The very popular $35 Google Chromecast and the new $50 Roku Streaming Stick are both vying for an HDMI port on your TV. These sticks look very much alike, but they're actually very different devices that will appeal to different people. Let's look in detail at how the Roku and Chromecast compare, to see which one is the best choice for you.
The Chromecast essentially syncs your TV with what you are watching online from a mobile app or your computer browser (if it's Google Chrome). Technically, it's not streaming directly from your mobile device or laptop Web browser window, but that's what it seems like.
The Roku Streaming Stick and all Roku Streaming Players are robust devices that have their own apps and their own remotes (for most boxes), and don't require you to be watching the same thing on your handheld device or laptop. The Streaming Stick (as well as the $100 Roku 3) also has the ability to sync with the streams from mobile devices, a la Chromecast, although for fewer apps — just Netflix and YouTube, for now.
|Google Chromecast||Roku Streaming Stick|
|Size||2.8 x 1.4 x 0.5 inches||3.1 x 1.1 x 0.5 inches|
|Remote control||App only (iOS, Android)||Physical and app (iOS, Android)|
|Casting capability||200+ mobile apps, computer browser tab||2 mobile apps|
|Video quality supported||1080p, 720p||1080p, 720p|
|Computer or mobile device needed for playback||Yes||No|
Casting personal content from mobile device
|Photos, videos and music using a variety of third-party apps||Photos, videos and music using official app|
|Casting from a computer||Limited capability from browser window||N/A|
|Games||A few||None (Roku 3 supports games)|
|Universal content search||None||Across 10 sources, including Netflix, Hulu, and HBO GO|
|Number of channels/apps||200+ (most for Android)||1,200+|
|Future channels/apps||None announced||Adding 2-3 per day|
|Headline apps (sampling)||Netflix|
Google Play TV, Movies, Music
Amazon Instant Video
The closest comparison between Chromecast and the Roku Streaming Stick is in outward appearance. Each is a roughly 3 x 1 x 0.5-inch dongle-type device with an HDMI connector at one end. However, Chromecast widens at the far end to a circular shape. This probably won't affect the ability to squeeze it into an HDMI port, as it's far enough away from the plug end, on the opposite end of the HDMI port on a TV or A/V receiver. But just in case, Chromecast includes a short HDMI extension cable. At the opposite end of each device is a micro USB port for attaching an included USB charger and cable.
One thing to pay attention is the location of your HDMI ports. If they are on the side of the TV, the Roku Streaming Stick or Chromecast and power cable may extend beyond edge of the TV, ruining the notion of hiding your streaming device. You probably won't have a problem if you have ports on the back of the TV or if you use an A/V receiver with HDMI ports.
Lacking a remote, Chromecast requires you to perform the setup from a small setup app for Windows and Apple computers or Android and iOS devices. The mobile app is slightly easier to use.
MORE: The Best Chromecast Apps
When you first plug in Chromecast, the device acts as a Wi-Fi hotspot that you connect to your smartphone, tablet or laptop via Wi-Fi. From there, the app asks you to pick the home network to which you would like Chromecast to connect. The remote app sends instructions to the Chromecast, which then connects to your router. You don't install apps on the Chromecast stick itself. Rather, you install your apps on your mobile device that tell Chromecast to download the same video or music that you are streaming on the mobile app.
The Roku Streaming Stick comes with a physical remote, which you'll use to move through setup. The process includes logging in to your Wi-Fi network, setting up an online Roku account and registering your device with your account. You can add apps, called channels, from either the Roku website or the device.
Out of the box, Roku comes with about 30 channels, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Spotify and Roku's in-house on-demand video store, M-GO.
In all, Chromecast is slightly easier to set up, as it doesn't require registering an online account.
Beyond what you see in the setup app, Chromecast has no interface of its own. Instead, you see the interface of the mobile apps that are Chromecast-enabled. The apps are all roughly the same, showing some image of what is playing, plus basic controls such as Play, Pause and a slider that allows you to move ahead or back in the playback of a video or song.
As a standalone streaming device, Roku is far more involved, but not hard to understand. The Home screen shows main-menu items in a column on the left, starting with Channels, which allows you to access the channels you have installed to play video or music. Below are items labeled Movies and TV Shows, but these show only options from a service called M-GO, which shares its revenue with Roku. You don't have to use M-GO. You can also get movies and TV shows from a number of popular services that you install as apps.
The best way to find what you want to watch is with the Search feature. You enter what you are looking for (movie, TV show, actor or director), and Roku searches 10 services: Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime Instant Video, Vudu, HBO GO, Redbox Instant, Blockbuster, Crackle, Popcorn Flix and M-GO. That allows you to see if the program is on any of the services you already subscribe to, or if not, to compare prices.
Though more involved, the Roku interface is far better, because you can access all your apps in one place, and the search feature makes the process of looking for content much easier.