Which streaming stick? Chromecast and Fire Stick compared, as Apple casts a long shadow

With Apple pending on its own streaming device release, Apple customers who intend to subscribe to Apple One’s service bundle should wait.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Last week, in two separate events, Amazon and Google announced their competing video content streaming devices, the Fire TV Stick and the Chromecast with Google TV.

In a previous post, I discussed the implications of Google's most recent product announcements and how developments in the content streaming industry could lead to a new streaming war between it and Amazon, Apple, and other content owners, such as AT&T with its HBO Max service and Apple's TV Plus service. 

With last week's announcements, I decided to buy both a new Fire Stick and Chromecast and see how the two experiences compared.

The hardware: Chromecast's chip is more powerful, but Fire TV's remote is superior

These products have a similar design and target audience, and they're made to be minimally invasive and easy to set up. Both are "dongles" that plug directly into the television using a quick-disconnect HDMI interface powered by USB cables and small AC adapter blocks if needed. 

Unlike set-top boxes like the Roku Ultra or the Apple TV, they don't have additional optical/SPDIF outputs; the surround sound audio is sent through the ARC (Audio Return Channel) port on compatible televisions via the HDMI connection. I was previously using the optical connection on my Roku device for surround sound. They also lack Ethernet ports, so you'll need to have strong Wi-fi connectivity.

After a little bit of tweaking and hunting around the antiquated TV menu system, I had no issues getting the Dolby Digital 5.1 bitstream passthrough working on my 8-year-old 70" SHARP TV and my Sonos Beam soundbar with paired wireless surround speakers -- but I had to run a software update on the Sonos and use a specific HDMI port for the surround sound via ARC to work.

Also: When is Prime Day 2020? Plus, how to find the best deals for business   

The $39.99 Amazon Fire Stick was the first of the two devices to arrive. Its embedded hardware features are minimalist -- it's a 1.7Ghz quad-core MediaTek MT8695D processor, with 1GB of RAM and 4GB of storage. It outputs 1080p native resolution with Dolby Digital and Atmos bitstream audio. It supports 802.11/b/g/n/ac WiFi with 2x2 MIMO and Bluetooth 5 for wireless connectivity.

In terms of raw hardware specifications, the Chromecast with Google TV is a much more robust offering. For $49.99, it features a 1.8Ghz quad-core Amlogic S905X2 processor with an ARM Mali-G31 MP2 GPU. It's loaded with 2GB of RAM and 8GB of onboard storage, with the ability to output 4K native resolution with Dolby Digital and Dolby Atmos bitstream audio. Wireless connectivity is comparable to the Fire Stick, with 2.4 and 5Ghz bands and Bluetooth. For $10 extra, you are getting a lot more horsepower with the Chromecast. 

Amazon has a comparable $49 offering, the 4K streaming stick with Alexa, but the hardware is 2 years old and still only has 1GB of RAM. Amazon's more powerful offering, the Fire TV cube with 4K Ultra HD, released in 2019, is $119.00. 

Both of the devices come with remotes. The Amazon remote, which is black, is slightly larger than Google's because it incorporates fast-forward, rewind, pause, and play buttons in addition to the UX controls for the menu and voice assistant. Overall, the Amazon remote feels more substantial. 


Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast with Google TV remotes

Jason Perlow/ZDNet

Google's remote is color-matched to the device SKU that you buy (it comes in 3 colors, "Snow", "Sunrise," and "Sky") and is a more minimalist design, relegating all playback control to its directional controller and center button, with dedicated buttons for YouTube and Netflix. 

Amazon's volume controls are on the top of the remote, whereas Google's are on the right side, similar to Roku's design. I find the top volume controls to be more of a natural configuration, but that's just a personal preference.

User interface: Google's is better streamlined and more responsive, but Amazon wins on services support

Amazon's Fire TV OS 7 is a mature streaming device operating system based on Android, currently version 9. It's deployed to all of its current generation Fire TV products, including those of its partners such as Anker's Soundcore, which has built its own very excellent Nebula soundbar that integrates streaming functionality. 

All of the major streaming services (Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, Disney, Apple TV Plus, CBS, Showtime, NFL, ESPN) are supported out of the box, with the notable exception of HBO Max and NBC's Peacock service. But this is quickly rectified as the APK file, for both of these services, which are built for Android TV devices, can be sideloaded in a matter of minutes using the Downloader app that can be installed on the Amazon App Store built into the device, and by enabling developer mode to sideload in settings. 


The Amazon Fire TV user interface

Jason Perlow/ZDNet

As with anything sideloaded, it's not officially supported, and any major updates to the app have to be done manually whenever new versions are published. But the service worked perfectly fine once the app was loaded.

The lack of HBO Max (which is a service I receive as a benefit as an AT&T Fiber customer) was the only major nuisance I had to deal with in terms of setup, which was otherwise fairly straightforward. The system boots up, asking you to choose a wireless network and asks you to sign in to your Amazon account. Once that's done, the system checks for updates, installs them and then restarts.

The Amazon Fire UX is visually appealing, but it's also confusing due to the amount of content being shown onscreen at once, and there's a lot of menu scrolling. Obviously, Amazon Prime content is showcased because it's Amazon's device. Still, you can search throughout all the major services installed on the system, and Alexa herself can be queried to assist at any time with the dedicated voice search button on the remote. 


Searching for "Star Trek" using Alexa on the Fire TV Stick.

Jason Perlow/ZDNet

Asking Alexa to search for "Star Trek" revealed the 2013 "Star Trek Into Darkness" movie as the featured content, with related Star Trek content, consolidated across all the services I was subscribed to listed below it. Alexa can also return results such as the weather and other things you'd normally query your Echo smart speaker for.

Also: Which Amazon Echo to buy? How to pick the best Alexa device for your needs 

However, due to only 1GB of RAM on the device, it feels somewhat on the laggy and sluggish side when navigating the UX and loading the streaming apps, which can take upwards of 20 or 30 seconds to switch between services depending on how resource intensive the app is (Apple TV is particularly sluggish to load). However, once a specific service is loaded and takes over, video and audio playback itself is quite smooth. The device definitely could have benefited from an additional 1GB of RAM, and I think this is a shortcut that could have been avoided for just a few dollars extra of component BOM.

The Google TV OS on the Chromecast, Android-based (version 10), feels much more streamlined than Fire TV and the Google assistant; the search engine is genuinely more useful and has a lot more intelligence on the back-end than Alexa does. When queried, it searches not just the content library and the Play Store, but also the entire internet as it would on a smartphone or a desktop computer. It showcases all of the video content from all of the installed services on the system and has about 6500 applications listed on its version of the Play Store.


The Chromecast with Google TV user interface

Jason Perlow/ZDNet

As with the Fire TV, it runs practically every single streaming service, including Amazon Prime Video. The streaming apps themselves are identical to Fire TVs. When playing content, the user interfaces on these apps are also virtually identical because the Android codebase they use is nearly identical. Content searches with Google Assistant produced similar results as the Fire TV stick using Alexa -- when searching for "Star Trek," it produced the Original Series as the featured content, with related Star Trek materials listed below it. Still, you have to scroll down in the UX to see it.


Searching for "Star Trek" using Google Assistant. Related Star Trek content is listed below the primary featured item by scrolling down in the user interface.

Jason Perlow/ZDNet

I didn't perceive any difference in how the apps acted, the quality of the 1080p and 720p streams, or the Dolby Digital audio output's robustness on my Sonos setup. As with the Amazon Fire TV stick, my setup was also relatively painless, although I had some initial 5Ghz Wi-fi connectivity issues until the device downloaded some OS updates and restarted.

The notable exception here is the lack of an Apple TV app, which runs on Amazon Fire, Roku, and several different Smart TV platforms. It isn't preloaded on the Chromecast with Google TV. As of this writing, the APK built for the Amazon Fire won't function when sideloaded (sideloading on a Chromecast with Google TV requires enabling developer options in Settings). 

Normally I would say the lack of Apple TV on Chromecast is no huge loss. The Plus service has only started to get a few decent shows, such as Tehran, and Foundation hasn't aired yet; it's expected sometime in 2021. But the Apple TV app isn't just for watching Apple's own content and movie rentals (which would be subject to Google's latest in-app purchasing rules if it was supported on Chromecast). It's also a streaming services consolidation platform where subscriptions to content like CBS All Access and Showtime are activated and consumed, using your Apple ID. 

There's currently no way to consume CBS and Showtime content directly using Apple ID credentials outside the Apple TV app itself with the dedicated apps -- it isn't a listed authentication provider when you do sign-in. So if you are inclined to buy a Chromecast, you'll need to subscribe to those services separately. 

That's a bummer because Apple is currently doing bundled deals that allow you to subscribe to these services at half their normal price, and that's the way I personally consume them now. So for my purposes, the Amazon Fire Stick is currently a better setup.

Apple TV device refresh looms

Apple's current streaming device offering, the Apple TV 4K, is two years old and costs $179. Arguably, it's a much more powerful device than either of these two solutions and has a dedicated SPDIF/optical output as well as an ethernet port. It can run every single content streaming service available. But it's considerably more expensive and is due for a refresh.

That refresh could be pending very soon -- recent inspection of iOS from as early as January has revealed the existence of a model "T1125" Apple TV. 

We don't know the exact specifications, but it will almost certainly feature an updated Apple Silicon SoC (A13 or A14 variant). And it seems likely that it would launch concurrently with the upcoming Apple One services bundle, which in the Family and Premiere plans, includes Apple Arcade, Apple TV Plus, and Apple Fitness Plus, its new instructor-driven video exercise service that integrates with Apple Watch and competes with Peloton.

What will it cost? Conceivably, if the company keeps with the set-top design and continues with dedicated Ethernet and Optical interfaces, the product could continue to cost $179 or more. But Apple may also introduce a dongle or "stick" with a simplified design, and sell it much more aggressively, in the $99 to $150 price point.

Because of the much more powerful hardware and more robust app offerings -- especially the Fitness Plus and Arcade services -- this is something where Apple has a clear advantage, especially for those who are already Apple device owners. Apple also needs to make a major controller design change, and potentially introduce its own gaming controller instead of using Microsoft and Sony's. 

With an integrated A13 or A14 chip, Apple TV will be able to play much more robust games natively than either Chromecast or Fire TV, as the device would potentially have access to the complete (and extremely extensive) portfolio of native iOS apps for iPhone and iPad on the App Store and in Apple Arcade. 

When it comes to games, Google and Amazon have chosen to use streaming technologies instead of running them natively, with their Stadia and Luna platforms, respectively. While it can be argued that much more robust, console, and PC-style games can be deployed on these two platforms, latency can be a real issue when streaming games in real-time.

Your choice

Both the Amazon Fire and Chromecast with Google TV are excellent streaming sticks -- but which of these you choose is going to depend highly on what choices you've made on who you want to consume your content from. It will also depend on if you can tolerate having to sideload HBO Max and Peacock on the Amazon Fire instead of having them working out of the box -- or if you mind not being able to consume the Apple TV Plus service on the Chromecast at all. 

But with Apple pending its own streaming device release, Apple customers who intend to subscribe to Apple One's service bundle should wait.

Are you going to buy a Fire TV Stick, a Chromecast with Google TV, or the new Apple TV? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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