Just a few short years ago, streaming devices were a novelty. SmartTVs were just coming to marketing and adding on an AppleTV or Roku was a niche concept. As with any technology, things happen fast, and the streaming device marketing has boomed. That means that you are now looking into it, but which one should you choose?
In this product review, we take a look at the three main players: AppleTV 4K, Amazon Fire Stick 4K, and Roku Streaming Stick.
Size & Shape
First, let’s take a look at their forms. Both the Fire Stick and the Roku Stick are very small in form, looking like a slightly oversized USB drive. This makes them somewhat inconspicuous plugged into your TV, except for their external power supplies. Having to plug into the wall and run a cord across to your Stick adds a bit of a mess to a device protruding from the side or bottom of your TV, wherever the HDMI port is found.
The AppleTV, for better or worse, is still a pretty large device. It will require a nearby service to sit on, or you can grab one of these convenient mounts (link). Even though it’s much bulkier, in true Apple fashion, it’s awfully pretty to look at.
Depending on your use, size may truly come into play for you. While we do like the smaller form of the Sticks, since they have bulky power supplies anyway, they are no more portable or functional than the full-size AppleTV. Once you’ve set it up on a TV, you won’t be moving any of them easily. Note to these manufacturers, work on something you can move from TV to TV easier!
A lot of your decision may come down to what content you’re trying to access. For instance, our cable and internet provider is Spectrum (formerly Charter and Time Warner). In order to stream their Spectrum TV app, we had to use Roku, at least until earlier this year. That was a pretty huge inconvenience and ruled out the AppleTV and Fire Stick entirely. They just weren’t an option for us.
Luckily in January, the SpectrumTV app finally dropped for AppleTV. Yet we are still patiently waiting for a Fire Stick option.
Before picking out a streaming device option, you should definitely make sure your preferred provided has an app for that platform. There’s nothing worse than firing up a brand new shiny device only to find out you can’t access the content you want. Take our word for it, it’s pretty dang frustrating.
The good news is, all of the major streaming services are available on all of these devices. That means Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO, and all of the rest. Need your Game of Thrones or Stranger Things fix? You’ll be good to go with either the AppleTV, Amazon Fire Stick 4K, and Roku Streaming Stick.
Usability is definitely where these devices start to differentiate themselves. At first glance, the user interfaces are very similar — A grid of apps. It’s actually really disappointing how they all have the same boring way of navigating and displaying apps. A breakthrough in this area would certainly take one of these companies across the edge to the leader of the pack. Until then, you really have a similar experience across all three options.
Other than the onscreen usability, there two more areas to look at: Voice Control and The Remote.
All three options now come with Voice Control capabilities built into the remove. This is a pretty cool feature, especially once you remember to use it. We are all programmed over a lifetime to click through on a remote. This is what makes their user interfaces so archaic and boring. Scrolling through pages of apps to only scroll through that app’s offerings makes for a really tiring experience. It makes you miss the old days of turning on a TV and pressing two buttons to land on the channel you want. Now that was efficiency.
Once you start to train yourself away from that though, Voice Control is pretty dang awesome. It is most lacking on Roku, but not bad. On the AppleTV and Fire Stick though, it runs smooth and accurate. This isn’t surprising given the Voice Control history of Amazon and AppleTV with Alexa and Siri.
By using a full lineup of Voice Control commands, you can launch an app, or even a show on an app. You can also find where to watch particular programming, which is nice once you have too many places to look. For instance, you could say, “Find Avengers” and it will display the Avengers movie. It will then list where, if anywhere, it is available and at what cost.
The only thing on our wishlist is that Apple and Amazon open up their voice control across all devices. It would be nice to turn your lights on and off, or adjust your thermostat, through your TV remote if it’s already in your hand. It will come though, we hope.
It may seem like a small detail, but the remotes are actually the biggest difference makers in our opinion. While they all have Voice Control, as mentioned above, they all feel and operate very differently. So take these difference into serious consideration before making your decision.
The Roku Remote
Let’s start with the Roku remote. It is by far our least favorite of the remotes. First of all, the buttons feel a bit cheap, and have a plastic-y click to them. After a year of use, the remote seems to have worn down and feels even worse.
For some reason, Roku also places preset buttons on their remote. Now, admittedly, it’s convenient if you happen to really want to use one of these apps, as it bypasses the need to use the awful onscreen interface. The apps on our remote are Netflix, Sling, Hulu, and DirecTV Now. We only have subscriptions to two of those, which means we have two entire buttons that are eternally useless on the remote. Not very forward thinking for a device that will constantly have apps added and removed over its life.
These may seem petty, but wasted buttons, that feel cheap anyway, are a bit of an overall disappoint to us. This places the Roku as our overall third option, although it does perform as good, if not slightly better, than the Fire Stick.
The Amazon Fire Stick 4K Remote
The Amazon Fire Stick 4K remote is the most simplistic of the three. It doesn’t waste space with buttons for apps you may never use, which is good. The clicking and functionality is very smooth and quiet, with soft presses.
Other than that, it’s just a remote. It works how it should, without any real bells and whistle. That’s not a bad thing at all. It performs and performs well.
The AppleTV 4K Remote
Welcome to the Holy Grail of streaming device remotes. If the Roku remote was a Kia, and the Amazon remote was a Honda, the Apple remote is a Porsche. It’s pretty, fancy, high performing, a bit temperamental, and oh, definitely expensive. Lose your AppleTV remote and it’s $59. That’s more than either the Roku or Fire Stick in its entirety.
Like any other Apple device, their focus was on aesthetics and functionality, and it excels at both. You can feel the weight and quality as soon as you pick it up. Granted, you have to make sure you pick it up the right way. The biggest oversight of this device is that the remote is completely symmetrical so you will inevitably pick it up and try to push the bottom instead of the top.
Since it is Bluetooth, you don’t have to be pointing it towards the TV, which makes picking it up backwards that much worse. It would’ve been nice to have a grove on the back, or something, to know you’re holding it properly.
It’s touch based, not button based, so you scroll and click on a flat surfaces, which once you get used to it, is pretty dang cool as well. That leaves only a minimal number of buttons, that opposite of our button wasting Roku. Oh, and it recharges with a Lightning port, so you never need to have a battery on hand like the Fire Stick and Roku.
The last really cool feature of the remote is that your iPhone or iPad can also be a remote with the Apple Remote app. When I can’t find the remote, I can just grab my phone. Or, if you’re feeling fancy, you can just tell your phone, “Hey Siri, open Netflix on my TV.” And she does.
Who would’ve though the remotes would be the longest section? We didn’t at first, but it quickly became the deciding factor for us. What’s the big takeaway though?
The short: pick a device you like that has the content you need. If you’re an Amazon person, grab the Fire Stick. Does your TV already have Roku built in? Skip adding on one of the others, you’re probably fine with what you have.
Do you want a full SmartTV streaming device hub? Shell out the cash for the AppleTV. You also get a full array of gaming which is something we didn’t even get into. Overall though, you’ll feel the quality of the Apple product.
Don’t want to fork out the cash? Grab the cheaper Amazon Fire Stick 4K. It definitely edged out the Roku for us, and is a solid affordable option that won’t leave you disappointed.