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App showdown: Roku vs. Chromecast vs. Apple TV vs. Fire TV vs. Nexus Player

Jared Newman | April 6, 2015
App selection is one of the biggest factors in choosing a streaming media player for your TV. Here's how the major players compare.

Streaming apps

App selection should be one of the biggest factors in choosing a streaming media player, because all the fancy features in the world don't mean much if you can't actually watch what you want.

The good news is that there's decent app parity among the major streaming media devices, including Apple TV ($69), Amazon's Fire TV ($99, or $39 for the Fire TV Stick), Roku ($50 to $90, depending on the model), Chromecast ($35), and Nexus Player ($99). If you're just looking to watch Netflix or Hulu Plus, pretty much every device on the market will have you covered.

Still, each platform does have its hang-ups, which you can see in the chart below. Have a look, then keep reading for some takeaways and caveats:

Okay, now let's answer some questions that I assume will be frequently asked:

Aren't there way more apps than this?
I focused mainly on apps that offer full TV episodes and movies, either for free or with a standalone subscription, but it's not a complete list. Roku, for instance, has lots of niche apps for oldies, cult classics, and international programming, which I didn't get into. And because this is my cord-cutting column, I left off most apps that require a cable login (with the exception of the universally-mooched HBO Go). You can find a longer list of those apps here.

Roku has the most extensive app selection. Why buy anything else?
As the chart shows, you'd want an Apple TV if you had a lot of iTunes content. But the chart doesn't show the main advantage of Fire TV: It plasters Amazon Prime content all over the home screen, so if that's mainly what you plan to watch, you'll spend less time thumbing through menus and more time watching stuff. Overall, though, Roku is the best all-around pick.

Doesn't AirPlay on an iPhone or iPad let you watch pretty much any video on Apple TV?
Yes, but AirPlay doesn't really replace your remote control, and it won't let you watch other videos on the small screen or play games with sound while TV playback is in progress. It feels more like a fallback than a complete solution.

So why'd you even include Chromecast, which is similar to AirPlay?
While Chromecast also requires a phone, tablet, or laptop to operate, it has several features that make it more remote-like. If it's plugged into an outlet, Casting a video will automatically turn on your TV and switch to the appropriate input. Many apps let you adjust playback volume through your phone or tablet as well, and you can use some standard TV remotes to hit pause. And if your device disconnects or runs out of battery, the video keeps on rolling. It also helps that Chromecast is half the price of Apple TV, at $35.

 

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