Streaming video players have come a long way in just 10 years. Back in 2009, almost no one owned a Roku - and Amazon? Prime Video had just come out in 2006, so at that point it was still just a blip on the radar. But 10 years later and Amazon and Roku are two of the biggest names in streaming video players thanks to the Amazon Fire TV and ever-expanding family of Roku players.
That said, these days you can find about half a dozen Roku players on the market including the Roku Ultra, Roku Premiere and Roku Express alongside Amazon’s three flagship streaming devices - the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K, Amazon Fire TV and Amazon Fire TV Cube. (Note: the Fire TV Cube, Roku Ultra and Roku Premiere are only available in the US, so that's worth keeping in mind.)
If you’re not familiar with all the players and what they’re capable of, it can be a lot to take in. But that’s why we’re here to help break down the differences between the hardware and highlight the platforms’ strong suits. Consider this your guide to Streaming Hardware 101.
- Expect to see some great deals on both Roku and Amazon Fire TV products during Amazon Prime Day 2019 on July 15 and 16
What are the key differences?
When you think about Amazon Fire TV, you should really be thinking about the Amazon Video streaming service and Alexa voice assistant, as those are its defining features. Sure, Roku can also access Amazon Video, but the streaming service is brought front and center on Amazon streaming hardware. That’s great if you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber… and maybe not so great if you don’t want to pony up for Amazon’s subscription service.
That said, however you slice it, having Alexa on a streaming video player is pretty cool. It works almost exactly the same as a smart speaker, except you can ask Alexa to call up some videos for you, too. Add to that the ability to manage your calendar and keep track of your shopping lists, and it’s easy to see why having Alexa is a huge boon for Fire TV.
The last key difference between the two is the support for new HDR formats - Roku only supports HDR10, while Amazon Fire TV devices support both HDR10, Dolby Vision and HDR10+. Those formats are important because they offer a better HDR experience for compatible HDR10+ and Dolby Vision TVs - though, of course, it all comes down to how good your TV is on its own.
The key selling points for Roku are that it’s platform-agnostic - i.e. Roku doesn’t care which streaming service you use and makes almost all of them available on its hardware - and now has a free, ad-supported streaming service of its own called The Roku Channel that’s available right out of the box. That’s great for cord-cutters, and folks who want extra options when looking for something to watch.
Neither option is particularly great at playing games - you’ll want an Nvidia Shield or Apple TV for that - and both can access Kodi by side-loading.
Which one is easier to use?
Now, obviously, ease-of-use is pretty subjective - some things that come easy to us won’t come easy to you necessarily - but, that caveat aside, we feel that Roku is the easier of the two platforms. It boots you right into the home menu where you can see all the apps you have downloaded, and the app store is visible immediately. The interface is simpler and although a bit dated at this point, it’s probably the one your parents could pick up and use.
That’s not to say Amazon Fire TV’s interface is particularly difficult to use - it’s not - but it does place a greater emphasis on Amazon Prime content and finding anything else can take a bit of effort / knowhow. Still, if you know where to look you can find apps for Netflix, PlayStation Vue, Sling TV and all the rest and having content right up front means it’s a bit faster to turn it on and jump right into something to watch.
It’s worth pointing out here that, unlike Chromecast and Chromecast Ultra, every single member of the Amazon Fire TV and Roku family of devices comes with a remote. That traditional control scheme makes them a bit easier for the average non-techie to pick up and use, plus the built-in microphone adds a convenience factor for searching for something to watch. We’ll cover more in the next section, but it’s worth pointing out that they’re both easier to use than some other streaming solutions out there.
Which one has more content?
Unless we count up every video on every streaming service on each of these two platforms, it’s impossible to know which of the two has more content to watch. That being said, knowing which streaming services are on each platform and around how much content those have can give us a rough estimate.
Both platforms have access to all of the main services Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Sling TV, HBO Go/Now and YouTube, but only Roku also has access to The Roku Channel, that free, ad-supported streaming service we mentioned earlier. It’s also worth pointing out that Roku has more channels than any other platform - though, what Roku considers a ‘channel’ is usually just a bespoke app full of videos you can find on YouTube. Still, if you just want an entire playlist of old Western films, Roku has them and Amazon doesn’t.
Of course, it is a bit easier to find content on Roku than it is on Amazon Fire TV - Roku’s search scans a massive number of streaming services and lists them by price with the cheapest options and the ones you subscribe to up front. That’s a great system and one that could save you money in the long run. (It’s worth noting that Amazon has a comprehensive search feature, too, but it does place more of an emphasis on Amazon Video results.)
Which one is cheaper?
If you’re comparing the cheapest Roku player to the cheapest Amazon Fire TV player, it’s a tie: you can get both the Roku Express and Amazon Fire TV Stick for just $29 (£25). These are both really good HD streaming devices that will impress folks who still have an HD TV.
Of course, if you want a 4K streaming device, you’ll need to step up to the slightly more expensive Roku Premiere ($35) or Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K ($39/£49). You can expect 4K/HDR support from both devices and the entire content library on both devices.
If you’re looking for the top-tier players for the best playback experience, the flagship Roku Ultra will set you back $99 while the Amazon Fire TV Cube with Alexa will only cost $79 - though, for now, both are US-exclusive. Either way, it’s a pretty good deal for two of the best streaming devices on the planet.
Which one is better?
This all depends on who you’re buying for.
If you’re buying for someone who really values image quality and has a 4K TV with Dolby Vision, you can’t do any better than the Amazon Fire TV Cube. Not only is it a great streamer, but it’s a great starting point for building a smart home.
But, if you’re buying for someone who’s not that technical (read: your parents or grandparents) you might want to get with the most basic Roku streaming device. It’s simple to use and cheap enough that you won’t be breaking the bank.