While Microsoft and Apple are focusing on putting content into your television through branded set-top boxes, Roku and Google have taken a different approach. The Roku Streaming Stick and the Google Chromecast are two very different solutions to the same problem, and since you’re only likely to want one sticking out of the back of your television, we decided to compare the two.
Both are due to hit the UK shortly, with the Roku stick on pre-order now, and the Chromecast hopefully arriving at some point this month (finally). Both are budget solutions in direct competition with each other, with Roku’s stick costing £50, and although Chromecast’s UK price still isn’t confirmed, it’s $35 in the US and will probably retail at around £35 here.
Okay, on with the comparison. The truth is nobody really cares who makes the things that put content on their televisions, as long as the content gets there in the highest quality with as little effort as possible. Ultimately what matters are the apps and services that come with the hardware, as well as how easy those apps and services are to use.
Roku has a long-standing history of making tiny boxes filled with content that are all super-easy to use, and while Google is fairly new to this experience, they have figured out a great way to make sure it requires next to no extra effort to use their equipment. Comparing the two really comes down to how you use your television and what apps deliver the content you want.
How these media players work
Roku’s equipment has worked in almost the exact same way from the beginning. Every app or service is assigned a space on the UI as a channel, and the content can be easily navigated using the remote control provided. The chunky little remote Roku includes with its hardware doesn’t do much more than allow you to navigate with a D-Pad and an enter key, but it’s nearly impossible to break and looks nice for what it is. If you prefer, you can use the Roku app for iOS or Android, so your phone or tablet can be used to control the Streaming Stick.
Simplicity is both the gift and the curse of the Roku. There are very few organisational tools, so if you install a lot of apps and you use more than a couple on a regular basis you have to navigate through pages of content to get to the app you want. Not every app follows the same design guidelines, and not every app “just works” once you have installed it, so the experience from service to service can be either seamless or complicated. Services like Netflix allow you to go to a website and punch in a short code to authorise the device for your account, while others force you to navigate an on-screen keyboard to log in and start watching. Once you’ve logged in to everything, you’re free to consume as much content as you want with no other interruptions.
Google’s Chromecast has no centralised control mechanism. There’s no remote control to navigate, because there’s no UI to speak of. When you connect a Chromecast you set it up through a laptop, smartphone, or tablet. After it’s set up, you’re presented with what is basically a rotating screensaver of beautiful images until you decide to watch something.
Whether or not one setup is better than the other depends entirely on how you use technology in the living room. If you keep a laptop, smartphone, or tablet nearby when watching TV, the Chromecast solution is much faster and incredibly easy to use. If you don’t sit in front of your TV with your phone on, or if you’re not a big fan of having these apps on your phone or tablet, the Roku will provide a superior experience.
What can you watch?
Since Roku has been around for a couple of years now, their devices can access many more streams of content than the Chromecast. Over in the US, Google’s services haven’t yet been up and running for a year yet, so they are still missing major content providers like Amazon Instant Video. Roku can stream almost everything, the two major exceptions being Google Play content and iTunes content. Developing a channel for Roku is incredibly simple, and more channels are added every month.
Google started out with little more than its own services and Netflix for the Chromecast, but has rapidly grown to include local content streaming as well as agreements with HBO, Pandora, and several other big content publishing services in the States. On top of this, the Chromecast can receive streams directly from the browser on your computer. This means you can stream websites in real time and do more than just watch videos and listen to music. It’s a hugely useful feature for anything from browsing at home to doing a presentation.
The added productivity angle isn’t something Roku is likely to compete with any time soon, but they more than make up for it by offering an enormous mountain of content. If you aren’t already invested in the Google Play Store for movies and music, you’ll find the Roku Stick offers everything you could possibly need. If you’ve already given Google your wallet, the Chromecast is likely to be the better option for you.
Which do you want?
For most people out there, the Roku is the better device. Despite the fact that it’s likely to be a little more expensive than the Chromecast (we’re guessing it’ll be £15 more), it’s better value right now for the volume of content you have access to. Plus, if you’re not on your phone or tablet 24/7, the Roku remote is likely to be a better experience for you. Google has some real potential to work with developers and offer a device that is more than competitive with Roku, but right now their best customers will be drawn from the ranks of the technology-obsessed and not the rest of the world.