Fire TV vs. Roku: Which streaming platform should today's cord-cutter pick?

Amazon and Roku have the two most popular streaming platforms. Which one is best?

Jared Newman / IDG

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On the surface, Roku and Amazon Fire TV have a lot in common. Both offer affordable streaming players that you that you can plug into practically any flat-panel TV, and both will let you access a wide range of popular streaming services, from Netflix and Hulu to YouTube TV and Disney+.

Digging a bit deeper reveals some big philosophical differences between the two streaming platforms: Roku’s software emphasizes simplicity over flashy features, while its expansive hardware lineup tries to hit every conceivable budget. Amazon takes the opposite approach, pairing a small number of simple-yet-effective hardware options with a sprawling software interface.

There is no clear winner between these two approaches. Instead, choosing between Roku and Fire TV as your streaming platform of choice will be a matter of personal preference. To make the decision a bit easier, let’s walk through how the two most popular streaming platforms compare.

Ease of use

If you’re used to the idea of launching apps on your phone, you’ll be pretty comfortable using a Roku device. Its main menu presents a grid of icons, letting you quickly launch streaming apps such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video. And when you’re getting set up, it’s easy to find the most popular apps through the “Channel Store” section of the home screen.

rokuultra2019home Jared Newman / IDG

Roku’s focus on apps makes it simple to set up and use.

The Fire TV menu is much more cluttered. Instead of a single app launcher, there are separate rows for favorite and recent apps, along with a master app list you can access by holding down the home button. The home screen is also surrounded by extra menus for movies, TV shows, and apps, each with its own layers of recommended videos. There’s some merit to this approach, which I’ll describe in the next section; but compared to Roku, it’s harder to navigate.

Advantage: Roku

firetvstick4khome1 Jared Newman / IDG

The favorite and recent apps rows on Fire TV can lead to some redundancies.

Content discovery

The flip side is that Amazon’s Fire TV interface is better at suggesting what to watch without making you jump in and out of different apps. Keep scrolling past the app list, and you’ll find row upon row of suggested movies and shows to watch. Most come from Amazon’s own Prime Video service, but you might also get recommendations from other apps, such as Netflix or HBO Now. While this approach can feel inscrutable—mostly because Amazon doesn’t let you customize the recommendations that appear—it is helpful for those times when you’re feeling indecisive.

firetvcube3 Jared Newman / IDG

Amazon throws movie and show recommendations directly onto the Fire TV home screen.

Roku’s attempts at content discovery are much more conservative. There’s a “Featured Free” section on the home screen that spotlights free movies and TV shows to watch, but that doesn’t help if you want to know what’s new on Netflix or Hulu. And while Roku offers editorially-curated “zones” for different genres, you have to search and drill though several menu layers to access them. As a result you’ll probably spend more time in the apps you know best instead of discovering what else is out there.

Advantage: Fire TV

rokuultra2019featuredfree Jared Newman / IDG

As the name suggests, Roku’s “Featured Free” section only suggests ad-supported videos to watch.

Apps and content selection

Both Roku and Fire TV support every major streaming service and a long list of niche ones, so this shouldn’t be a major area of concern. (The Fire TV’s biggest omission was an official YouTube app and YouTube TV support, but both of those arrived on the platform earlier this year.)

Still, Roku gets a slight edge for offering The Roku Channel, a free app with a growing selection of ad-supported movies and TV shows. Roku recently added children’s videos to the apps, and it’s been expanding its lineup of free live “channels,” such as ABC News, Filmrise, WeatherNation, and MGM Sci-Fi.

Advantage: Roku

Voice control

There’s no contest on this one. While both platforms allow you to search by voice, Fire TV lets you launch videos and music directly through its voice remote in more services than Roku does, including Netflix and Amazon Prime. It also supports tuning to live channels in some streaming services, and if you have an Echo speaker, you can launch movies and shows without even touching your remote. (Roku does support hands-free controls with Echo and Google Home speakers, but the syntax is clunky and the controls are limited.) Amazon’s Alexa assistant also allows you to control smart home devices, ask general questions, or view security camera feeds using the Fire TV remote, which isn’t an option on Roku players.

Advantage: Fire TV

Hardware: Streaming players

Amazon’s Fire TV device lineup is pretty simple. If you want the cheapest streaming device and can tolerate sluggish performance, get the $40 Fire TV Stick (though I’d advise against it). For much faster performance and 4K HDR video support, you can spend a little more on the $50 Fire TV Stick 4K. If you want the best performance and hands-free Alexa voice control built-in, get the $120 Fire TV Cube.

firetvstick4khero Jared Newman / IDG

The Fire TV Stick 4K is a great value even if you don’t have a 4K TV.

Roku, meanwhile, currently offers six streaming players. I’d suggest staying away from the $30 Roku Express and $40 Roku Premiere, as they both use infrared remotes that can feel unresponsive and don’t have TV volume or power controls built-in. The Walmart-exclusive Roku Express+ is a better option for 1080p playback, while the $50 Roku Streaming Stick+ hits the sweet spot for 4K HDR. Best Buy also sells a variant of the Streaming Stick+ with a headphone jack on its remote for $60, and if you want USB and ethernet ports along with programmable remote buttons, the Roku Ultra will set you back $100.

rokustickpluswremote Jared Newman / TechHive

The Roku Streaming Stick+ is the best Roku for most people, though many other options exist.

Despite all those options, Roku doesn’t offer a single model with Dolby Vision, HDR10+, or Dolby Atmos decode (which is required to get Atmos support in Netflix). Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K and Fire TV Cube support all off those things. Fire TV devices are also better at remembering your place in recent apps, whereas apps on Roku always restart after you exit them. As long as you avoid the budget Fire TV Stick, Amazon’s platform delivers a better hardware value.

Advantage: Fire TV

Hardware: Smart TVs

If you’d rather buy a TV with built-in streaming features instead of a separate player, Roku gains the advantage. You’ll find Roku TVs with a wide range of features, sizes, and prices from a long list of vendors, including TCL, Sharp, Hisense, RCA, and Walmart’s Onn brand. And unlike with Roku’s standalone players, some of these TVs do support Dolby Vision HDR.

tcl 55 inch TCL

If you’re already in the market for a TV, vendors such as TCL will sell you one with Roku’s software on board, so you don’t need a separate streamer.

By comparison, TVs that run Amazon’s Fire TV software only come from Best Buy’s Insignia brand and Toshiba in the United States, with a narrower range of screen sizes and features. Want a 75-inch TV with 4K HDR and quantum dots? You can get one with Roku software, but not with Amazon’s Fire TV operating system on board.

Advantage: Roku

Nerdy stuff

If you’re the type of person who likes to tinker with their tech, you’ll find more to appreciate in the Fire TV platform. Because it’s based on Android, you can sideload apps that aren’t available in Amazon’s store, such as Kodi, and you can hook up a Bluetooth controller for gaming. Roku is more of a closed system, and while you can install private channels that come from outside Roku’s own store, the options are much more limited.

Fire TV also offers more options for integrating with an over-the-air antenna: Amazon’s Fire TV Recast hardware, for instance, while a Channels DVR setup can play live or recorded channels at native broadcast quality. Neither of those options are available on Roku players, though you can still use Tablo, Emby, or Plex DVR instead.

Verdict: Fire TV

firetvrecast1 Jared Newman / IDG

For antenna users, the Fire TV Recast is a simple way to integrate over-the-air DVR with Fire TV streaming players.

Long-term support

Over the years, Roku has established a strong track record for supporting older hardware, as streaming players and smart TVs from 2014 onward continue to receive new apps and features. Amazon’s Fire TV platform hasn’t been around for as long, but it’s already left a slew of streaming devices behind on older versions of Android. While this hasn’t made a major difference in terms of features, it doesn’t bode as well for long-term app support.

In both cases, however, app makers could still opt not to support older hardware, regardless of Roku’s or Amazon’s own support. YouTube TV, for instance, doesn’t work with the original Fire TV or Fire TV Stick, nor does it support certain older Roku models.

Advantage: Roku

The verdict

Because Roku is easier to use, it tends to be my default recommendation for anyone who’s new to the streaming space, doesn’t have any existing affinity for Amazon products, and just wants a solid streaming player for cheap. If you don’t mind more of a learning curve, however, you can accomplish a lot more with a Fire TV device, and the Fire TV Stick 4K in particular remains the best value in the streaming player business.

Just don’t overthink it too much, as you’ll probably be happy cutting the cable TV cord with either one.

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