As the holiday shopping season gets underway, everybody is starting to look for deals on gifts. One category of gadgets that remains a popular option is streaming sticks, the small, inexpensive dongles that bring TV shows and movies from Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus, HBO Max and Hulu to any TV.
Over the past few years CNET has reviewed nearly all of the major streaming devices, and two of our favorites for 2021 are the Roku Streaming Stick 4K and the Chromecast with Google TV. Both devices are affordable, especially during holiday sales, and both deliver most of the major apps you’ll want to stream in 4K resolution with Dolby Vision and high dynamic range (HDR). In our book, the Roku and Chromecast outshine competitors like the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max and Apple TV 4K in functionality, ease of use and value for the money, which is why we’re focusing on those first two here.
To see how they stack up against one another I’ll take a look at a few key areas: interface, features and remote.
First, a quick word on Roku
Longtime CNET readers know that our top pick for streaming devices in general is the $40 Roku Express 4K Plus. While it lacks Dolby Vision and isn’t a stick design, the Express 4K Plus is usually $10 cheaper than the Roku Streaming Stick 4K or Chromecast with Google TV. To my mind, paying $10 more for the Stick isn’t worth it.
Normally I would tell you to save the money and go with the Express 4K Plus, but holiday pricing in 2021 for streamers is more aggressive than ever. Depending on when you read this, the Streaming Stick 4K and the Express 4K Plus might cost the same or the Stick might actually be cheaper. If that’s the case, unless you really want Ethernet support (through a secondary dongle), get the Streaming Stick 4K instead.
In other words, between the two Rokus, my recommendation is to get whichever one is cheaper at the time.
Read more: Black Friday Roku deals start early: Get the best streamers starting at $29
With that out of the way, let’s take a closer look at the challengers.
A successor to the company’s Streaming Stick Plus, the new Roku Streaming Stick 4K is very similar to that popular and excellent streaming device. It has the same supersimple interface, has a robust selection of apps and streaming services, supports 4K HDR and does a great job keeping its platform updated. While this new model finally adds support for Dolby Vision, voice support on Roku’s platform lags behind rivals.
Read our Streaming Stick 4K review.
Google has tried various efforts to win the battle of the living room for years, but over the last year it finally has a worthy contender in the Chromecast with Google TV. The search giant’s latest has Dolby Vision and an improved interface as well as excellent integration with its Google Assistant for voice control and search. Unlike Amazon and Roku, it has support for HBO Max and will add the Apple TV app and Apple TV Plus in 2021. Google’s track record with TV, however, isn’t as strong as Roku’s, and the interface, while fine, isn’t as simple as Roku’s.
Read our Chromecast with Google TV review.
Best menu system: Roku Streaming Stick 4K
Roku’s interface is as easy to use as it gets. A colorful array of app tiles appear in a grid that you can arrange to taste. Responses on the Streaming Stick 4K are superquick, and within seconds I could be using a service like Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu or Sling TV. There are no big recommendation tabs of what to watch, or posters of shows or movies cluttering the tiles (though there are some ads on the right side when scrolling through the grid). The app store, found in the left-hand section labeled Streaming Channels, is just as quick and easy to navigate as the main menu.
The Chromecast with Google TV makes nice progress compared with both earlier Android TV devices and Google’s prior Chromecasts, which lacked any navigation at all. Although the menus look clear, and the main For You tab is fine, it is more cluttered than the “Stick to basics” approach Roku takes, with no quick way to see a grid of all your installed apps. I found there also were moments where it lagged a bit.
Google also needs more power than the Roku, so you likely won’t be able to power it right off your TV’s USB port (both include cables and adapters) and will need to find an open wall outlet.
When it comes to ease of use, Roku wins.
Best features: Chromecast with Google TV
Google wins the best features category, but it’s a bit closer than the interface battle.
With support for Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos out of the box, Google has only built out its TV platform this year, particularly for its own services. Support for gaming platforms like Google’s own Stadia arrived in 2021, and it continues to have close integration with YouTube TV for streaming live television. Throw in the excellent use of its Google Assistant for voice search and control, which is miles ahead of Roku’s voice assistant, and there is a lot to love.
Both Google and Roku now support all the major streaming services, including Netflix, Disney Plus, HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV Plus.
As with menus, Roku’s device isn’t as flashy but it still has 4K HDR and new features like AirPlay support could be really useful for the millions of Apple users. Google’s device supports casting from Android devices as well as casting from apps on iOS or other platforms that support Chromecast.
Interestingly, the only major app Roku lacks is Google’s YouTube TV. An ongoing feud between the two companies could see the regular YouTube disappear from Roku’s platform as well on Dec. 9. Meanwhile, Apple users can get around the lack of a YouTube TV or YouTube app through AirPlay, and Android users can also take advantage of a screen-mirroring function to cast YouTube from their devices onto their Rokus.
Either way, neither is an ideal way to watch YouTube and this situation is worth keeping an eye on.
Another reason why this comparison is close in this area is in the track record. Google has a notably checkered past when it comes to supporting devices past the first year or two (both TV and in general). It has gotten a lot better lately but still has a ways to go. Roku, by contrast, has shown support for older devices for a number of years, something that is evidenced by how many of its products have gotten that AirPlay update.
While the flashy features are impressive, unlike the menus — a core component of both devices that everyone will need to use — they are, for the most part, much more niche. Dolby Vision and Atmos only work if you have the right equipment, while Stadia and YouTube TV integration are only game-changers if you pay for either service. That said, they all do add value, and that integration with Google Assistant is excellent and makes using the Chromecast feel a lot more modern.
Putting it all together, Google has the edge here.
Best remote: Tie
Google finally includes a remote with a Chromecast, and it’s a perfectly solid one. The size is compact but still comfortable to hold. It can handle input, power and volume control for your TV and all the plastic buttons are clicky and responsive with dedicated keys for Netflix and YouTube. It has a mic, and a color-shifted button for summoning Google Assistant.
Roku’s remote, well, looks like a Roku remote. The company hasn’t done much to change up what admittedly already was a good thing. Volume and TV power control are both here (though there isn’t an input control), with rubberized buttons for navigation, media playback and Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu and Apple TV Plus. It also has a microphone and dedicated mic buttone.
Whereas Google wins on getting input control, I do appreciate that Roku has dedicated buttons for popular streaming services like Disney Plus and Hulu, as well as a button for quickly jumping back a few seconds (10 seconds on Netflix, for example, or 20 seconds on Disney Plus).
Neither remote control, sadly, has headphone jacks for private listening (though this could always be added later for Roku) or support for quickly finding the remote like Roku’s pricier Ultra box. Roku users can spring for a bundle that includes the $30 Voice Remote Pro which adds a headphone jack, hands-free voice and a remote finder, but then you’re spending more.
Ultimately, when it comes to what’s included it’s a toss-up.
Best overall streamer: Roku Streaming Stick 4K
This year it’s seemingly closer than ever, but the Roku Streaming Stick 4K is still our winner.
Both devices are excellent options and do a fantastic job of covering all the bases of what you would want from a $50 streaming stick in 2021. A strong argument can be made that Google is the more feature-packed device, and if you subscribe to other Google services like Stadia or YouTube TV, it is almost assuredly the better option for you.
Google also has some interesting bundles with Netflix and HBO Max that could get you a few months of either streaming service. Seeing as you’ll probably want or already have either service, the chance to save on monthly subscriptions could help sway you toward one streamer over the other (bearing in mind that the Netflix deal works for new and existing subscribers while the HBO Max deal requires you to be a new HBO Max user).
But when it comes to the basics, Roku’s interface is cleaner, easier and faster. The company’s strong reputation for supporting older devices is worth taking into account as you probably will hold on to whichever streamer you buy for at least the next couple of years. For the purposes of this head-to-head, those factors are enough to give the Roku the win.