The digital streaming device market has two distinct tiers.
While the top of the streaming player market includes devices like Amazon.com's (NASDAQ: AMZN) Fire TV, and the Roku 4 which cost $99.99 and $129.99 respectively, there are also cheaper options which will serve most consumers well.
Instead of spending $99-plus, people can opt for a stick-type device, a smaller-profile player that plugs directly into an HDMI port on your TV. This option comes in much cheaper, with the three major players Alphabet's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Google Chromecast, Amazon's Fire TV Stick, and Roku's Streaming Stick all costing under $50.
Paying less will come with some sacrifices, but for many consumers they won't be noticeable. The challenge is which stick to buy, as they're not all the same and they're not all equal.
Amazon Fire Stick ($39.99-49.99): Fire Stick is arguably the premier device in this category. It works exactly like the more expensive Fire TV box, and unless you want to play the higher-end games Amazon offers, there is no real reason to spend more.
The extra $10 gets you access to the device's voice control feature, dubbed Alexa. That's a fun but not at all necessary feature, though it's probably worth the $10 because Amazon does an excellent job delivering useful search results. For example, if you say "Show me Julia Roberts movies," it will offer a neat selection of what's available both for free and for purchase or rent.
Fire Stick also comes with one of the better controllers in the streaming-box universe. It's not quite as elegant as the one that comes with the pricey Apple TV, but it's close. In some ways, because it has more buttons, it's actually easier to use.
Amazon also makes all its devices easy to use, specifically for Prime members. If you order using your account, Fire Stick arrives already configured with your user information. All you have to do is plug it in.
Roku Streaming Stick ($49.99): There's nothing inherently wrong with Roku's Streaming Stick, and in many ways it's a good choice. It can sometimes feel a bit slow when loading apps compared with Fire Stick, but not in a way that creates any major problems.
Perhaps the biggest negative of the Roku device is one that won't matter to many people. Of all the major streaming players, Roku has the least style. Its boxes are a bit cartoonish and lack the elegance of Apple and Amazon's products or even the cool factor the new Chromecast's bulb design offers. That's true for its stick as well. That won't matter with the device itself, but the remote lacks the elegant style from Amazon and certainly Apple at the high end of the price spectrum.
Roku is overall very strong with content and has a great, deep selection of apps, including offering Amazon Prime Video. It doesn't have a voice search option, nor is it very useful for games, an area where Amazon is stronger anyway.
It's a decent device, but it's a little bit inferior to Fire TV Stick and it costs the same as the voice-control-enabled version of that player. You won't be making a mistake buying a Roku Streaming Stick, but it's not the top of its class.
Alphabet's Google Chromecast ($35): The biggest thing in favor of Alphabet's Google's Chromecast is its price. At $35, it's the cheapest of the streaming sticks, though it's hard to say that saving $5 or even $15 over the pricier Fire TV stick or the Roku Streaming Stick makes it worth it.
Design is also a positive in the new Chromecast's favor. It's cool to look at (which probably doesn't matter given that it's plugged in to the back of your TV in most cases), but it also has a flexible HDMI cord. That's a big advantage on some TVs where HDMI slots can be tightly grouped, making it tough to plug in Fire Stick or Roku Streaming Stick.
The negatives, however, for users of Alphabet's Google Chromecast are significant. The device lacks a remote, and users are supposed to control it from their smartphone, tablet, or laptop. That may be perfectly fine for people who sit on the couch with those devices in hand, but it's awkward for anyone else.
On the other hand, the Google device has the plus that it serves as a conduit between your computer, laptop, or phone to your television. Anything that can be played on those devices can be cast to your TV using the Chromecast. That's a neat feature that brings added versatility to the player.
Still, the lack of a real remote makes Chromecast unwieldy for many people. Beyond that, it's a perfectly acceptable streaming player -- all three in this category are -- but that one issue causes it to be my last pick behind Fire TV Stick and Roku Streaming Player.
Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. He owns pretty much every streaming player but mostly uses Fire TV. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A and C shares) and Amazon.com. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.