Chromecast has been at or near the top of Amazon's best-selling electronics items list since it was released in July 2013. That has essentially put Amazon in the position of selling a device which customers then use to buy content -- television shows, movies, games, and apps -- from its competitor. By helping Google, Amazon was hurting itself, and the company moved to correct that when it announced the Fire TV Stick in November.
How do the devices compare?
The Fire TV Stick and Chromecast, both of which I purchased, have a very similar look and feel. The Amazon device is a bit more elegant, with a sleeker profile. The Google product has a bulbed end with its power cord attaching directly opposite the HDMI plug, creating a straight line. Fire TV Stick has its plug-in port at a right angle to the device, which seems like a minor design flaw. As you can see below, the setup forced me to install Fire TV in the far right port on the television I used to test both device whereas Chromecast fit both HDMI slots.
Aside from the slight design variations, the biggest difference between the $39 Fire TV Stick and the $35 Chromecast (which is selling for $29.99 on Amazon) is the remote control. The Amazon device includes one, while the Google unit requires a phone, tablet, or computer to serve as the remote. I preferred having the designated remote, but if you're the type of person who already watches TV with another device in hand, this may be less of a bother for you.
Both streaming players offer a similar selection of apps and content including Netflix, Pandora, and Hulu. The Fire TV Stick remote came in handy for simple game-play, and Amazon also sells a separate game controller for $39.99. Google does not have this option.
Fire TV Stick offers direct access to Prime Instant Video and Prime Music services, which makes its player an obvious choice for Amazon Prime members. Technically, you can "cast" anything from your phone, tablet, or laptop onto a TV using Chromecast -- including the proprietary Amazon services -- but in practice, I found that to be a fairly unpleasant experience that is highly dependent on your Wi-Fi speed.
What are they like to use?
Both devices are straightforward to use, but Amazon makes things very easy for its members who buy the Fire TV Stick. Mine came pre-loaded with my account information and plugging it in was all I needed to get it working. There was a short, helpful tutorial and an option to put a password on things like ordering movies or downloading apps. Fire TV Stick has the same easy-to-use, intuitive interface as the larger Fire TV streaming box.
Chromecast is not quite as simple -- whatever smartphone, tablet, or computer you are using must first be linked to the device to control it.
Amazon has built a version with essentially no technical barrier for anyone who knows how to locate the HDMI port on their TV and use Amazon. Google's system has a bit more of a learning curve and requires more technical know-how to initially set up.
The business of streaming
In the first three quarters of 2014, 10% of U.S. broadband homes purchased a streaming device, according to data from Parks Associates. Google commanded 20% of those sales, while Amazon accounted for only 10%. Of course, Fire TV Stick was not released until the fourth quarter, so sales were generated by the more expensive Fire TV box.
Both Amazon and Google found themselves behind market leader Roku, which claimed 29% of sales, down significantly from the previous year. It appears these new entrants are gaining market share, and Roku introduced its own stick in March 2014 (selling at $39.99 for the holiday). The other major player in streaming devices, Apple, does not have a low-cost option, only the $99 Apple TV, which may explain why its market share slipped from 2013.
For Amazon and Google, it is not about how many units they have sold so far but how many they can sell in this exploding market.
"More than 25% of U.S. broadband households will have a streaming media player by 2015, and by 2017, there will be nearly 50 million streaming media players sold globally," Parks Associates Research Director Barbara Kraus said.
Every installed device is a virtual store opened right in the customer's home, so the opportunity for Amazon and Google is enormous.
Which should you buy?
Fire TV Stick and Chromecast are very similar, but Amazon has improved on what Google introduced. That's especially true if you're a Prime member, but it's generally the case for anyone considering these devices.
Both Fire TV Stick and Chromecast make it very easy to stream video and other content to a television. Both also have four star ratings from Amazon's customers, but Fire TV Stick offers a nicer interface, the ability to add on a gaming controller, and a standard remote.