Roku Streaming Stick vs Google Chromecast Ultra

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A bit out of nowhere this month, Google dropped a brand new version of its Chromecast on everyone. Called the Chromecast Ultra, it’s positioned as the high end device in the growing Chromecast lineup. The new Chromecast Ultra comes at a time when digital media players have become standard in living rooms for a little while now. The new Apple TV has been a big success for Apple and the Fire TV hasn’t been a slouch for Amazon either. But both those devices take the form of a set-top box. The Roku Streaming Stick was always unique because of its tiny stick form factor. That’s something Google took a liking to with its Chromecast series as well, and its continuing that form factor with the Ultra. But just how do the new Chromecast Ultra and the Roku Streaming Stick compare? Let’s take a look.

Roku Streaming Stick VS Chromecast Ultra: Design and Specs

On the design front, though both devices are dongles, they take different shapes. The Chromecast Ultra is a disc-shaped dongle that gets plugged into an HDMI port on the side or back of your TV. The Roku Streaming Stick is more like a conventional USB stick shape with an HDMI port on the end, which you simply slip into the HDMI port on your television. Both devices get plugged into the HDMI port in the back of your TV–in other words, they’ll be out of sight, so does the design matter that much? My feeling is; probably not.

As for specs, here are the full specs for the Roku Streaming Stick:

  • Output: HDMI
  • Processor: 900 MHz quad-core processor
  • RAM: 512MB
  • Storage: 256MB
  • Max. Output Video Resolution: 1080p
  • Dimensions: 12.7 x 83.8 x 20.3mm
  • Weight: 17 g
  • Connectivity: 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi

And here are the specs for the Chromecast Ultra:

  • Output: HDMI
  • Processor: unknown
  • RAM: unknown
  • Storage: unknown, but 256MB flash likely
  • Max. Output Video Resolution: 4K w/HDR (HDR10 & Dolby Vision)
  • Dimensions: 58.2 in diameter, 13.7mm (H)
  • Weight: 47 g
  • Connectivity: Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi‑Fi

The first thing you’ll notice is that Google doesn’t provide a lot of specs for the Chromecast Ultra, including the RAM, processor, and storage space–however it’s likely they match or come close to the specs of the Roku Streaming Stick: 512RAM, 256MB flash storage, and at  least a quad core processor. Those specs aren’t too impressive by themselves, but the reason both digital media players likely have such lower-powered specs is because the devices simply don’t need a lot of raw horsepower. Their main aim is to stream content, which can be done with relatively low powered components.

That being said, the one metric you should care about—video resolution—is very different on each. Here, it’s a win for the Chromecast Ultra. Why? Because the Ultra supports video resolutions up to 4K and also supports HDR on top of that. HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and it allows for a more vivid color pallet in video and games including brighter whites, deeper blacks and more natural colors. The caveat here is that although more 4K content is available every day on streaming services like Netflix and Prime Video, HDR content is still very limited (you also need a TV capable of 4K and HDR viewing). That being said, 4K easily beats the 1080p quality the Roku Streaming Stick puts out.

The Chromecast Ultra also wins on the Wi-Fi front, supporting 802.11ac, while the Roku Streaming Stick only supports the slower 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi. For streaming devices, you want the fastest Wi-Fi capabilities possible.

Roku Streaming Stick VS Chromecast Ultra: OS and UI

Here is where you realize just how different the Chromecast Ultra and the Roku Streaming Stick are. The Roku Streaming Stick runs its own proprietary OS. This is the Roku OS and presents users with a modular user interface. I say modular because though the Roku Streaming Stick lets you select from thousands of channels (more on that below), it doesn’t force you to sift through them all. A select amount are pre-installed in the UI and users can add the rest by downloading them from the Roku channel store, which is built into the OS.

The Chromecast on the other hand has no user interface–at least not in the way we’re used to seeing on most streaming media players (like the Fire TV and the Apple TV) do. The Chromecast is just a hardware hub that lets you stream content from your other devices to your TV. Google says the OS on the Chromecast is a modified version of the Chrome OS. But in this case all interaction must be done via the Chrome browser on a Mac or PC, or Chromecast-enabled apps on iOS or Android devices. If you don’t own any of those devices (a slim chance) the Chromecast is essentially non-functional.

Roku Streaming Stick VS Chromecast Ultra: Content and Channels

Which brings us to the content each offers. Let’s start with the Roku Streaming Stick. The channels it offers are simply astounding. You get over 3,000 channels of content including Netflix, NOW TV, BBC iPlayer, Sky Store, Demand 5, Spotify, YouTube, as well as thousands of smaller channels that are sure to offer something no matter what your tastes. Simply select a channel, see what’s on, and begin streaming.

The Roku Streaming Stick software also offers a powerful search function that allows you to type in the name of a TV show or movie you want to watch and see what channels it’s streaming on. Finally, Roku has built in the Chromecast-like ability to cast content directly from the YouTube and Netflix apps on your smartphone to the Roku Streaming Stick itself. This is in addition to being able to send videos, photos and music stored locally on your smartphone to your TV via the Roku app.

After seeing all the Roku Streaming Stick does, it’s a bit embarrassing to look at the limited content the Chromecast offers. For starters, since there is no user interface, the Chromecast relies on third-party developers enabling their apps to work with the device. This means the Chromecast doesn’t offer “channels” as such, but apps that can interact with the Chromecast and tell it to cast the content the app can play.

It’s also important to distinguish how the Chromecast actually works. When a user of a Chromecast-supported app casts content to the Chromecast, the Chromecast isn’t actually grabbing that content from the app. Instead the app is just sending what is essentially a URL to the Chromecast to tell it where the Chromecast can grab the video from.

Right now the major apps that support Chromecast are BBC iPlayer, Red Bull TV, Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Pandora, YouTube, Google Play TV, Movies, and Music, Vevo, Songza, Plex, Post TV, Viki and RealPlayer Cloud. Those are some big guns, but the range of content available pales in comparison to the Roku Streaming Stick.

Roku Streaming Stick VS Chromecast Ultra: Remotes

The Roku Streaming Stick includes a bundled physical RF-based remote. This is great for anyone who still likes physical buttons to play with when navigating content on their TV screen. While dedicated remotes may seem bulky and even archaic in today’s touch screen age, I challenge anyone who say the physical remote doesn’t make navigation a breeze. The Roku Streaming Stick also supports remote controls in the form of the Roku Android and iOS app. This allows you to control the Roku Streaming Stick via your smartphone or tablet.

The Chromecast Ultra, on the other hand, doesn’t include a physical remote at all. Your mobile device and the dedicated Chromecast Ultra app are the only remotes you get. Any app that supports Chromecast Ultra works as a remote when you press the Cast button in the app. And the new Google Cast app also has some cool bells and whistles. It now offers a feature called Fast Play, this predicts what you may want to watch next after the show you are watching currently, and begins to preload a portion of that show so you can begin playing it right away. The Cast app also works as a sort of channel guide, allowing you to search content across all Chromecast Ultra-compatible apps to find what you want to watch next.

Roku Streaming Stick VS Chromecast Ultra: Price and Verdict

At £29.99 the Roku Streaming Stick comes in a whopping £40 cheaper than the £69.99 Chromecast Ultra. For that extra £40 Google’s Chromecast Ultra is giving you the ability to watch 4K HDR content on your TV (if your TV supports it). However, with the Ultra, you’re also giving up a lot of things the Roku Streaming Stick–with its inferior, but still great 1080p image quality–provides. Things like a dedicated onscreen OS and interface you can interact with, the perks of a physical remote, a device that works totally independently of other devices, and much more content and channels available.

For me, that makes the Roku Streaming Stick the winner–and at less than half the price. However, there’s no doubt about it that the Chromecast Ultra offers better image quality with its 4K video and HDR support – but if you don’t have a 4K and/or HDR TV this becomes completely irrelevant. The question is, do you want the best video quality out there? Or do you want a digital media player that stands on its own? That choice is up to you.

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