Just when the war for the living room couldn’t get any hotter, here comes Amazon with the Fire TV set-top box. No, it’s not a porn-delivery device – it’s Amazon’s answer to Apple TV, Roku and Chromecast, the company’s best foot forward into getting some of that lucrative living room entertainment pie.
Canadians aren’t likely to see the Fire TV any time soon. Tech companies often like to try out new products in the United States first before expanding internationally, but that’s even more so the case with much of what Amazon does. The company has been offering music downloads and video streaming down south for years and has yet to expand them northward. With its set-top box predicated on such content, there’s no reason to believe Canada is a priority market for it.
There is another related battle unfolding here, however, and it involves sticks – media-streaming sticks, to be precise. It’s not a hockey game, but it could be just as bruising.
Google struck first a few weeks ago with the expansion of Chromecast to 11 countries, including Canada. The USB-stick-sized dongle, which plugs into an HDMI slot on any HDTV, enables media streaming through a number of apps such as Netflix and YouTube. Like Amazon, Google is treading on territory established by the likes of Apple and Roku, which have been selling set-top boxes that do the same for some time now. The market has shifted, however, as the technology has improved. Sticks are replacing boxes. Eventually, truly “smart” Internet-connected TVs will replace the sticks, which is what makes Amazon’s decision to go with a box all the more curious.
Roku is charging into this game with its own Streaming Stick, launching in early April. It’s similar to Chromecast in a number ways, but also different in several key aspects. I’ve had a few days to test Roku’s device and have a few thoughts on why it’s better than Google’s effort – and worse.
Let’s start with one of its really big problems: installation. I popped the Streaming Stick into my TV and fired it up by attaching the short power cord into a USB slot. Like Chromecast, Roku’s dongle also comes with a full AC power adapter, but one of the main attractions of these devices is the elimination of a cord from behind the TV.
While trying to set up the Stick’s Wi-Fi connection, I got the dreaded 014 error code – an inability to connect to my local network. When that happens, the Roku is pretty much a paperweight.
Fortunately, the Internet was invented for such issues. Googling around (ironically) turned up some potential fixes, all of which involved accessing a “secret” screen by pushing the Roku’s remote buttons in odd patterns reminiscent of fighting video games (press home button five times, followed by fast forward three times, then rewind two times). From there, I updated the firmware, but that still didn’t solve the 014. A few other forum commenters suggested messing with port and ping settings, which I did until the Stick finally connected. To be honest, I’m still not sure exactly what I did to get it working. One thing is clear: it definitely shouldn’t have been that hard or taken anywhere near the half-hour it did.
I actually remember having a similar problem a while back with one of Roku’s boxes too and, judging from online comments, it’s obvious that many others have experienced it. It’s puzzling that the company still hasn’t managed to streamline the process by now.
Nevertheless, the Stick worked like a charm once set up. Roku’s interface is nice and simple, with your nine favourite apps displayed in a grid pattern to the right of a basic menu. From the menu, you can peruse the 750 or so apps or “channels” available to Canadians, broken up into categories such as “video,” “news” and so on. You can rearrange apps on the main screen and delete those that come pre-installed, which, if you’re in Canada, you’ll have to do since there are many – like Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime – that don’t work here (without IP spoofing, of course).
Apps generally load a little slower on the Stick than they do on the Roku 3 box, but not so much as to be noticeable. Boxes obviously have more room to house more powerful hardware, but with more processing power moving to the cloud this isn’t as much of an issue.
One of Roku’s supposedly big advantages over Chromecast – at least for now – is the number of apps it has. Google only recently opened up Chromecast to outside developers so there still aren’t too many uses available to it outside of the fundamentals like Netflix and YouTube, but that will doubtlessly grow quickly. In the meantime, if a media provider has made an online app available, chances are good it’s available for the Roku Streaming Stick, which includes the likes of the NHL, MLB, Wall Street Journal, IGN, Conde Nast and so on.
That said, there are plenty of garbage channels bloating up Roku’s numbers. I checked out the New Orleans app under the travel category, for example, and was disappointed to discover that it was simply a collection of the sorts of canned promotional videos you’d see on a hotel TV when staying in the city.
Another one of the Stick’s advantages over Chromecast is the included remote control, which makes Roku’s trademark pleasing “bloop” sound every time a button is pushed. It’s the centre-piece of the whole interface, which is familiar to anyone who has ever used a TV – you just select the app you want and press enter. Chromecast works in a fundamentally different way in that it’s controlled from apps on a smartphone or tablet, effectively turning those mobile devices into remote controls.
Ultimately, I prefer Roku’s more traditional approach, since it’s easy to close or back out of an app. With Chromecast, I’ll often try to stop an app – even by going so far as to force-close it on my mobile device – only to see it continue to operate on my TV. It’s not a big problem, but the whole point of a remote “control” is in fact control, so it’s weird when you don’t have it.
Roku’s Streaming Stick has a higher price tag than the Chromecast – $59 compared to $39 – largely because of this remote control, so it’s really up to the individual user’s tastes as to whether the premium is worth it. The downside to the remote is that it’s yet another one cluttering up the coffee table, whereas Google’s mobile-oriented approach simply uses devices that you already have lying around.
The Stick does the job and is a welcome step up from the now anachronistic-seeming set-top boxes, but I have to admit to being more excited about Chromecast at this point. There’s little doubt that app developers are going to flock to Google’s hot-selling device, especially given its success with Android, and there are already some cool attempts being made.
Google itself just released a nifty app called Photowall, which lets users take photos with their phones, caption them, and then beam them to a TV via the Chromecast. It’s a neat app that will likely be a big hit at parties.
So, while Roku is at this point something of a market leader when it comes to media streaming, it’s on the verge of having its market disrupted and perhaps even overtaken by a very large and resourceful competitor. Amazon’s arrival on the scene – even in what appears to be an outgoing form factor – only worsens the situation. The heat is most definitely on.