One thing I know is that everybody needs Netflix. And Amazon Instant Video. And HBO Go. Maybe Hulu Plus and Crackle.
What I don’t know is which media-streaming box I should invite into my home to deliver all these awesome services. I guess you could say I’m feeling…boxed in.
Thank you, thank you, I’m here all week.
Yesterday, Amazon hopped on the set-top box bandwagon with the Fire TV, an Apple TV/Roku competitor with a few neat tricks up its sleeve–and an eyebrow-raising price. More on that in a minute.
Meanwhile, Roku released its new Streaming Stick a couple weeks ago, and it’s a bit tricky to compare the two. For starters, Roku’s box isn’t a box at all, but rather a dongle that plugs directly into your TV’s HDMI port. That means no HDMI cable to buy and no box mucking up your home-theater decor.
So, how do the two compare, feature-wise? That’s where it gets…interesting. The Roku Streaming Stick (RSS for short) offers every streaming service known to man, along with hundreds known to almost no one. (Crunchyroll? SnagFilms? Viewster? I’m not making those up.)
Plus, it’s $50. Fifty. Dollars. Now, you may argue that Google’s very similar Chromecast (also a dongle) is only $35, but it offers a fraction of the channels and doesn’t come with a remote. To use it, you need your smartphone or tablet–and, take it from me, while that works okay, the remote is just plain better.
As for the Fire TV, it’s twice the price. And I’ll be honest: I’m fine with that. An Apple TV box costs the same and does a lot less. Heck, Roku’s flagship Roku 3 is $99, so it’s not really fair to compare the Fire TV to the RSS.
However, they’re the new boxes on the block, so that’s the focus today. And I would look at it this way: The Roku Streaming Stick rocks, and it’s an awesome bargain at $49.99. But the Fire TV represents a somewhat new spin on this whole product category: the premium streamer.
To wit: For a mere $50 more, you get a device that not only streams most of the major services (HBO Go is a major omission, though I suspect it’ll be added soon), but also plays games. Granted, you’ll need Amazon’s $39.99 controller for many of them, but the current and expected game catalog makes Roku’s library look downright anemic.
The other big draw: voice search. If you’ve ever used your remote to click through an onscreen keyboard, you know what a pain it can be to search for anything. (And good luck trying to spell Matthew McConaughey.) With voice search, you just talk into the Fire TV remote and presto: near-instant results. If you’ve ever done a voice search on your phone, you know how incredibly convenient that can be.
I’m disappointed, though, that the Fire TV doesn’t come with a free year (or even a free month, which you get with any Kindle tablet) of Amazon Prime. That service offers a healthy selection of TV shows not available on Netflix, and therefore adds to the Fire TV’s appeal. But Amazon seems to have forgotten that.
Both products lack the single best streaming-box feature ever: a headphone jack in the remote for private, wireless listening. For that you need the Roku 3.
Bottom line: the RSS is a killer deal at $50, and the Fire TV is probably worth the money if you want more bells and whistles. Me, I’ll be waiting for the inevitable $69 refurbished Fire TV, which I expect to see around mid-October.