Google’s Chromecast, the cheap smart TV stick that lets you beam content from your phone and tablet to your TV, has been the talk of the town since it landed in the UK. But with Amazon taking the wraps off of its Fire TV box, is it curtains for Chromecast already?
We’ve compared Chromecast to streaming devices like Apple TV, Roku 3 and the Now TV box. Each one has its strengths and weaknesses.
The Fire TV is a US-only proposition right now. While Amazon hasn’t announced plans to bring it to the UK, it’s a distinct possibility that the shopping giant will unleash Fire TV on British living rooms.
In this event, how do the current crop of streaming boxes stack up against Amazon’s firebrand? Is it worth shelling out thirty quid or a tenner now, or should you wait? Do you even need Amazon Fire TV? What do you want out of the little lump of plastic that’s going to sit underneath your TV?
Read on to find out who you should throw your money at: Google, Amazon, Apple, Roku or Sky.
Google’s Chromecast is different to all the other devices here in that it’s not so much a box that plugs into your TV and lets you access content from the web, it’s more a device that lets you sling media from apps on your phone, tablet and in some cases your laptop, to your TV.
Netflix, BBC iPlayer and BT Sport mobile apps have been updated to support Chromecast, Google’s own Play Movies and TV store is primed for Chromecast action, as is YouTube. To be honest, you could always easily cast YouTube content to smart TVs with YouTube Leanback, but Chromecast makes the whole thing easier. There are also several DLNA apps with Chromecast support for media streaming, like Avia, Plex and Bubble UPnP.
Things like screen mirroring for laptops and desktops are in beta stages right now, but it signposts Google’s intentions for the device, a versatile, multi-use system that’s about more than just watching episodes of House of Cards.
While it’s cheap – £30 – you also get what you pay for, in that it’s not a very highly specced device at all. We’ve had problems streaming Full HD 1080p video with Chromecast, even when our device is in the same room as the wireless router it’s connected to.
It’s very much early days for Chromecast in terms of app support as well. Hopefully, in time Google will roll out updates to address problems and more apps and services will become available for Chromecast, and maybe we’ll see a more powerful version later this year.
Read our full Chromecast review.
Amazon Fire TV
Amazon’s Fire TV box looks impressive. Most impressive. As well as being a portal to Prime Instant Video (formerly Lovefilm Instant), Amazon Instant Video (pay per view movies) and Netflix, it also boasts specs that inch above the rest here.
While Chromecast struggles to stream Full HD video properly, we’re confident that the dual-band dual WiFi antennas of the Fire TV box won’t struggle as much. The software is Amazon’s Fire OS, a modified version of Android, meaning it should be easy for developers to write apps for it, although there’s no DLNA support out of the box.
It’s powered by a quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM and comes with a graphics card – in terms of spec it’s on par with last year’s cutting edge phones, so titles like Riptide GP, Asphalt 8 and Minecraft should look and play as well as they did on the HTC One Max. As your Fire TV box is plugged into the mains, you won’t have to worry about the dreaded Android Battery Drain either.
The real elephant in the room here, for British guys and gals anyway, is availability. We don’t know how much one would cost in the UK (a good guess would be the golden £99) and we don’t even know for sure if it’s coming out over here yet.
Read our feature ‘Chromecast vs Amazon Fire TV‘.
Apple TV (3rd generation)
If you’re a fully fledged Apple fanatic, then you’ll probably already have an Apple TV. If not, then it’s worth mentioning that in order to get the best out of Apple’s streaming box, it helps if you’re invested in the iTunes ecosystem.
If you’ve got a well-stocked library of iTunes content then you’ll love Apple TV; it’s a gateway device that lets you stream your purchases on your TV. Even if you haven’t bought any content directly from Apple it’s still possible to import music and movies into iTunes, so they can be played on Apple TV.
You can’t stream absolutely any media file on your home network through Apple TV though. Third party DLNA options like PlexConnect exist, but you’ll need to have a Plex Media Server set up for this, and that costs money.
Out of the box, if you can’t convert it so that iTunes will play it, it isn’t happening on Apple TV, but it is notoriously hackable into a more open device.
Apple TV is also a great way to play iOS games like fighter pilot sim Metal Storm: Wingman. This turns your phone or tablet into a HUD-type display while the main action takes place on the TV screen.
Unlike Fire TV, it leverages the gaming power of your iPhone or iPad; it doesn’t run any games itself, so comparing the specs of the two devices is somewhat irrelevant. As we said above, the Fire TV is on par with last year’s high end Android phones – make of that what you will.
The Roku 3 has a real edge over every other device here in that it’s probably the best option to go for if you want to stream your own content.
Like Fire TV, the Roku 3 is a dual-band WiFi device, meaning it’s better suited to streaming media. Thanks to support for DLNA, it’s possible to easily access files that are stored on your home network. Finally, the Roku 3 has a USB port on the back which allows you to stream media from connected hard drives.
The Roku 3 streaming box has the advantage of offering viewers many free apps like BBC iPlayer, 4oD, Demand 5 as well as Sky News, TED:talks and WSJ Live. You can also get Netflix, Now TV and Crunchyroll on the Roku 3 as well as renting titles from the Sky Store.
Price-wise the Roku 3 is on par with the Apple TV. Games aren’t as sophisticated on the Roku 3: Angry Birds is about as high end as it gets. That’s still better than gaming on Chromecast.
Otherwise, the Roku 3 is a credible alternative to Apple TV, for people who’ve not sunk a small fortune into the iTunes walled garden.
Read our feature ‘Chromecast vs Roku 3‘.
Now TV Box
The main selling point of the Now TV Box is its price – £10. That’s one tenth of the likes of Apple TV and Roku 3 and a third of the price of Chromecast.
For your ten whole pounds you get access to BBC iPlayer, 4oD and Demand 5 plus Now TV and Sky Store – virtually the same channel line up as the Roku 3.
That’s because the Now TV Box is essentially a Roku LT box with Sky branding. The only thing that you don’t get is Netflix and the ability to run DLNA out of the box (although with a little bit of tinkering you can get it to run fine).
For buyers who want a way to get catch-up content cheaply and easily on their TV the Now TV Box is a bargain. Similarly, if you can’t get (or don’t want) Sky TV, then the Now TV Box is a great way of getting Game of Thrones, True Detective and the Blacklist, plus Sky Movies and Sky Sports broadcasts on your TV as well, provided you can fork out for the Now TV subscription fees.
Recombu Verdict: Content is king
Content, as they say, is king. Ultimately, we think that availability of content is what will dictate your purchase.
With that in mind, it’s worth noting that all of these devices can get BBC iPlayer, with the exception of Fire TV, which isn’t out in the UK yet. Netflix is on every device except the Now TV Box.
You can get Now TV, which lets you access premium Sky content, on the Roku and Now TV boxes. Chromecast doesn’t support it and Apple TV currently only lets you watch Now TV sports content, due to rights conflicts.
Google Play Movies and TV supports Chromecast, but this pay per view service is expensive and titles are limited.
To wrap things up, if you’ve got a lot of files on your home network that you want to stream on your TV, then your best shot is probably the Roku 3, followed by Chromecast. You’ll need a DLNA media server, like Plex or one of the many free alternatives.
If you’ve bought many albums and movies on iTunes over the years, then get a 3rd generation Apple TV.
If you don’t have lots of files to stream but you want a smart TV device, then consider either a Chromecast or a Now TV box. Either device gives you access to a range of free and paid subscription services, and as they’re both dirt cheap to boot you might as well get both.