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

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 tVApple TVRoku 3Chromecast
DeviceFire TVApple TVRoku 3Chromecast
List Price$99 US$99 US$99 US$35 US
Voice SearchXXX
HDMI video 1080p
SoundCertified Dolby DigitalHDMI digital or optical outHDMI digital or optical outHDMI digital
ProcessorQuad-coreSingle-coreDual-coreSingle-core
Memory2 GB512 MB512 MB512 MB
ConnectivityEthernet/Wi-FiEthernet/Wi-FiEthernet/Wi-FiWi-Fi
Remote ControlBluetoothIRWi-Fi or IRnone
Channels That Matter1212159
Other Channels443011 squillion17
Games available100X77X
Game ControllerXXX

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.