Google hit the media streaming market with Chromecast, its answer to more established set-top boxes such as Apple TV and Roku 3. Except, rather than play by the rules with yet another hockey-puck-style device set at around $99, Google mixed it up with a plug-and-play dongle reminiscent of a USB thumb drive. Oh, and did we mention Google priced it at just $35? Attractive price point aside, how does this newcomer compare to the streaming set-top boxes we already know and love?
Chromecast is the winner with an easy setup process and makes the Roku 3’s seem arduous at best. With the Roku 3, users have to create an account online, activate the device, and then activate each subsequent content channel, like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.
This seems extensive compared to the Chromecast, which is (more or less) just about as plug-and-play as Google advertises it to be; just find an open HDMI port and a USB port for charging, or a wall plug for HDTVs without USB ports, connect the device to a Wi-Fi connection via a mobile or desktop app, and start streaming. Plus, Chromecast doesn’t come with a remote; so that’s one less piece of equipment to lose.
Apple TV takes second, since iOS users are probably accustomed to using their Apple ID to log into all-things Apple. But for anyone out there without an iTunes account or an iOS device, Apple TV requires a bit of legwork getting accounts in order.
Ease of Use
The Roku 3 and Apple TV user interfaces offer complete experiences, with the ability to navigate menus with a remote. Chromecast is remoteless, and the user interface is simple. In fact, it’s just about nonexistent, as all operation takes place through a tablet, smartphone, or laptop. Both the Chromecast and devices have to be on the same wireless network, and then all it takes is a tap of a Chromecast icon. Still users are left juggling devices and apps to get the content they want on their TV. Roku and Apple TV offer clear and well-thought out navigation, but first place goes to Apple TV as its UI is both sleek and snappy
Roku is no slouch though. It has a great universal search feature, so its easy to find the channel that has any particular content. With one search, Roku returns results, including info on how much the movie or episode costs to rent or buy, or even if it’s also available for free streaming. This is especially useful considering the number of Roku channels available.
Roku takes first place in terms of content, with Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Spotify, MLB TV, Crackle, Pandora, and more, among a host of other third party apps. Roku also features some unique content, such as Gaiam Yoga and other workout channels. Most of the third-party channels require a subscription to the service, but its useful for anyone that already subscribes to lesser-known online streaming services. There is currently no official YouTube channel, and Roku users aren’t able to stream iTunes content. Every so often, a third-party app pops up bringing those features, but they quickly get pulled.
Apple TV features most of the same content, notably, Netflix, Hulu Plus, and HBO Go, but also supports YouTube, and of course, iTunes. It isn’t as easy to get specialty content on Apple TV, though it does support screen mirroring with more recent Apple products. However, mirroring quality is choppy and it isn’t the easiest to use. Shorter videos being broadcast over AirPlay are smooth, but long HD content tends to suffer in quality.
Chromecast is currently limited with Netflix, YouTube, and Google Play. However, users can stream Hulu Plus and HBO Go through Chrome Browser mirroring, but at greatly diminished quality.
Features for Price
The Google Chromecast only costs $35, compared to $99 for Apple TV, and $99 Roku 3. Roku also has streaming devices starting at $50, but with limited features. When it comes to features, the Roku 3 and Apple TV are clearly more robust. It’s difficult to declare a clear winner between the two, but Roku 3 slightly edges out Apple TV for our money. The extensive selection of channels makes Roku the streaming device with the most features for the price.
Apple TV supports iTunes and Apple device screen mirroring, making it an appealing choice for Apple users. Users can also use an iOS device as a controller to play certain iOS games on an HDTV. Apple TV also supports AirPlay with iOS devices, but fair warning, each AirPlay video requires users to enter a unique code before streaming the content. It’s a minor, but persistent hassle.
Users are able to turn the AirPlay code off in the Apple TV settings so that they can stream content without worrying about entering a code. However, this isn’t recommended for users that live in an apartment building, in a house with multiple iOS users, or who have more than one Apple TV device. Turning the code off means that anyone can stream to the Apple TV in question, which includes guests, neighbors, or other family members with an iOS device.
As mentioned before, Roku has extensive channel support, with plenty of third party options, and even secret channels. With channels such as Plex, users can get content from their notebook onto Roku as well, but it’s not a simple process and most users won’t even bother trying. The Roku 3 also features a limited selection of gaming, including Angry Birds, and the remote acts as a motion controller. The Roku 3 remote also features a headphone jack, so users can listen to content quietly while it’s playing on the big screen. Finally, users can also stream local videos stored on iOS and Android devices through a Roku box via the Roku app.
As of yet, Chromecast really only boasts Netflix, YouTube, Google Play, and content from a Chrome Browser. The ability to mirror Chrome Browser tabs is a cool feature, but the quality isn’t great, and as stated in the TechnologyGuide Chromecast review, it is currently a bit buggy. That being said, Google has stated that it plans to increase the features and functionality of Chromecast, and rumor has it that new content partners, including Pandora, Red Box Instant, and HBO Go will soon sign on.
Those looking for a quick-and-easy way to get Netflix content to their HDTV, stream funny cat videos, or content from a browser, without much hassle, then Chromecast is the way to go. It’s cheap, and easy to tote room to room. However, purchasing a Chromecast also requires faith in Google to deliver on its promise of improvement down the line.
Anyone looking for a wider breadth of content including Hulu Plus, HBO Go, Spotify, and more, might want to consider another option. But at the price of $35, it still can’t hurt to get a Chromecast for an extra HDTV or for the guest room.