We’ve overhauled our guide to the best streaming sticks to account for the new devices and OS updates launched by Amazon, Roku, and Google since our initial comparison in January 2021. We’ve also added a section covering the hardware differences between the major players in the category.
Most of us have a short list of requirements for a video streaming device. We just want something that easily delivers content worth watching and works with all the other devices in our living rooms without friction.
In most cases, a good streaming stick will do the trick. There are some reasons why someone would want to pay for a pricier set-top box: the Apple TV 4K doesn’t stuff ads on its home screen, for instance, while a device like Nvidia’s Shield TV Pro gives you more ports for local media streaming and enough power for gaming. Most people, though, don’t need to spend more than about $50 on a streaming device to get an enjoyable, and oftentimes superior, experience. Google, Amazon, and Roku, three of the biggest names in the space, all offer useful and competitive options around this price point.
Since our last streaming stick comparison, Amazon and Roku have turned in new hardware and updated their respective operating systems to compete with our previous top pick, the Google Chromecast with Google TV. Amazon’s new Fire TV Stick 4K Max brings Wi-Fi 6 support, an updated remote, and slightly beefier internals than the standard Fire TV Stick 4K. Roku’s Streaming Stick+, which we tested in the last version of this comparison, has been replaced by a pair of streaming sticks: the Roku Streaming Stick 4K and Roku Streaming Stick 4K+. The new Streaming Stick 4K, like Amazon’s Fire TV Stick Max, has a more powerful processor and Wi-Fi radio than its predecessor. The Streaming Stick 4K+ adds Roku’s Voice Remote Pro, which offers a rechargeable battery, shortcut buttons, and a lost remote siren for $20 more.
Google’s Chromecast hardware hasn’t changed since its September 2020 release. In our 2021 comparison, it handily beat both Roku’s and Amazon’s offerings when it came to search and serving up useful content suggestions. Google’s interface looked better, too, and the stick was easier to operate in just about every way. In other words, Roku and Amazon had a lot of ground to make up for in their latest OS updates. Below, we’ve taken a new look at how each of the major players’ main streaming sticks now compare.
Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.
The short version
- Google’s Chromecast with Google TV is still the best streaming stick you can get for $50. It has wide-ranging compatibility across apps, platforms, and devices, speedy performance, a simple and sensibly laid-out remote, and both Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos support. With a price tag that’s a third of the cost of an Apple TV, it even gives Apple’s streaming box a run for its money. It beats Roku and Fire TV devices with a more polished and effective user interface that expertly serves up content you’ll enjoy watching.
- Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K Max isn’t hard to use, but compared to the Chromecast, it makes finding quality content more of a chore. It can still come off as a device designed to get you watching Prime Video. You can hop over to Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, and others to find a specific program, but if you’re just browsing through the UI looking for something to watch, you’ll usually get nudged toward Amazon’s video-streaming service. Prime Video does have a large library of movies, but this setup can leave you with limited, subpar options for finding new content. That said, the Fire TV Stick 4K Max is still fast, has all the major apps, and supports useful features like Dolby Vision HDR.
- The Roku Streaming Stick 4K doesn’t suffer as much from a biased user interface as the Fire TV Stick 4K Max, but that’s mostly because its UI is lackluster. It’s not built to browse—or at least not very well. A Roku device gives you a basic grid of apps on its home screen, and that’s about it, so it’s most useful if you know exactly what you want to watch before turning it on. Some may prefer this no-nonsense approach, and the Streaming Stick 4K still has all the major streaming services and useful tricks like AirPlay 2 support, Dolby Vision HDR, and screen mirroring across Windows and Android. But if you suffer from the ever-threatening existential crisis of what to watch next, Roku’s OS can fall flat.