Spec Shootout: Fire TV vs Apple TV, Roku, and Chromecast

| Analysis

Amazon announced the Fire TV this week, and on paper it’s quite far ahead of its competitors. On the product page, the online retailer posted a comparison chart for the Fire TV, Apple TV, Roku 3, and Chromecast, but it's a chart that has been spun, and heavily. We thought it would be more useful to people if we broke it down in ways that make sense.

First, the specs:

  Amazon Fire tV Apple TV Roku 3 Chromecast
Device Fire TV Apple TV Roku 3 Chromecast
List Price $99 US $99 US $99 US $35 US
Voice Search X X X
HDMI video 1080p
Sound Certified Dolby Digital HDMI digital or optical out HDMI digital or optical out HDMI digital
Processor Quad-core Single-core Dual-core Single-core
Memory 2 GB 512 MB 512 MB 512 MB
Connectivity Ethernet/Wi-Fi Ethernet/Wi-Fi Ethernet/Wi-Fi Wi-Fi
Remote Control Bluetooth IR Wi-Fi or IR none
Channels That Matter 12 12 15 9
Other Channels 44 30 11 squillion 17
Games available 100 X 77 X
Game Controller X X X

As current models go, it isn’t like the competition is ancient. Apple TV was updated in January of 2013, Roku 3 was released last March, and the Chromecast came out in July.

I'll point out here that it only seems sort of fair to include the Chromecast. It is mainly a conduit and does virtually nothing without a phone/tablet/computer available as the source of the content, whereas the others are self-contained.

Voice and More

Of the features Amazon calls out, only three are exclusive to the Fire TV: Voice Search, certified Dolby Plus surround sound, and the game controller option. It should be noted that the voice control is an option on the Apple TV if you have an iOS device with the Remote app installed.

But, the reality is that Amazon has beat its competitors to market with voice controls, and if it works, many will find it quite compelling. There's little doubt that Apple and Google could deliver far more with voice if they were really interested, but for now Amazon gets the nod—if it works.

Hardware

On paper it looks like the Apple TV is seven kinds of substandard. the reality is that having used all but the Fire TV, I have noticed the least amount of stutter or navigation latency in the Apple TV—by far. And when I'm using AirPlay to bounce a Despecialized Edition Empire Strikes Back to the giant TV, it looks amazerbeams. So whatever Apple's engineers are doing with that single core and half-gig of memory, they're clearly doing it right.

Where Amazon's quad-core processor will be noticeable is games, and in that regard alone, Amazon gets the nod.

Video Channels and Stuff

All four devices offer 1080p video out via HDMI. As for Channels People Might Actually Care About, I put that number at 15, listed below, and all but Roku 3 have a subset of that group.

  • Netflix
  • Amazon Prime Instant Video
  • Hulu Plus
  • Plex
  • Pandora
  • Vevo
  • ESPN
  • NBA
  • MLB
  • YouTube
  • HBO GO
  • Crackle
  • Vimeo
  • Podcasts (adding my own lists)
  • Personal Content (my own photos/videos)

As for other channels, the numbers vary greatly. There's quite a bit of content available for the Roku, if you add other sources besides the "official" Roku source, which is a matter of entering info in a preference panel, no hacks or jailbreaking required.

Amazon has pledged to add more all the time, and of course Apple Knows Best™ when it comes to What's On Apple TV, and what Apple sometimes giveth, it sometimes taketh away.

There's no clear winner here, and if you're shopping for a specific channel (Apple, Roku, and Chromecast have HBO Go, and Amazon and Roku have both Showtime Anytime and Amazon Instant Video), make sure you pick the device with that channel.

Remote

Remote controls vary, from the thin and minimal Apple TV remote to the remote/wannabe game controller of the Roku, to the similarly styled Fire TV remote. Roku's box will accept the Wi-Fi connected remote in the box, but also has a built-in IR receiver to allow people (like me) to use my existing universal remote. 

Other notables include the Fire TV remote's microphone for voice search, and the Roku remote's headphone jack in case you want to squeeze in one more episode but need to make sure you don't wake anyone.

Games

Amazon still has the gaming edge since you can use the Roku remote for games, but it's not dedicated hardware. For a couple of rounds of Angry Birds, it's more than sufficient, but less casual gamers will appreciate a separate controller. And with AirPlay there are a few ways to play a game that include the Apple TV, but nothing dedicated since there are no games officially available for the Apple TV.

Amazon gets the nod in this category.

Conclusions

Each of these devices has pluses and minuses, and a plus for one person could be a dealbreaker for someone else. So now you know. And I've been told by sources familiar with the matter that knowing is half the battle.

For most people, it probably comes down to which ecosystem you are invested in. Customers with lots of iTunes content will likely want to go with the current generation of Apple TV. If you love your Amazon Prime Instant, or have a lot of non-iTunes content set up with Plex both Fire TV and Roku 3 are great decisions.

If you want a cheap dongle you control through another device, enjoy that Chromecast.

To get the right device, work backwards and determine what hole you have in your A/V setup that one of these boxes will fill and that should help sort out which one is the right choice. I have three of the above devices, and each is a good fit for where it is set up. With the current hardware being this advanced, all of these are solid components as long as the ecosystem is the one for you.

Comments

Jack N Fran Farrell

Trying to lock-in a high margin for ‘TV’ content is a fools errand. Anyone with a HDTV or 4xHDTV screen can buy another dongle and binge on whatever they want to watch.

Jack N Fran Farrell

Locking a consumer of 1080p or 2160p video into an ecosystem by hardware/software design is a fool’s errand. Anyone can buy low margin content for under $100 by buying another dongle.

Nunuv Yerbizness

Amazon’s box does not get HBO GO at this time. “Channels that matter” that aren’t listed by name is next to useless as a statistic. For a real “Channels that matter’ list, see: http://dealnews.com/features/How-Does-the-Amazon-Fire-TV-Stack-Up-Against-the-Roku-and-Apple-TV-/1019934.html

cfb2

As the owner of two roku3’s, I have never seen stuttering or navigation latency of any kind whatsoever.  The chromecast is also not just a ‘conduit’.  When streaming from a chrome tab (tab casting) from a PC the computer does transcode the video and send it to the chromecast.  In all other app operation (netflix, hulu, etc) the tablet/phone initiates the stream and then the chromecast takes over.  You may then use the tablet/phone for other tasks as it is not at all involved in the process.

Amazon’s quad core processor will provide the horsepower to expand the product, while the other products (excepting the roku3) won’t have the juice to do more advanced tasks like track show seasons, notify when new episodes are available, voice processing, ‘shows you might like’ and the full array of other features normally found on high end DVR’s.

A little more hands on and a little more objectivity would seem to be in order before rushing to anoint the apple product as a winner.  The fire device and the roku 3 are far better pieces of hardware for the same or lower price.

This all rends down to a simple decision.  Nobody with a house full of apple products is going to buy anything other than an apple tv.  If you don’t have a house full of apple products and have no money, buy a chromecast.  Otherwise get a roku or a firetv.

Noti Atamelang

Hopefully some of these guys are angling for a service that broadcasts commercial TV in real time.  Charter charges me over $70 a month for mostly crxp TV.  I’d gladly pay half that or more a month in subscription fees if some of these folks could get the Charter/Cox/Time Warner/AT&T etc., monkey off my back.

El Rucio

As far as I can determine, only Roku and Chromecast support DLNA streaming (eg, from a network-attached storage drive). None of these 4 appears to match the capabilities of a PS3.

Intruder

@cfb2: not sure where you see the AppleTV being anointed the winner here. Seems like she said all of the components are solid and it depends more on what ecosystem you are comfortable with.

Brian Rittermann

Google Play support?  It’s a “Channel I care about”, and I bet that many others have this in common.

Mike Abercrombe

You say the Chromecast is a “conduit”.  This is only true if you are tab casting which lets you watch virtually anything you can pull up on a PC or laptop.  For the compatible apps, which are growing quickly, the Chromecast does all the work, other than you launching it from your phone/PC/laptop/tablet.  So it is more than a conduit.  It is also far cheaper and is outselling everything else in the category.  Amazon really blew it by not looking at there own analytics to figure out a price point.  Adding “fluff” features is not going to justify that price.  Hopefully they will learn their lesson sooner rather than later.  Apple can get away with charging what they do because apploonies will pay any price for anything with that logo on it and their are stuck in that overpriced ecosystem.

Lee Dronick

  Remote controls vary, from the thin and minimal Apple TV remote

There is also the Remote app which is also WiFi. The app too is minimal, the one for my Uverse box has more stuff on the iPad or iPhone screen.

Kelly Guimont

@cfb2 I didn’t “anoint the Apple product” at all. In fact I didn’t say anyone was a clear cut winner, and if you saw my other piece about the Fire TV, you’d see I probably would have bought one. I’m an Apple girl, but my house doesn’t buy a lot of movies on iTunes so if the other TV doesn’t have an Apple TV hooked up I’m not missing anything. What I said was that the ecosystem counts, if you are invested in one already, that might help make the choice.

Kelly Guimont

@El Rucio, you are correct, none of these is a PS4. But I also don’t want to spend $400 on something that plays games I won’t buy, or is a blu-ray player which I already own. That’s why there’s no Playstation on the chart. smile

Kelly Guimont

@Mike Abercrombe: I meant as a device, it requires another device for content. If I go fire up the TV with the Chromecast connected and I switch to the Chromecast input, I can’t do anything with it by itself. I need another device as the keeper of the content. I don’t need that for the other three. I know the Chromecast does the work, but it has to have a source to work from.

Kelly Guimont

@Lee Dronick: You are correct but I was limiting to “what’s in the box” as much as I could since otherwise it becomes an entire second article worth of “but then if you have these things you can use…”

Actually, that might not be a bad idea… smile

Lee Dronick

Kelly one thing I don’t like about the Remote app is that it doesn’t mirror the TV screen. I need to look at both the iPad and the TV.

Anthony Dodd

I really wish people would abandon the neanderthal posing of Apple VS. Android VS. Microsoft VS. Amazon wars.

B!tches please.

We’re lucky to have competition and choice.  If enough people buy one of these devices & unplug from cable, the skanky cable industry will finally collapse on itself.

Anthony Dodd

@ Lee Dronick—

Agreed.  The Apple Remote App ‘just DOESN’T work’.  It seems very iTunes centric while treating ATV like a device made by some other company.  I want an ATV APP for iPhone/iPad—since iTunes is already in ATV.  Mirrored as you say with Siri ready and waiting.

Lee Dronick

Anthony hopefully we will something like that soon.

Anthony Dodd

@ Kelly—

—by the by, my first comment about comparisons wasn’t directed at your comparison. I’m good with spec comparisons.  It’s just in the comment fields all over the net peeps take these weird stands like ‘this is no threat to that’ and it’s always a pointless war between iFans and Fandroids.

So I’m saying the more the merrier when it comes to cable cutting boxes.  Find your flavor, cut the cord.

Anthony Dodd simply cannot WAIT for a TCM app that doesn’t require cable but merely a $7.99 a month fee.  To die for.

Tiger

Makes me curious who they think their demographic is. I’m 47, have been pretty adventurous with tech and keeping up and I have ZERO interest in any of these. I work with a cross section of the population from 23 to 70 and not only are they disinterested, they barely care to have their phones. I’m the only one of 18 of us with a tablet. And it’s used for work, not “fun” stuff as commercials would have you believe. It seems the fascination with the latest, greatest gadgets may be waning considerably.  Just food for thought.

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