Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), Amazon.com (NASDAQ: AMZN), Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ: GOOGL) and Roku dominate the streaming media device market in the United States, accounting for for 86% of all units sold to U.S. broadband households in 2014, according to to a report from Parks Associates.
According to the study, nearly 20% of U.S. broadband households own at least one streaming media player, such as a Roku 3, Amazon Fire TV, or Apple TV, while 8% own one of the cheaper "stick" devices and 2% own both.
"Roku continues to lead streaming media device sales in the U.S. with 34% of units sold in 2014. Google is second with 23%, and new entrant Amazon overtook Apple for third place," said Parks Associates Research Director Barbara Kraus. "The market consolidation around these four brands forces new entrants to develop more creative features and functionality to tap into the strong consumer demand for streaming content."
Three of the four companies, Amazon, Apple, and Roku have new top-tier devices for the holiday season. Google, too, has a new version of its Chromecast stick, but the $35 device can't be compared to the higher-end streaming boxes.
With these devices likely to be a popular holiday gift, here's a look at the three major players offering top-of-the-line, full-functioned boxes.
Apple: Apple TV
You can't say that Apple didn't take its time when coming up with the new Apple TV. The company had about a three-year wait between versions of its streaming box, but in many ways the wait was worth it. The most obvious improvement in the player is that it's no longer a closed system that only uses apps the company installs on it. Now, the platform is open to developers with a full apps store.
The new Apple TV also has the best remote control of the three major players. It offers a limited version of Siri (which is useful) and has a glass touchpad that takes a little getting used to but is surprisingly versatile when using the system to play games. Arguably, this makes Apple's box the best of the lot for gameplay, unless you buy the optional game controller for Fire TV.
By far the biggest negative for Apple TV is its price, $149 for the 32GB model and $199 for the 64GB version. It's also a bit of a minor issue that the only way to stream Amazon Prime Video content on the device is using Airplay to send it to the player from an iPhone, Mac, or iPad.
Some will also take issue with the fact that Apple is not currently supporting 4K video while both Amazon's and Roku's top-tier devices do.
Apple has the nicest looking interface of the three companies, but it's not noticeably easier to use or more intuitive. In addition, the integrated Siri search has a brand name, but it's not any better than the voice search offered by Roku or Amazon.
Roku: Roku 4
The company calls the Roku 4 "the best Roku player ever" and while that's true, it's not noticeably different than the previous version. Yes, it offers 4K video, enhanced voice search, and a neat (but silly) button that helps you find a lost remote, but really it's just an incremental improvement over the 3.
That's not a bad thing as the company has made consistently good streaming media players where the real attraction is the vast array of content available. Roku does have a native Amazon app as well as apps for pretty much every other content or television service imaginable. Roku 4 also has a neat feature that allows for listening to audio through a jack in the remote. That may seem unnecessary, but it might be very appreciated by people living in a home where the living room and bedroom are close together.
The major drawbacks for the Roku 4 are its price, $129.99, and it's less-than elegant look. Apple TV and Fire TV are sleek, modern boxes, while Roku's latest looks a bit cartoonish with its rounded edges.
Amazon: Fire TV
Being the lowest-priced of the three major players at $99 may make Fire TV the gift of choice this holiday season. It's hard to find anything not to like on the Amazon player. It's easy-to-use straight out of the box and comes with your account info pre-loaded assuming you are a Prime member. None of the players are hard to set up, but Amazon makes it especially easy.
Fire TV has a decent remote, which is perhaps the worst of the three, but it's still small and easy to use. It also has an impressive selection of apps, perhaps a little behind Roku. It's also a bit ahead of Apple TV when it comes to games integration as it has a number of titles which are surprisingly fun to play with the remote and some older top games that work with the game controller add-on.
The addition of Alexa to the player's already pretty good voice search is an asset if you want to be able to use your streaming TV box to check sports scores, news, and weather reports. For most, this will be kind of a pleasant novelty, but it does work well.
Very little separates all three players and an argument can easily be made to buy any of them. Because of that, Fire TV is the winner in this matchup mostly because it's cheaper than the others while offering essentially identical experiences. It's clearly the best pick for Prime members because Fire TV makes it very easy to access Amazon's video content, but even for non-members it's the right choice.
Apple and Roku have done nothing wrong with their players, but there is simply no reason to pay more for them.
Daniel Kline owns shares of Apple. He owns some version of all the major streaming players, which his wife thinks is silly. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Amazon.com, and Apple. 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.