Streaming Media Devices

The cordcutter's life isn't as simple as it used to be, but adding a device like the Roku ensures you get access to all the major streaming services.

: Dan Nguyen
Categories > Media > Home Theater > Home Automation
Competitors in this space: Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, Roku, Apple TV, Android TV, smart TVs, video game consoles
April 26, 2019: Added review of the Amazon Fire TV 4K stick. Spoiler alert: It's pretty good.

I’ve personally tested the following:

Chromecast Ultra
Chromecast (1080p)
Chromecast (720p)
Roku Streaming Stick+
Roku Premiere
TCL Roku TVs
Amazon Fire TV 4K Stick (2018)
Amazon Fire TV 2 (2016)
Fire TV Stick (2014)

What you need to know

The new lineup of media streaming devices continues to impress every year. With more features like 4K, voice control, and HDR added into physically smaller devices, I feel like I can constantly upgrade my old TV at a cheap price. Indeed, my 2015 Vizio TV is more useful with a Roku Streaming Stick+ so I no longer have to browse through a slow, ancient web interface.

Though media streaming devices are capable of impressive feats, I’ve found that the best TV watching experience lies with a high-end smart TV like the LG OLED series. The gyroscopic remote controls make it as easy as possible for anyone to pick up a remote and intuitively browse through the TV’s wide selection of apps. The only downside I found is casting videos to the TV doesn't work if the TV is off. The LG OLED TVs are really impressive, if you can afford it. See the Smart TV Section to learn more.

Considerations before buying a media streaming device

  • A media streaming device may not be necessary if your TV or video game console supports the same video apps.
  • Companies sell 1080p and 4K versions of their products. I recommend future-proofing by purchasing the 4K version.
  • Beware: When you use a media streaming device or service, your TV viewing data is being collected. There’s a reason why these devices are so cheap: the companies are collecting data on the videos you watch, and possibly selling the information to third parties, like advertisers. The Vizio CTO said so himself in this podcast.

What you get with a media streaming device

  • Upgrade an outdated TV with new features like voice control, and a faster browsing experience.
  • These devices are always-on, meaning you can cast videos to them at any time. Some smart TVs don't have this feature and need to be powered on before casting.
  • Use the Roku as a ghetto universal remote with Roku component on Home Assistant.
  • Integrated smart home automations, as nearly all devices are supported by Home Assistant.
  • Move media streaming devices to different TVs.

The Roku Ultra. | Roku

Roku

I recently switched over to the Roku Streaming Stick+, and though it is not perfect, I agree with the Wirecutter that it is the best media streaming device available today. It supports both Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, as well as Youtube TV and Amazon Prime Video—all without any workarounds. Normally when you try to be a jack of all trades, you end up being good at nothing. In this case, Roku ends up being good enough for my needs, and I haven’t found anything missing besides deeper integration with voice assistants. I just hope Google and Amazon don’t take away their respective apps from Roku and create a more segregated market.

I find the Roku voice search function on the remote is much more useful with the ability to search for a title through multiple apps. I never purchase TV shows or movies, so I like Roku’s search function because it highlights the free or subscription options first. Google Assistant and Alexa are officially supported, though it is limited to opening apps, powering on TV or changing volume. Voice commands aren’t as deeply integrated at the application level, compared to the Fire TV or even the Chromecast.

On the premium Roku products like the Streaming Stick+, the remote includes extra nifty features like TV power and volume control buttons. This also works in tandem with HDMI ARC to control the AV receiver or soundbar volume. With this, I’m able to dump my old TV remote. Though it lacks an Input Change button, I have HDMI-CEC working so rarely do I need it.

There are so many subtle differences between these media devices worth noting–as bullet lists, of course.

User interface

  • The interface is very basic and to the point. Takes a few extra remote click to open an app and view content, but everything loads quickly.

App support

  • Roku is vendor-agnostic, and all major platforms are supported. Youtube, Youtube TV, Playstation Vue, Sling TV, Amazon Prime Video are all present. Don't expect Apple's streaming video service to come for a while, though.
  • The mobile app replicates the remote, but also allows app switching, and browsing for video content, like a media service. The app also offers a cool feature where you can connect headphones to the phone and listen to the Roku audio using your phone.

Voice Search and Control

  • Searching for a movie or TV show with Roku will present all the free, free with ads, subscription, and rental options. Roku isn't trying to push you towards Amazon options, unlike Amazon being Amazon.
  • Google Assistant and Alexa are officially supported, but limited to opening apps, media playback controls, or powering on TV or changing volume. So you can tell a nearby Google Home speaker to pause the Roku, in case you have an emergency bathroom break.
  • Lack of deep voice integration on all Roku apps. Roku can search for titles and show availability on platforms, but it won't auto-play the video for you. That's fine with me, since deep integration doesn't exist for most apps anyways.

Casting from phone to TV

  • Chromecast remains the king of casting, ~. It is possible to cast Youtube videos to the Roku, but ~ videos may fail to play. Casting is not supported on anything else. In my initial testing, casting with Netflix worked, but that feature seems to have disappeared for me.

Remote

  • The Roku remote has buttons for TV power and volume control (on premium devices only, like Streaming Stick+) , which also works with your AV receiver or sound bar if connected with HDMI ARC.
  • There are dedicated Netflix and Hulu buttons on the remote, but I rarely use them.

Home Assistant Installation and Integration

  • Roku is easily detected and automatically integrated with Home Assistant as a media player and remote if the Discovery component is enabled.
  • Home Assistant can leverage the Roku component as a universal remote, with the ability to send commands from Home Assistant to change TV inputs, etc. This is a unique Roku/HA feature.
  • Sending a play/pause command from Home Assistant to the Roku takes only one to two seconds to register.
  • Home Assistant cannot detect media player status (play/pause); it can only detect whether a Roku app is loaded. Media player status also takes 2-3 seconds to update in Home Assistant. Seems to be the worst of the three.
Home Assistant: Okay
Automatically detected in Home Assistant. Status updates are slow, and play/pause state is not recognized.
Voice: Average
Works,but no deep integration with apps like Youtube TV.
Roku App: Great
Standard remote control on the Roku app.
Roku App: Great
You can browse through movies and TV shows with the app, and listen to TV audio through phone’s headphone jack.

The Amazon Fire TV2. The GOAT! | Amazon

Amazon Fire TV

With the feud between Amazon and Google over and Youtube and Youtube TV apps now available on Fire TV, the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K becomes the cheapest, high quality 4K streaming device available. I recently purchased one for $25, and I’m happy to say that the user experience is comparable to my Roku recommendation, sans Youtube TV and a more annoying, ad-filled user interface. I still prefer Roku’s cleaner interface, but the Fire TV Stick 4K is a good value for the price.

The worst thing about the Fire TV is the Home Assistant integration, which often breaks due to Fire TV updates. My Fire TV Stick frequently disconnects from Home Assistant (think every few seconds), making it unreliable for lighting automation. There are always people actively working on the integration, so maybe one day it will work properly.

There are more subtle differences between these media devices worth noting below–as bullet lists, of course.

User interface

  • The Fire TV UI is barely acceptable with the sponsored ads and content that is always in your face. It takes a few additional seconds to navigate to the content you want.
  • A Fire TV mobile app exists and is a fully functional remote but nothing more. You can launch apps from it too.

App support

  • Youtube and Youtube TV aren't available yet, so I rarely use the Fire TV. All other major apps (Netflix, Hulu, Vue, Sling TV) are available.

Voice Search and Control

  • Deep voice integration is available on Amazon Prime Video, Netflix and Hulu. Not even Chromecast has deep integration with Hulu.
  • Unless you are using Amazon Echo speakers, you cannot tell a nearby Google Home speaker to pause the Fire TV.
  • Voice search is flaky, but so are all platforms I reviewed. I said "Play Bob's Burgers on Hulu" about five times before it registered correctly. And I said it clearly, I swear.

Casting from phone to TV

  • Casting from Prime Video allows your phone to become a second screen to Amazon X-Ray feature, which lets you browse details about the movie, actors, and related info.
  • Similar to Roku, a few apps can cast videos from Android phones and Fire tablets to the Fire TV. Amazon Prime Video, Netflix work, but Hulu and the CW do not. Chromecast is still the winner here.

Remote

  • A quality WiFi/infrared remote is included on all 4K Sticks!
  • Like the Roku, the new Alexa remote is like a universal remote that includes buttons for TV power, volume control and mute. Controlling a soundbar is also possible as the remote includes an IR transmitter. You can call Alexa from the remote.
  • Lack of dedicated Netflix, Hulu buttons on the remote, but I rarely use them.

Home Assistant Installation and Integration

  • Media state (play/pause, app, Home menu) updates and media commands respond within one second on the Fire TV and Home Assistant.
  • Connecting an Amazon Fire TV to Home Assistant is very difficult compared to Roku and Chromecast. It is also unstable--the Home Assistant component breaks often and requires updates to continue working. To get the component working, you must do the following: install Android Studio onto a PC, enable Developer mode and ADB debugging on the Fire TV, generate a private key by connecting to the Fire TV via ADB, copy adbkey file over to your Home Assistant instance, install and configure the ADB Hass.io add-on, add Fire TV using the Android TV component to your configuration.yaml. That is about six lengthy steps compared to get it working, if you're lucky.
  • Play/pause state is not accurately reflected on most Fire TV apps, so lighting automations cannot rely on this information. As an alternative, you can detect if a Fire TV app is open. This is likely a bug and may be fixed in the future.

Here are some tips (for myself) when integrating Amazon Fire TV devices to Home Assistant.

  • Use the latest Amazon Fire TV component by updating to the latest Home Assistant or find on the forums.
  • Don't use the ADB Server add-on with the component. It doesn't work well.
Home Assistant: Good
Requires ADB Hass.io add-on, but easy to setup. Play/pause state is usually incorrect. Source names may be hard to decipher.
Voice: Good
Probably works well with Alexa, but not Google Assistant.
Fire TV App: Good
Standard remote control on the Fire TV app.
Fire TV App: Good
You can also open Fire TV apps with the app, but why?

The Chromecast Ultra. | Google

Chromecast

Even though I use Chromecast in my home, I find it difficult to recommend as the sole media device in your home because it lacks a TV user interface and remote. I believe most people want a remote to browse videos, so I recommend trying a Roku, Fire TV, or both Roku and Chromecast for these features. My roommates prefer to ignore the Chromecast altogether for the lack of a remote.

I initially liked the Chromecast because it would show video thumbnails on Home Assistant when watching Hulu and Youtube. I thought this feature worked on all apps, but further testing shows the feature doesn’t work on Netflix, Plex, or anything else. Casting from a web browser works, unlike my experiences with Miracast.

You’ve reached the final bullet list of this section! Enjoy.

User interface

  • Chromecast doesn't have a TV interface, since browsing is done using mobile apps.

App support

  • Chromecast has the highest number of supported apps. You can even cast websites using your web browser. Amazon Prime Video Chromecast support is also coming in 2019.
  • Beware: I've noticed odd discrepancies with support between Chromecast displays, speakers, and TV dongles. Won't go into detail here, but there isn't one type of Chromecast that supports everything.

Voice Search and Control

  • You can tell a Google Home speaker to play/pause the Chromecast.
  • Few apps support deep voice integration. Youtube TV and Netflix deep integration works, but Hulu integration does not exist.
  • Voice and phrase recognition is still spotty, but I like Google Assistant the best.

Casting from phone to TV

  • Highest number of apps supported. Amazon Prime Video Chromecast support is coming.

Remote

  • There is no remote. Sad face.

Installation and Smart Home Integration

  • Chromecast is easily detected and automatically integrated with Home Assistant as a media player and remote if the Discovery component is enabled.
  • Though it's a dying feature, episode thumbnails from Youtube and Hulu are shown in Home Assistant.
  • Media player state (play/pause) is accurate and updated within a second. Lighting automations work very well with Chromecast because of this feature.
  • Displays video thumbnails on Youtube and Hulu, but no other app supports this.
Home Assistant: Great
Easy to setup. Instant status, full media control. Thumbnails only work on Hulu and Youtube.
Voice: Average
Only a few apps support deep voice integration.
SmartThings: N/A
Integration does not exist.
Google Home App: Average
Basic controls, no context.


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