Google Chromecast v. Roku Streaming Stick: Which One Should I Buy?

When Google released the Google Chromecast last year and it made a big splash and sold briskly thanks to the low price and simple, but useful functionality. Roku didn’t want to be outdone; it followed with the Roku Streaming Stick to compete with Google’s inexpensive HDMI dongle. How did Roku do? Read our Google Chromecast v. Roku Streaming Stick head-to-head to find out.

The two companies offer two different approaches to streaming Internet video, audio and images. The Google Chromecast doesn’t work alone. The user must use it along with a tablet, smartphone or computer. Any selected streaming media can be sent to a TV through the Chromecast, which connects to a TV via HDMI.

google chromecast v roku streaming stick
The Roku Streaming Stick (top) or the Google Chromecast (bottom). Which one should you buy?

Roku added the ability to stream videos from Netflix and YouTube on a tablet or phone after Chromecast came out. Users can also use their Roku remote app to view pictures and listen to audio files from a phone through the Roku stick. However, the majority of content that users can enjoy with a Roku Streaming Stick comes from what they call channels that the user installs on their Roku stick. This means the Chromecast requires a phone, tablet or computer while the Roku doesn’t.

See Amazon Fire v. Roku 3: Which One Should I Buy?

Hardware and Design

Neither the Google Chromecast nor the Roku Streaming Stick take up much space. They’re small HDMI sticks, about the size of a large USB flash drive, that plug into an HDMI port on a TV, monitor or projector. Since most displays don’t give off enough electrical power to run the sticks, both of them include a micro-USB port that hooks up to power.

google chromecast with extender
The Chromecast includes an HDMI extender, which makes it easier to plug into a crowded HDMI port on a TV.

The Roku Streaming Stick comes in the same purple plastic that Roku devices are branded with. It measures slightly wider than the Chromecast, which makes it harder to connect to cramped HDMI ports on a TV. The Chromecast usually fits, but still comes with a short extender, making it easier to fit in tight places. I used the extender that came with the Chromecast to plug in the Roku, since the Chromecast didn’t need it.

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roku streaming stick
The purple Roku Streaming Stick seems small, but the wide casing makes it hard to plug into a crowded HDMI port.

The Chromecast uses a tablet, smartphone or computer as its remote, while the Roku Streaming Stick includes a small Roku remote control. Compared to other Roku remotes, the one included with the Roku Streaming Stick is a bit disappointing. I own a Roku 3, the company’s high-end $100 mini set-top box. That remote includes a stereo headphone jack to listen to the audio from the Roku 3 over the Bluetooth connection between the remote and the box. The stick’s remote doesn’t include that feature.

roku chromecast remotes and sticks
The Roku comes with a remote, but the Chromecast uses a smartphone, tablet or computer to control it.

The Roku Streaming Stick remote includes four buttons at the bottom that link to four channels available on the stick.

  • MGO - A move rental and buying service like the one iTunes offers on Apple TV.
  • Amazon Instant Video - Watch Amazon Instant videos purchased from Amazon, or included in Amazon Prime subscriptions.
  • Netflix - The most popular streaming service on the Internet with thousands of TV shows and movies.
  • Blockbuster - One of the least popular streaming services on the Internet.

Roku must have gotten an advertising fee from these four services, becasue that’s the only good reason to include Blockbuster over a more popular streaming service like HBO Go or MLB.tv. I wish Roku let users choose which channels the shortcut buttons linked to. Users can ignore the Roku remote and use their smartphone or tablet to control the Roku Streaming Stick, like they can with the Google Chromecast. The free apps for Android or iOS are in their respective app stores.

usb power adapters
Both devices require hooking up to external power via a USB/AC adapter.

Winner: Google Chromecast because of a sleeker design and included HDMI extender.

Software and User-interface

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUbOqAFtO9s The Google Chromecast offers the simplest user-interface. It’s just a pretty screen with a lovely slide show of pictures Google collected to serve as the screensaver that shows up until a person “casts” a video to the Chromecast. The person selects this video from apps on their smartphone or tablet.

roku my channels
Users can enjoy more channels from Roku than any other streaming device.

The Roku Streaming Stick shows the user the same user-interface they’d get with one of the traditional Roku set-top boxes. Users can add channels to their Roku Streaming Stick from the Channel Store. Roku offers all of the big names including…

  • Netflix
  • Hulu Plus
  • Amazon Instant Video
  • HBO Go
  • Showtime Anytime
  • MGO for buying or renting movies
  • Watch ESPN
  • MLB
  • NBA
  • NHL
  • MLS
  • Vevo
  • iHeart Radio
  • Pandora
  • Spotify

Those are just some of the more popular names. They also offer thousands of niche channels from church worship services to International programming from Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Big names in podcasting like the TWIT.tv or Revision 3 networks also offer channels. If someone’s interested in something, then Roku likely offers a channel for it.

roku search results
Roku offers great integrated search of all the major channels in one place.

The Roku user-interface comes in three basic sections. The left-hand column show the channel store and settings, as well as Roku’s excellent universal search. The search function lets users look for a TV show or movie. Let’s say I want to watch Star Trek II: The Wrat of Kahn. Enter the title and the Roku software will find the show and tell the user which channels include it. Highlight which channel you want to watch the show with and it hit the enter button on the remote or Roku app.

roku channel with description
Highlight a channel and Roku shows a description to the right.

In the center of the screen the Roku shows all the channels a person installed on their account. This syncs across Roku devices in the event that a person owns more than one Roku. It shows up as a grid. Move through the grid with the directional buttons on the remote and select one. When the user highlights a channel, a description  appears along the right side, as seen above.

Inside the channels, the user-interface changes based on how the channel maker sets it up. Most of them will show a row of videos or categories of videos that the use chooses using the left or right buttons. Some of the channels, like Hulu Plus and Netflix, will show them in a grid of rows and columns. Most of the channels lack a clean design or easy-to-use interface. Some make it difficult to find good content, even though I know it exists on the channel.

google chromecast ready to cast screen
Google includes some beautiful screensaver images on the Ready to Cast screen.

I like the way the Chromecast works better than the Roku, despite owning one of each of the first four generations of the Roku box. The phone or tablet apps let me enter user login information on a keyboard instead of an onscreen keyboard using a remote, which can get painful on the Roku remote when first logging into the user account. Finding content on my Nexus 7, which sits on my nightstand and functions primarily as my Chromecast remote, seems more efficient than using the remote on the Roku.

Performance also makes the Chromecast more enjoyable. It doesn’t need powerful hardware to send the link to the media over a Wi-Fi network and stream it to a TV over HDMI. The Roku’s operating system requires a little more power to display, which the Roku Streaming Stick lacks. The Roku Streaming Stick stutters with lots of lag. Loading some channels, like Netflix, take longer than they should. Plus the Roku takes forever to start up after a power outage or after an update forces a reboot.

Some people might want to take a stick with them to a friend or family member’s house. Waiting for the Roku to boot up, then configuring it with the remote and on-screen keyboard, takes forever. Users can set up the Chromecast in a fraction of  the time it takes the Roku.

Winner: Chromecast.

Interoperability with Phones and Tablets

youtube app with chromecast support
Open a Chromecast-enabled app like YouTube and play video. Choose the Chromecast button indicated by the arrow and then select the name of your Chromecast to start streaming.

The Google Chrome relies on a smartphone, tablet or computer running the Chrome browser. If potential buyers hate the Chrome browser and don’t own a phone or a tablet, then they will have to pick the Roku Streaming Stick despite its hardware flaws and poor performance. The Chromecast works great with a large collection of apps. Go over to the Google Play store and search for apps and it will show a large collection of Chromecast-enabled apps. Do a similar search in iTunes and another large list shows many useful apps that integrate Chromecast support.

Here are some of our favorite titles:

  • Chromecast app used to configure the device
  • Netflix
  • Pandora
  • Hulu Plus
  • Google Play Movies or Music
  • YouTube
  • HBO Go
  • Plex
  • AllCast for streaming phone media to the TV
  • Chrome browser for showing web pages
  • Pocket Casts for podcasts

Not all of these work on iOS, but the big ones like Netflix and Hulu do.

roku remote app on android
The Roku Remote app on Android and iOS can replace the physical remote.

Get the free Roku Remote apps for Android or iOS and use them to find your favorite streaming channels or as a remote for the Roku stick. Roku Streaming Stick owners can use the remote app to stream pictures or play music stored on the phone. It doesn’t stream video, though, a big weakness. The remote app makes it easy to navigate around channels and find new ones in the Channel store.

roku remote app menu
The Roku Remote app does more than play, pause and navigate around the user-interface. This menu shows channels and search functions.

There’s one little annoyance. On Android, hitting the phone’s back button (the round arrow at the bottom left in the image above) usually takes the user to the previous screen in an app. Instead the Roku remote app closes and the phone returns to the home screen. Neither stick wins this category, so it comes down to personal preference.

I prefer to use the Chromecast with various apps instead of the Roku app with all of the Channels integrated. Phone and tablet apps usually offer a better user-interface than the Roku channels. It’s usually easier to find content on a  phone or tablet app, which I then cast to the TV via Chromecast.

Winner: Chromecast due to speed and simplicity, although some may prefer the integration of the Roku user-interface.

 Price and Value

The Google Chromecast beats the Roku Streaming stick on price since it retails for $35 compared to the $50 cost of the Roku Streaming Stick. Sometimes buyers can find the Chromecast for less, but the Roku Streaming Stick seldom goes on sale for less than the retail price. Price doesn’t mean as much as value. The Roku Streaming stick offers an incredible value for people who want streaming Internet video, but don’t own a tablet or smartphone, which the Chromecast requires.

Few people, who don’t already own a tablet or smartphone, will likely want a streaming video device like the Chromecast or Roku Streaming Stick. Buying or renting movies via the channels on the Roku or Google Play Store via a phone or tablet compare favorably. I didn’t see any wide variation in costs of movies or TV shows.

Winner: Chromecast due to price and value for all but people who don’t own an iOS or Android device.

The Bottom Line

See Amazon Fire TV v. Apple TV: Which One Should I Buy?

For those keeping score, I picked the Chromecast in each of our four categories. That doesn’t mean the Chromecast won a resounding victory. The Roku Streaming Stick is a nice streaming device, but comes with too many weaknesses. The hardware doesn’t fit most TVs with HDMI ports sitting close together. The operating system lags and takes forever to boot and load some channels.

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People who like using their touchscreen device as a remote can enjoy both devices, but I prefer the individual apps that cast to the Chromecast instead of working with the poorly designed channels on the Roku.

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