Roku Express vs. Fire Stick: The best cheap streaming device for quarantine binges

Roku Express vs. Fire Stick: The best cheap streaming device for quarantine binges


Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, we’re streaming more TV and movies than ever, while financial uncertainty has millions of Americans looking to cut spending. A cheap streamer balances those desires, and it doesn’t get much cheaper than the Roku Express and Amazon Fire TV Stick. These are among the most popular streamers for good reason: They’re dirt-cheap, easy to use and able to deliver all of the apps and services most people want, including subscription services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney Plus. They also have free TV options, including streaming news, YouTube, Tubi TV, the Roku Channel and IMDb TV.

Both streamers work fine as primary options but make even more sense attached to secondary TVs. You can put them in the bedroom or kids’ room, where their lack of 4K capability and, in the case of Roku, extra conveniences, won’t be missed as much. Both have access to approximately umpteen zillion TV apps, including all of the major ones, and most apps look and behave basically the same on both. And both are pretty much equally quick, responsive and reliable as long as you have a solid internet connection.

So how do they differ? Let’s take a look.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Express is the cheapest streamer on the market yet still delivers all of the goodness of Roku’s platform. Roku is CNET’s favorite because it has thousands of apps, a dead-simple menu system and the best search in the business. The tiny box hides near your TV and includes a remote, an HDMI cable and a little sticker to keep it in place.

Read our Roku Express (2019) review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Fire TV Stick costs more than the Express but it offers three big convenience upgrades missing from Roku’s cheapest player. The first is Alexa voice control, allowing you to search for TV shows and movies or even turn on the lights, by talking into the remote. The second is the power, volume and mute buttons on the Fire TV remote that can control your TV directly, so you don’t need to use the TV’s remote at all. The third is the ability to control the player itself without having to point the remote at the TV.

The downside, aside from the higher price? Fire TV’s menus and search are more complex and push Amazon content, rather than remaining neutral like Roku.

Read our Fire TV Stick (2019) review.

Best remote features: Amazon Fire TV Stick

Both streamers have one big advantage over the other dirt-cheap steamer, Google’s $35 Chromecast: They have an actual physical remote control. That alone makes them both better choices than Chromecast in my book, although people who prefer using their phones to control streaming on a TV will beg to differ.

I actually prefer the layout and feel of Roku’s remote — its rubber purple “+” cursor is better than Amazon’s plastic circle, for one thing. Its buttons are better differentiated by size, and I even like having shortcut keys to apps such as Netflix and Hulu. But Amazon’s remote is better overall. That’s because it incorporated the major features I mentioned above, namely voice control, TV volume and power and point-anywhere convenience. Having those extras is much more important than Roku’s superior ergonomics in my book.

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Talk into the remote to get Alexa on Fire TV.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Here’s where I mention the Roku Express Plus, a $40 version that adds all of those remote conveniences: voice (powered by Roku, not Alexa), TV control and point-anywhere functionality. It’s the best of both worlds, but of course the standard Express is cheaper.

Best menus and search: Roku Express

Roku’s no-nonsense menu system places the apps themselves front-and-center and lets you arrange them however you please, just like on your phone. It gets me to the apps and shows I want quickly, without filling the screen with other junk. 

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Roku’s menus are all about the apps, just like your phone.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Using a Fire TV device means wading through a bunch of TV shows and movies in addition to the apps themselves. That would be fine if they were the TV shows and movies I’m in the middle of watching, or might actually want to watch — something Netflix’s menus do well. But more often than not, I don’t care about the TV shows and movies on Fire TV’s screen. They just seem like stuff Amazon or its partners want me to watch. 


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Search results on Roku are straightforward and price-centric. You’re shown how much a movie or TV show costs and can click through to watch or buy it — and if it’s free because you’re a subscriber, you’ll see that, too. Fire TV’s results are much more confusing, with multiple options and false positives. And once you find what you want, you’re shown just one primary service, and you have to click through to see “more ways to watch.” One Fire TV advantage, however, is easier search thanks to the Alexa remote.

Best cheap streamer overall: Roku Express

Yes you could argue that Fire TV’s conveniences are worth the extra money. And yes you could point to the fact that Fire TV is often on sale for $30 or even less. Or to the fact that both got the exact same rating in CNET’s reviews: both scored 8.0 out of 10, which is excellent.

But we’re talking cheap streamers here, and for just $30 the value proposition of the Express — as well as its superior menus compared to Fire TV — puts it over the top for the purposes of this comparison.

If you’re willing to spend a bit more I strongly prefer the Roku Streaming Stick Plus and Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K for their ability to handle 4K HDR video, especially since pretty much every new TV is 4K these days. Looking for even more options? Here’s CNET’s favorite streaming devices of 2020 overall.

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