Sign In

Quick & Dirty Guide: The Difference Between a Streaming Stick & Set-Top Box

If a streaming stick is cheaper, why would you pay more for a set-top box?
Published
streaming devices

As Amazon Fire TV ($99) bursts onto the market to compete with streamers like the Roku 3 ($99) and Apple TV ($99), you may be wondering what these set-top boxes offer over cheaper streaming sticks, specifically Google's Chromecast ($35) and Roku's Streaming Stick ($49.99). Each has its own advantages and drawbacks, and it really comes down to what features you want, and possibly what tech ecosystem you are already a part of.

So should you spend less on a streaming stick, or splurge on a fully-capable box? Here's our quick-and-dirty guide.

Size and Connections

The streaming sticks are obviously smaller and they plug directly into your TV's HDMI port. They are also capable of drawing power from an available USB port. The boxes all offer extra ports, including an Ethernet port which could be important if you don't have great Wi-Fi.

Speed and Power

The Fire TV is way out in front with a quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM, while the Roku 3 is also snappy with a dual-core processor. By comparison, the streaming sticks and Apple TV lag behind. This won't affect the streaming speed, but it will impact your navigation through menus, how quickly apps load, and potentially how games are handled.

Remote Control

If you like a dedicated remote control, the Chromecast is out. It requires a smartphone, tablet, or laptop to choose content. The Roku systems can be controlled using Android or iOS apps, or you can use the physical remote controls that come with them. The Roku 3 also has motion control in the remote for gaming, and a nifty headphone port for watching TV without bothering anyone else in the room; the Roku stick, however, does not. The Fire TV remote boasts voice search, but it's limited to Amazon's Instant Video library and Vevo, so it can't search Netflix or any of your other content channels. You can also get a dedicated Amazon Fire Game Controller for an extra $39.99 and use your Fire TV as an Android gaming console.

Content

Roku is a clear leader here, and both the Roku 3 and the Streaming Stick have access to over 1,200 channels. They also have a useful universal search function that makes it easier to quickly find the shows or movies you want. Fire TV and Apple TV both have numerous channels and apps, but omit at least some favorites like Spotify, Vudu, Showtime, and/or HBO Go. Chromecast still has limited functionality, though it does support Netflix, Hulu, and others.

Casting

Chromecast is the only one that allows you to stream from your Chrome browser on any computer or mobile device, but it doesn't work perfectly and it doesn't work with all content. (It won't work with Silverlight for example.) Apple TV supports AirPlay for mirroring or streaming content, but only from a Mac, iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. Fire TV allows you to stream from a Kindle Fire tablet. The Roku app offers limited streaming options for your personal photos, music, and videos, but you can find third-party apps that will allow you to mirror your Android or iOS device.

Overall, the Roku Streaming Stick doesn't ask you to sacrifice much over a set-top box like the Roku 3, and it is half the price. If you don't care about a remote control, then the Chromecast is a winner on price and we expect more channels to roll out on it very soon. If you're invested in the Apple ecosystem, then keep an eye out for a new version of Apple TV. If you're happy with Amazon's walled garden and gaming is a factor, then the Fire TV could be your best bet.

For a more thorough comparison of the set-top boxes, check out our guide here. Readers, do you use Chromecast or the Roku Stick? What do you think of it? Let us know in the comments below.


Contributing Writer

Simon is a technology journalist with a background in games development. He is fascinated by all things tech, particularly mobile and videogames, and he loves to share that passion with other tech fans.
Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
You might also like
6 comments
dbanks
I own Chromecasts and Rokus 2's. Personally I prefer the uncluttered user interface of my Chromecast. The addition of a remote control app (I use Remotecast) and the Googlecast browser extension I can watch pretty much whatever I want. The Twonky Beam channel and the Roku app certainly make my Roku more functional but I find the menu cumbersome. Looking forward to trying the Amazon Fire TV device someday but the $99 price tag is so unattactive to me.
kyungone
@AdamH68

Unfortunately no, you must have Wifi in your home to utilize Chromecast. Chromecast cannot detect your phone's 3g/4g signal.

Now there's a way that you can utilize smart phone's tethering (Access Point) function to create Wifi in your home. I haven't tried this myself but it seems like this actually is possible. You may require additional device (router or laptop) and setting in order to do this.
icon_st
chromecast is the way to go....who wants to carry multiple boxes and remotes... All amazon wants to do with their new box is to sell more stuff. Too bad they couldn't figure out how to sell through other boxes.
LongTimeUser
I have thousands of movies and TV shows sitting on local hard drive in various formats. None of the above mentioned players can play all my files. I use "WD TV Live Media Player" which can play from network, local hard drives attached to USB and media server. I have been using it for two years and It has played every file I have thrown at it. I also use it as a NAS and it performs decently. The streaming apps are not as extensive as Roku but still has all the major players covered like Netflix, hulu etc. A little known fact that you can stream youtube from chrome browser to this player just like chromecast. Amazon sells it for $85 and you can find it much cheaper at eBay. I will highly recommend this to anyone who wants to play content stored on the local media. I am a Computer Engineer and like to push all the electronic Gadgets to their limit and this one has passed all my challenges so far.
AdamH68
I don't have internet at home but have a smart phone. Would Chromecast work for me?
FunkHouse9
My real interest is in streaming local content. I don't use Hulu, Netflix, etc. I bought a Boxee Box which seemed so promising but was so glitchy and problem filled that I grew to hate it and regret that they ever got a cent from me.

I bought a Chromecast and so far it does everything I've needed it to do. I use the Plex app to stream local content from my desktop Win8 pc to my TV. Real player also has some cloud-based options for uploading your own content which can then be streamed to a Chromecast. Able to send YouTube to my TV from my PC or iPod Touch. I have found Chromecast to be well worth the relatively small price. I bought it as soon as it was released and it couldn't do then what I needed it to do. But, the number of compatible apps, etc, have expanded quite a bit in a short time and it can now do everything I wanted it to do.

I'm sure that the other options in this article may be more suitable for Netflix, but Chromecast meets my needs well for less money.
Leave a comment! or Register