I've used both the Chromecast and the Roku Streaming Stick for some time now. That I'm not a massive TV viewer undoubtedly makes that a sign of our increasingly fragmented over-the-top content market. Access to the handful of things I do like to watch has ended up being spread across a variety of different delivery channels and devices.
Nonetheless, I'm always intrigued to see what the each new device has to offer and, invariably, each has something – or a combination of things – that the others don't. Chromecast and Roku are two of the better known over-the-top devices available, and yet each goes about the business of delivering its content in a different way. So without further ado, let's see how they stack up against each other.
Of the two devices, Roku takes a more traditional approach to bringing content to your TV. Both it and the Chromecast are plugged into the appropriate input on the back of a TV (an HDMI port with a USB port used for power). As with cable or satellite boxes, games consoles or DVD players, though, a remote control is provided to navigate Roku's on-screen interface. The user selects the app or channel that they want to watch and the content is then streamed to the TV from the internet.
Chromecast, on the other hand, turns that approach on its head. The apps or channels are not selected on-screen, but rather Chromecast is built into the services themselves. So, whereas to watch a video on YouTube via Roku the user would select the YouTube app via Roku's on-screen menu and then find the video they want to watch, with Chromecast they would navigate to the video on YouTube via a desktop browser or a YouTube mobile app and click the Chromecast icon next to the video to stream it on the TV. Your laptop, smartphone or tablet is, essentially, your remote control and the Web is your menu.
That, I'm sure you'll agree, is pretty grandiose stuff; the idea that wherever you are on the Web and whatever service you're using, it may be "cast" to your telly. To some extent, Google has ensured that this is actually the case by adding an extra, ever-present Chromecast extension to its Chrome browser that will cast any web page to the TV, but it's a bit hacky and there are distinct performance issues, which we'll come to later.
The blue-sky at which Google is aiming, has every user with a smartphone in their hand and every app on that device being compatible with Chromecast. So long as they're connected to the same Wi-Fi network, users could then throw the content from any app onto their telly without leaving the app itself. Chromecast is, effectively, invisible.
There's not a great deal of difference between the two pieces of hardware. They are both small Wi-Fi-connected dongles that plug into an HDMI port on your TV. Both need to be powered and both can use a neighboring USB port to do so. The Roku device also comes with a mains adapter for power, should that be to the user's preference.
The Roku interface is about as straightforward as you can get. Simple menus and big block graphics dominate, all navigated via the four-way arrow controller on the device's remote. It's a bit laggy and very purple, but the big home button on the remote means you can always find your way back to the start should you get lost, if getting lost is even possible.
Chromecast's "interface" is less straightforward. Really, all it comprises is the discrete Chromecast button that shows up next to a video. You need to know that the website or mobile app you're using supports Chromecast to be sure that icon should appear. Google is perhaps banking on Chromecast becoming so ubiquitous that it will be compatible with virtually every relevant service, or at least all the major services. If so, it's a long game to play, but, should it come together, then Chromecast would have the most ubiquitous and, arguably, best interface of any such device.
Both Chromecast and the Roku Streaming Stick are platforms on which to watch existing third-party services. Enablers, if you will. You'll find nothing on either that you can't find elsewhere. Both, therefore, have a vested interest in ensuring that they can provide access to the most popular services and, therefore, you're able to access the likes of YouTube, Netflix and BBC iPlayer via both.
Things rather diverge at that point. Roku's channels become increasingly niche and obscure. Examples include the Vatican Channel, Pranks, a channel about aliens and UFOs and, I kid you not, the US Weed Channel – "a network of internet video streaming content created to entertain and educate the general public about Cannabis." This is not to take anything away from any of those channels, but to point out that all of this content is available on the Web and much more of its ilk. With Roku there's the sense that these specific channels have somehow been specially created for your viewing pleasure, which simply isn't the case.
Chromecast meanwhile has far fewer official apps, or more accurately, services with which it's integrated. Notable ones other than those already mentioned include Google Play Music, TV and Movies, Plex, Vevo and Wuaki. Chromecast's wild card is that its Chrome browser extension means you can cast the contents of any browser tab to your TV. Theoretically, you can stream any Web page and the video content therein.
Both devices have varied performance. I've had virtually no problems streaming content from the official apps on either. The one issue I've with Roku in this area was when it had trouble handling the transition between the content and ads on one of its services. This may well have been a third-party issue though. Both seem to stream video from their official apps flawlessly and in good HD quality. Each has a significant problem of its own, however.
For Roku this is simply the the speed and clunkiness of its interface and apps. While it's simple to navigate your way around, it may take you some time. As I mentioned in my review of the device, the loading time can be painstakingly slow and the apps are then reliant on everything working at the third party's end. When it works, it's great; when it doesn't, it can make for a frustrating experience.
Chromecast's big issue is that the hacked-up Chrome extension, which should step into the breach to cast a browser tab when there is no integration with a particular service, works in a different way to the official integration. When using an officially integrated service, your computer or mobile device tells the Chromecast dongle where the content can be found online and the dongle connects to it directly. The extension, meanwhile, sends the content to the dongle over your Wi-Fi connection, adding in an extra point of failure and a great deal more lagging, dropped signal and loss of quality. The extension can surely only be viewed by Google as a band-aid until enough services are properly integrated.
In the US, Chromecast retails for US$35 and the Roku Streaming Stick for $50. Roku, of course, comes with a remote control, which inflates that price a little.
I'm loathe to give a verdict one way or the other here. Personally, I prefer the Chromecast – and I think it will continue to improve. That said, the Roku Streaming Stick is simpler and will better suit people used to browsing content via a TV rather than online. In the big scheme of things, though, neither is as good as they could be and I expect that's probably the case right across the over-the-top content market at present. All you can do is try to work out which device most fits your needs.