from a smartphone or tablet. For example, starting a film on Netflix then tapping the Cast button will send it to your TV. Chromecast then takes over the actual stream, so you can use your device for another task - or even turn if off while you watch. There is still a connection being made, which lets you pause, rewind and fast forward what you're watching using your device. Apps with Chromecast support are varied, and not just limited to on-demand video or catch-up TV. You can send music and photos from an Android device, and it's relatively easy for app developers to build in Chromecast support to their existing apps - both on Android and iOS. 

Find out which apps are worth downloading in our best Chromecast apps roundup

With the Fire TV Stick, you can mirror your smartphone or tablet display as long as it supports Miracast - you don't have to own a Fire Phone or Kindle Fire HD tablet to get basic screen casting functionality. With the right hardware though, you can "fling" content to the big screen and free up your tablet to do other things. X-Ray takes information from IMDb on a scene-by-scene basis, showing you which actors are currently on-screen, what music is playing and trivia facts about what's currently playing.

Like the full-size Fire TV, the Fire TV Stick includes Advanced Streaming and Prediction (ASAP) for Amazon Instant Video. It learns what films and TV shows you like, then pre-loads them when you aren't using the dongle so you don't have to wait for them to cache when you press play. According to Amazon, it becomes more accurate the more you use it, but only works with the company's own streaming service.

Google Chromecast Plugging into TV

PLATFORM SUPPORT

Although Amazon would like you to use one of its smartphones or tablets to control the Fire TV Stick, you don't have to as it runs a self-contained operating system and has a bundled remote control. That's not the case for Chromecast, which needs you to send content to it. At the time of writing, it supported web apps via the Google Cast Chrome extension for Windows, Mac OS X, Linux and Chrome OS for Chromebooks, as well as iOS and Android handhelds. 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

When it comes to media streamers, content is king, and on paper Amazon's Fire TV stick looks to be miles ahead of Chromecast - despite the fact it's not yet on sale. It has apps available for Netflix, Hulu Plus, Crackle and of course Amazon Instant Video in the US, and based on its bigger brother will likely arrive in the UK with BBC iPlayer, Demand 5 and Sky News, among others. There are loads of other dedicated apps available to suit all tastes, ranging from the History Channel to Twitch live game streaming. Music hasn't been forgotten either, with Spotify, Pandora, Vevo and Amazon Prime music.

Watch US TV shows with our guide on how to get US Netflix on a UK Chromecast

Chromecast is a lot more limited at the moment. UK-wise, there's support for Netflix, BBC iPlayer, BT Sport and Sky Now TV. You can buy and rent content from the Google Play store, too. Other smaller apps support the dongle, but at the moment the range isn't as good. 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, but video can often lag - although a recent update improved things slightly, it's still not perfect. Some Sky Go users have complained that they don't get audio as well.

The bigger issue with mirroring is that you can't use the original device for anything else, or turn its screen off while playing without losing the feed. Native support is much better and the Fire TV Stick is miles ahead.

Both dongles include support for services or channels that have subscriptions or one-off payments for renting content.

Google Chromecast Netflix App

DLNA MEDIA SERVER SUPPORT

Both the Chromecast and the Fire TV Stick will let you access files that are stored on your network. With Fire TV you can use a third party app like AirPlay/DLNA Receiver (PRO), which can be found in the Fire TV app store. With the Chromecast, you’ll have to use an app from your smartphone or tablet. We recommend the excellent BubbleUPnP for Android, or the GoodPlayer app for iPhone or iPad users - although to be honest, it isn’t that good.

Unfortunately, neither product has particularly good video support, with H.264 video being the only officially recognised codec. As a result, you might have to convert your video files before you’ll be able to play them.

The other option is to use Plex, which supports both devices. The advantage here is that a server can be set up to transcode video on the fly, automatically converting files so they are guaranteed to play on your device. Our guide on how to set up Plex will tell you how to get it up and running.

CONCLUSION

Based on Amazon's specifications, it looks as though the Fire TV Stick will be your best bet when it comes to content. It has access to all of the services available to Chromecast, plus Amazon's Prime Instant Video, the ability to play games and a dedicated remote control. On the surface, it definitely looks worth the small amount of extra cash. 

It would be a bad idea to write off Chromecast completely, though. It doesn't take up a wall socket for power, is far simpler thanks to the reliance on your smartphone or tablet, and developers are much more likely to add Chromecast support than add Fire TV compatibility. If you only want Netflix, iPlayer and a few other on-demand services, it's still totally worth the £30.

We'll be reviewing Amazon's Fire TV Stick when it gets a UK release, and will update this article with a more detailed comparison as soon as possible.

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