When Amazon announced its Fire TV Stick a couple months ago, many tech watchers (myself included) saw it as a direct assault on Google's Chromecast.
The comparison is certainly inviting. Both streaming media devices fit in the palm of your hand and plug directly into your TV's HDMI socket. The pricing is nearly the same as well, at $39 for the Fire TV Stick and $35 for Chromecast.
But beyond those skin-deep similarities, Chromecast and the Fire TV Stick couldn't be more different. As I've learned from reviewing the Fire TV Stick and using a Chromecast since its July 2013 launch, the two devices take different approaches to discovering and viewing video, and they have opposing ideas about what you should be watching in the first place. You could choose one or the other, but owning both isn't a crazy idea.
Remote vs. App
Unlike any other media streamer, Chromecast doesn't ship with a remote control. Instead, it expects you to launch video and music apps on your phone, tablet, or desktop Chrome browser and then tap a little "Cast" button to launch that content on the television. You can also mirror the screen from certain Android devices and from the Chrome browser with just a couple taps, though this will sap your device's battery much more quickly.
The idea is to get the traditional TV interface out of the way so you can control everything through the mobile device that's already in your pocket or on your lap. You don't have to download another set of apps specifically for the big screen, and you don't even have turn on the TV. Chromecast does this automatically when you start casting, and then switches to the correct input. On Android devices, you can can also adjust the volume, as long as it's no higher than your TV's current level.
The Fire TV stick very much embraces the traditional interface. You plug it in, turn on the TV, and use the included remote to scroll through a menu of video options. It's especially geared toward Amazon Prime Instant Video, so it feels much more prescriptive toward what to watch. You rarely waste time figuring out which app to launch, because there's already a sprawling array of Prime movies and TV shows on the home screen. While Chromecast's second-screen interface is faster in theory, it lacks the Fire TV Stick's immediate sense of turning on the TV to see "what's on."
It's worth noting that the Fire TV stick offers some Chromecast-like beaming from phones and tablets, but it works only with Netflix, YouTube, and Spotify for now. It's also not available through desktop Web browsers, it won't automatically turn on your TV, and it doesn't offer volume control. Casting to the Fire TV Stick is a backup option, not the central idea.
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