Roku 3 vs Apple TV vs Amazon Fire TV: which is the best TV streaming device?
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If you want to share videos, photos, film, and TV media with the rest of your household, streaming content from the internet to your HD TV is a great way to go about it. And thanks to the number of devices no on the market, you don’t need to shell out for a smart TV or media centre to do it.
While streaming dongles are a great way to power up your TV on the cheap, if you want a bit more speed and variety, you’re going to need a full-fat set top box.
Here we look at the prices and specs of three of the top sub-£100 streaming boxes – the Amazon Fire TV, Roku 3, and Apple TV – to help our readers find out which one’s best for them.
Amazon Fire TV vs Roku 3 vs Apple TV: device overview
Calling these devices set-top-boxes is a bit of a misnomer in some ways. Unlike the boxes sent out by Sky, BT, Virgin Media et al, the Fire TV, Roku 3 and Apple TV are all very small.
The Fire TV is the slimmest of the devices at just 18mm tall, but occupies the greatest surface area with a width and depth of 115 x 115mm. The Roku 3, on the other hand, is a comparatively chunky 25mm tall, but with a width and depth of 89 x 89mm takes up the least space. The Apple TV is quite close in size to the Roku, measuring 98 x 98 x 23mm (WDH).
Amazon Fire TV
The 281g Fire TV is also the heaviest of the devices, weighing almost twice as much as the Roku 3 (142g), with the Apple TV coming in a close second at 270g.
Amazon’s offering is also a heavyweight when it comes to memory, with a whacking 2GB RAM and 8GB storage on offer. This is largely thanks to a feature called ASAP, which allows the Fire TV to queue film and video content in the background based on your viewing history, eliminating buffering times. The Apple TV also has 8GB storage, but only 512MB RAM.
The Roku 3, by comparison, has just 512MB RAM and 256MB storage, but, uniquely, has a microSD card slot, which can be used to expand the storage memory. However, there are numerous complaints across the internet about compatibility issues and it seems the only way to be certain the microSD card you want to use will actually work with the box is to buy it from Roku.
All three devices connect to the TV via HDMI cable (sold separately in all three cases) and require access to mains power.
Verdict: Amazon Fire TV wins The ASAP feature really sets the Fire TV apart in terms of usability, although the Roku 3 is the more attractive of the three devices
Amazon Fire TV vs Roku 3 vs Apple TV: connectivity
The main way the Fire TV, Roku 3 and Apple TV connect with the internet and any external devices (more on that below) is via Wi-Fi. All three have dual-band Wi-Fi, which you’d expect from streaming tech at the higher end of the spectrum, and the Fire TV and Apple TV also have Bluetooth connectivity for communicating with peripherals.
They also all feature an Ethernet port, so you can use a cabled internet connection if you prefer.
Connectivity verdict: Roku 3 loses The Fire TV and Apple TV’s Bluetooth connectivity give greater scope for additional peripherals, pushing them ahead of the Roku 3 by a nose
Amazon Fire TV vs Roku 3 vs Apple TV: peripherals
All three devices come with a remote in the box, with the Roku 3’s having the most features.
Unlike the Apple TV and Fire TV, which both connect to their remotes via Bluetooth, the Roku 3 uses Wi-Fi Direct to communicate with the “Enhanced Game Remote” that comes in the box.
On the top of the remote, there are directional arrows, back and home buttons, and ok button, a “*” button used to access options when available, and play/pause, rewind and fast-forward buttons. Towards the bottom, there are “A” and “B” buttons, to be used when playing games.
It also has a headphone jack, so you can watch TV without disturbing those around you and, conveniently, comes with a set of in-ear earphones included.
Another unique feature is the Roku 3’s ability to track the movement of your remote, in much the same way as the Nintendo Wii remote, which is put to use in games like the bundled Angry Birds Space. It’s not the easiest feature to use, although it does get better with practice.
The Fire TV’s remote isn’t quite so snazzy, having just the standard home, back, play/pause, fast-forward, rewind and menu buttons, and a navigation ring with select button in the middle. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have its own little trick up its sleeve.
Amazon Fire TV remote
At the very top, there’s a microphone button that, when pressed and held, lets you voice search the Amazon catalogue. We found it worked very well, although it’s a little disappointing you can’t also search the system.
The Apple TV’s remote is decidedly bland by comparison with the other two. It also has a navigation ring with a select button in the centre, a menu button, a play/pause button… and that’s it.
However, whereas the Roku 3 is limited to its in-box controller, there are a number of additional peripherals available for the Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV – for a price of course.
Amazon Fire TV gamepad
Amazon has put a heavy emphasis on the number of games available through its platform (although there aren’t quite as many as on the Roku 3 – more on that below) and, accordingly, there’s a Bluetooth game pad available for the Fire TV. However, it’ll set you back £35 – almost half the price of the Fire TV itself.
Apple has taken a different tack when it comes to peripherals for the Apple TV, choosing to focus more on audio accessories than additional controllers. The company lists half-a-dozen high-end wireless speakers that are compatible with the streaming box on the “accessories” page, ranging in price from £260 to almost £700.
That’s not to say additional controllers aren’t available, though. Specifically, the Apple TV is compatible with the company’s Bluetooth Wireless Keyboard, which comes as standard with all new Macs but will set you back £59 if you need to buy it separately.
Peripherals verdict: Roku 3 wins For out of the box functionality, the Roku 3 has the Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV beat.
Amazon Fire TV vs Roku 3 vs Apple TV: apps
Set-top-box streamers are nothing without the apps that drive them and, once again, the Roku 3 comes out shining, with 750 apps – or “channels” as Roku calls them – available.
Not only does it have the greatest number – the Fire TV has almost 100 fewer while the Apple TV has just 19 – but a large proportion of them are free, including BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD, Demand 5 and Sky News. If you’re a Sky customer, you’ll be happy to know the Sky Store is also available.
The Amazon Fire TV presents a slightly more complex picture, as it’s so deeply integrated with the Amazon ecosystem.
If you’re already an Amazon Prime Instant Video subscriber, in many ways the Fire TV is a no-brainer, as the device will be linked to your existing account so you can stream direct to your TV. If you’re not, and don’t want to sign up for a subscription, then the choices on offer are far more limited, although BBC iPlayer and Demand 5 are available.
Apple TV apps
Sadly, if you live outside the US, it’s a similar story for Apple TV. Although the company recently announced an exclusive partnership with HBO, the channel isn’t available in the UK. In fact, for those living here, there are only a handful of apps available at all, none of which come from the five terrestrial channels, although Sky News is on offer. Instead, Apple TV largely relies on people buying or renting content from iTunes.
There is some commonality between the Fire TV, Apple TV and Roku 3, though, as all three have Netflix, YouTube and Vimeo apps.
Apps verdict: Roku 3 wins The Roku 3 offers a great range of content without hooking you into any additional ecosystem
Amazon Fire TV vs Roku 3 vs Apple TV: device compatibility
If you want to control your streaming set-top-box from your smartphone or tablet, or perhaps mirror or cast content to the screen from your mobile device, then the story is much the same as for apps.
With the Apple TV, you can mirror or cast content from any Mac running OS X 10.10 Yosemite and higher or any iPhone or iPad running iOS 8 and higher to the big screen. Some games also let you use your iOS device as a controller.
With the Amazon Fire TV, only Kindle Fire HDX tablets are compatible and, as with the Apple TV, they have no role as a controller and can only be used to mirror or cast content to the TV. However, there is one nice additional feature, known as X-Ray, which provides additional information from IMDB about the film or TV programme you’re watching, including scene-contextual information.
Amazon Fire TV apps on Kindle Fire HDX
The Roku 3, on the other hand, is very much platform agnostic, with a free controller app available for iOS, Android and Windows Phone. It also supports casting for certain apps, such as YouTube, although PC Pro found it took its time making initial contact with the mobile device.
Roku iOS controller
Compatibility verdict: Roku 3 wins Once again, Roku’s independence as a streaming hardware provider gives it a big boost. By not being tied down to any one platform, the company gives owners the opportunity to use whichever mobile device they already have to control their Roku 3
Amazon Fire TV vs Roku 3 vs Apple TV: Price
While they may not be as expensive as a brand new smart TV, the Fire TV, Apple TV and Roku 3 aren’t cheap either.
Perhaps unsurprisingly due to its out-of-the-box comprehensiveness, the Roku is the most expensive of the three, costing £90 at the time of review, with the Apple TV coming in cheapest at £59. Fire TV sits nicely between the two at £79.
Price verdict: Roku 3 wins The Roku 3 may be the most expensive of the three devices, but you definitely get more bang for your buck without having to sign up to additional services or buy additional peripherals
Amazon Fire TV vs Roku 3 vs Apple TV: Verdict
If you’re well dug into the Amazon ecosystem, it’s definitely worth considering the Fire TV above the Apple TV or Roku 3, as you’re already paying for what you need to make the set-top-box really work well.
If you’re not, however, we would recommend the Roku 3 – it may be £20 more expensive, but you get more for your money and there are fewer additional costs.