Streaming TV voice controls: Fire TV vs. Roku and the rest

Controlling your streaming TV setup by voice is glorious when it works. Here's how to tell if it will.

Jared Newman / IDG

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Of all the possible uses for voice assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, controlling your TV has the most potential. With so many streaming apps to keep track of, each with their own complicated menu systems, a simple voice command can cut through the clutter. Why thumb around endlessly on a remote when you could just say “watch ESPN” instead?

Unfortunately, not all streaming TV devices treat voice control the same way, and not every streaming video service works with voice commands in the first place. So instead of being a magical experience, it’s often an exercise in frustration.

To make things a bit easier, I’ve put together a comparison of voice control on Roku, Fire TV, Apple TV, Android TV, and Chromecast, so you can find a setup that works for you.

Voice controls compared

Below is a chart showing which streaming services support launching video directly with voice controls on each device. This is not a complete list, but it does cover all the major live TV channel bundles, along with popular on-demand services such as Netflix. If you see a check mark, that means you can get to a specific video or live TV channel just by talking to your remote.

voicecontrolcompare Jared Newman / IDG

One other note: With Amazon Prime, Apple TV Channels, and the Roku Channel, you can add on subscriptions to premium channels such as HBO, Showtime, and Epix. Any subscriptions you add this way will support voice controls if the platform has a check mark in the chart above.

The chart doesn’t tell the whole story, though, as each device has its own strengths and weaknesses in terms of how thoroughly you can control it by voice. Below, let’s rank them from best to worst:

#1: Amazon Fire TV

Amazon’s Fire TV devices currently come closest to making voice control work seamlessly, as you can directly launch live TV channels and on-demand video services such as Netflix, Hulu, PlayStation Vue, and of course Amazon Prime. If you add extra subscriptions to your Prime membership through Amazon Channels, you can access that content with voice commands as well, and you can even access over-the-air channels by voice using a Fire TV Recast DVR.

amazon fire tv cube second gen 2 1 Amazon

Amazon’s Fire TV Cube lets you control your TV hands-free without a separate Echo speaker.

Fire TV devices also support hands-free control, either with a separate Alexa speaker, such as Amazon’s Echo Dot, or with Amazon’s Fire TV Cube streaming box, which has hands-free Alexa built in. Alexa can even emulate remote control input with commands like “Alexa, scroll left,” or “Alexa, select.”

Like other platforms, Fire TV still has some voice control blind spots. Several major streaming services still don’t support voice commands, including AT&T TV Now and Sling TV, and Alexa still doesn’t understand requests for specific seasons or episodes of a given show. Still, no other platform ties voice control so thoroughly into its platform, both with its remote and with Alexa speakers.

#2: Apple TV

With a fourth-generation Apple TV or Apple TV 4K, you can use the Siri remote to quickly launch videos or live TV channels from a wide range of services, including Netflix, YouTube, and HBO Go. Voice control also works with the Apple TV Channels service, which lets you add subscriptions directly through Apple’s own TV app and billing system. Siri’s content search is also top-notch, supporting detailed genre searches like “show me indie sci-fi movies” and follow-up commands like “just the recent ones.”

apple tv remote control Julian Hayon/Negative Space (CC0)

Apple TV voice control still relies mainly on the Siri remote.

Still, hands-free control is extremely shaky on Apple TV. You can’t relay video launch commands from Apple’s HomePod smart speaker, and while you can technically use “Hey Siri” commands with an iPhone or iPod to control the Apple TV, I had trouble setting this up and have heard from several readers who can’t get it to work at all. The lack of dependable hands-free control puts Apple TV behind Amazon’s Fire TV devices in my book.

#3: Roku

Compared to Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV, Roku’s voice control system is far less refined. It works with fewer streaming services overall—Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube, and HBO Now are major omissions—and it doesn’t support live TV streaming services at all, so you can’t use a voice command to jump directly into live cable channels. Still, you can use voice commands to launch content from The Roku Channel, including premium subscription add-ons such as HBO and Starz.

echo dot 6 tips 1 Amazon

Roku devices support both Alexa and Google Assistant speakers for hands-free control, but only for basic playback and launching apps.

Roku also deserves some credit for supporting basic hands-free voice controls with both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant speakers, so you can pause, rewind, or launch apps without reaching for the remote. Unfortunately, these devices don’t let you directly begin playback like Roku’s voice remote does. If you try, you’ll just get an error message.

#4: Android TV

Given Google’s overall excellence in the voice-assistant space, you’d think its Android TV platform would be higher on this list. Unfortunately, Google hasn’t done a great job getting video services to support its voice controls. As of now, only 10 services work, and while Netflix and YouTube are among them, YouTube TV is the only one that can tune to live cable channels. And unlike other platforms, Android TV does not have its own subscription video marketplace to further expand what you can control by voice.

googlehomechromecast Jon Phillips / IDG

A Google Home speaker can control your Android TV device hands-free (unless you’re watching Netflix).

Also worth noting: While you can use a Google Home speaker for hands-free voice commands, this doesn’t work with launching Netflix videos for some reason. And while the Nvidia Shield TV supports voice commands from Alexa devices as well, this only works with basic playback controls, such as pausing and rewinding.

#5: Google Chromecast

chromecast3hero Jared Newman / IDG

Chromecast has all the hands-free control of Android TV, but without an actual remote to go with it.

Chromecast’s voice controls work with the same 10 streaming services as Android TV, including Netflix, YouTube, YouTube TV, and HBO Now. But because Chromecast doesn’t include a traditional remote control, you must issue voice commands through Google Assistant, either in its mobile app or on a smart speaker such as the Google Home. As such, it’s even less capable than Android TV for voice control, which isn’t saying much.

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