It's fairly amazing that less than $40 can purchase a streaming media box that compares favorably to the top-tier devices which cost three to five times more.
Both the $39.99 Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) Fire TV Stick and the $35 Chromecast from Alphabet's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Google division deliver impressive results from tiny packages. The two devices offer access to the vast majority of streaming services (though there are some exceptions) and either would be a viable choice for anyone looking for an affordable player.
Still, while both Chromecast and Fire TV Stick offer quite a bit for relatively little money, one is clearly better than the other, at least for certain users. That's not to say that either would be a bad purchase at the price, but one is simply a better value.
Chromecast has two big flaws
Google pioneered the sub-$50 streaming device category when it launched the first Chromecast. That device was an alternative to boxes which cost, at the time, around $100, and it provided most of the same functionality. The new Chromecast improves on its predecessor in one notable, but very useful way. Instead of plugging directly into a TV's HDMI port it has a flexible cord with a very narrow profile.
That may not seem like a big deal, but the bulbous shape of Chromecast and even the rectangular design of Fire TV made it so that on some TVs plugging them in cut off access to a second HMDI port. Given that many TVs only have two or three, that could be a major problem that forced people to have to unplug their streaming player when not using it. The new Chromecast's design eliminates that problem.
The new Chromecast however is not without flaws. It has a pretty big content hole in that it does not directly support Amazon Prime Instant Video. You can work around that by "casting" the service from your phone or computer, but that's an awkward method if you regularly use the service.
Another drawback is that Chromecast does not come with a remote control and requires people to use their phones to control it. If you're not someone who holds his or her phone while watching TV, that's a pretty big negative. Google's player is also lacking a voice assistant, which all the higher-end players have and Amazon offers on a pricier ($49.99) version of Fire Stick.
There's nothing wrong with Chromecast if you're someone who always his or her phone on hand who is not an Amazon Prime member. It's an elegant device with an easy-to-use interface aside from the lack of a remote.
Fire TV Stick delivers
While Google has a design edge over Amazon's Fire TV Stick, that's really the only area where it's markedly better. On the $39,99 version of the streaming player Amazon includes an elegant, small remote which can also be used as a surprisingly useful game controller. An extra $10 gets you a version of the remote with Amazon's Alexa voice assistant built in.
It's almost silly to not spend the money if you might use it, as Amazon's voice search can be helpful. For example, if you want to see all the Brad Pitt movies available to you both free and paid, just hit the voice remote button and say "Show me Brad Pitt movies." You can also ask Alexa for news, weather, sports scores, and to play music from Amazon's Prime music service as well as a handful of others.
In addition, while Chromecast has 256MB of storage and 512MB of memory, Fire TV Stick has 8GB of storage and 1GB of memory. That's not as big a deal as it seems since both devices perform well, but if you want to store more apps, movies, or other content on the device itself then Amazon has another edge.
The winner is clear
Google has improved Chromecast, but its central premise that users don't need or want a remote likely makes it a clear second choice for most users. The choice is also an obvious one for Amazon Prime members since Fire TV Stick makes it easy to access the video content offered by that service.
Amazon has delivered a very good streaming device that will be more than enough player for most people. Google has done a decent job and most people who get a Chromecast won't be upset with it. But, if you have a choice, even at a slightly higher price, either version of Fire TV Stick is simply a better value.
Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. He uses Fire TV but also owns two Chromecasts, the old and the new one. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (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.