Streaming Media: Google Chromecast vs. Roku Stick

The idea behind Google Chromecast HDMI Streaming Media Player is enticing – broadcast to your HDTV whatever you would watch on your smartphone or tablet, from Netflix and Hulu to movies, music, and photos stored on your computer.  After six months of frustration with it, however, I know for sure of just about one thing it can do without issue: fly fast across the room.

Setup is simple enough. Unbox and plug one end of the Chromecast USB into one of your TV’s HDMI ports and the mini-USB power plug into the other. That’s pretty much where the similarities between Chromecast and Roku end (see Roku review below). Unlike Roku, you control whatever Chromecast does by using the applicable app on your smartphone or tablet (Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, Chrome). No on-screen menu or remote control. If you want to watch a movie on Netflix (or use HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Crackle, etc.), you pull up the app on your mobile device and push play. Because your device is Chromecast-enabled, all you do is hit the “broadcast” symbol and instead of playing on your phone or tablet, you are now broadcasting to your HDTV. In theory.

Chromecast seldom worked for me as advertised. With my Netflix, for example, it usually failed to even sign in while casting. The few times I did manage to get into my Netflix, TV shows like Breaking Bad often stopped playing to buffer. And who wants a buffer alert to pop up, especially when Walter White is putting on his pork pie?

What was really bad, though, was how it worked with my Plex setup, which you need to stream local media stored on your computer. Same deal as Netflix: Get the (Plex) app, control it with your device. Except with Chromecast I was not able to watch even one whole movie (.mp4s are supposed to work best). Chromecast did work fine with YouTube…each and every one of the 1,992 times my daughters and their friends watched “All About That Bass” last fall. Unfortunately, I wanted to use Chromecast for other things.

Chromecast does have one unique feature: The ability to broadcast to your TV whatever you have open on a Chrome tab. But there is a noticeable lag between what you do on your device and what is cast to the TV.

The potential is there for Chromecast, but it still has a ways to go.

Roku Restores My Faith in Streaming Media

I knew there was a problem when my girlfriend across town was able to easily access and play movies through my Plex server using her new Roku Streaming Stick – and I couldn’t even do that in my house with Chromecast.

rsz_p1160929So it was out with the Chromecast and in with Roku and I couldn’t be much happier. Same setup as Chromecast: Plug in one side to an available HDMI port and plug the micro USB power cord into the other, set up the Wi-Fi connection and you are good. The home screen (see left) is simple and easy to use. Plus, Roku acts independent of any other devices, unless you tell it to – a key difference from Chromecast, which is almost entirely dependent on other devices.

Roku has a simple remote with buttons dedicated to Netflix, Blockbuster On Demand, Amazon Instant Video, and M-Go. For about $15 more you can get Roku 2, which has a cool headphone jack on the remote, though the unit connecting to the TV is slightly different. The Roku home screen on your TV has a bunch of pre-set apps, or what are called “channels,” (Netflix, M-Go, etc.). There are a ton of “private” channels you can find online and add – many of them are special interest. If you’re into it, there’s probably a channel for it since Roku boasts more than 1,000 available apps, including more than 50 for kids and more than 60 dedicated to sports.

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Amazon Instant Video (not available for Chromecast) and Netflix work perfect. Hulu Plus is flawless. Content is fresh. Shows like Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show are usually available through Hulu within 24 hours of original airing. Of course, services like Netflix continue to ramp up quality programming with shows like “House of Cards” and “Orange it the New Black.” Not to mention, entire seasons of the shows are available at once upon release – no waiting from week-to-week for new episodes and, oh yeah, being made to sit through mind-numbing commercials while doing so.

As mentioned, there are some channels that can be controlled with other devices. YouTube, for example, allows you to search on your smartphone or tablet and then broadcast to your HDTV through Roku, which makes searching faster.

If you want to watch a specific show or movie, use Roku’s search function and it will search all channels for availability of the program. You have to pay for movies, like a pay-per-view movie you might get from a satellite provider. However, unlike a satellite provider, you aren’t paying for dozens of channels of infomercials.

rsz_p1160928To access and stream your own local media, you can use Plex, which works great for me with Roku. I can access all of my favorite movies I’ve backed up to my computer using DVD Ripper Ultimate Software for Windows (there’s a Mac version, too). Plex has its own channels, too, including an iTunes channel, which you can access through your Roku. I like this because it means Roku gives me access to my iTunes playlists that I have taken years trying to perfect.

You should be aware of the fact that you will have to subscribe to many services. Netflix, Hulu, and Plex, for example, all have minimal monthly subscription fees. Channels such as HBO Go require users still pay for their channel through a cable/satellite provider, which basically means HBO Go is more of an on-demand feature available for those who pay for cable.

But for less than $50, the Roku Streaming Stick is a great deal.

Posted in: Gadgets & Gear

About the Author:

Andrew is a writer and producer/content developer for Roadtreking.com and the PC Mike Techcast at PCMike.com. He has been a professional storyteller for 16 years, building a successful career as a newspaper reporter and public relations specialist. Andrew's work has appeared in Crain’s Detroit Business, The Oshkosh Northwestern, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Crain’s Chicago Business, Advertising Age, Automotive News, Waste News, Appleton Post-Crescent, and Real Detroit.