Every so often, something pops up in our little over-the-top (OTT) video lab that’s worth a closer look. Like a comparison of Roku’s new Streaming Stick against Google’s popular “Chromecast” stick.
Both make “connected” TVs out of unconnected TVs. Both do so by plugging a memory stick-sized gadget into the TV’s HDMI port. Roku’s stick is around $50; Chromecast, $35.
Out of the box, both come with a micro-USB cable for power. Roku’s stick comes with a full-size remote control; Chromecast’s doesn’t. (Alas: The Roku Stick’s remote doesn’t ship with the fabulous headphone jack feature that came with Roku 3.)
Video app breadth: Both carry Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, YouTube, Vudu and Crackle. Roku also carries Amazon Instant Video, and tons of free and premium channels. Chromecast’s apps library is comparatively small.
Both Chromecast and Roku’s Streaming Stick use DIAL, which stands for “Discovery and Launch.” It’s a protocol developed by Netflix and YouTube, with help from Sony and Samsung.
In a nutshell, DIAL enables apps on second-screen devices (such as mobile phones) to discover and send content to first-screen devices (i.e. Chromecast or Roku, on the big screen).
DIAL is what’s behind the scenes when you choose a piece of content from an app, then hit the little antenna- looking icon at the top of the screen, then start watching it — on the big screen.
But here’s the biggie, as competitive comparisons go: Roku’s stick requires logging in to each app on first use. That’s a bummer, because Chromecast auto-authenticates. If you’re signed in to any video app on your mobile, you’re in. (This involves a token exchange between the mobile device and the stick, over WiFi.)
And then there’s the matter of CEC, which stands for Consumer Electronics Control. CEC is what lets you manipulate power and volume with remotes beyond those that came with the TV.
When you start playing a piece of content via Chromecast, for instance, it turns on the TV and switches to the correct input. Very useful. Yet Roku’s stick doesn’t support it.
Bottom line: Roku’s devices ranked No. 1 for our video-streamer usability tests, for a few years now — but the Streaming Stick is disappointing. While a highly portable way to make any digital TV into a “connected” TV, Roku’s Stick lacks the features of its “puck”-styled predecessors.
By contrast, and even though it has far less content than Roku, Chromecast seems more unified. It’s simple, it doesn’t create “remote clutter” (in apps or plastic), and it auto-authenticates.
Having tried nearly a dozen variations of Google TV — all vexing in one way or another — we never (ever) thought we’d prefer a TV device made by Google over one from Roku. But in this case, we do.