To set up the Fire TV, I added my WiFi details and Amazon account information. Then, out of nowhere, it played a 90-second introduction video that showed off how to use the Alexa voice search features in the remote, as well as how to find different apps. It's the sort of thing that could make less tech-savvy consumers feel more at ease with their new gadget, especially if they're unaware of the Fire TV's new features. The video also briefly showed off how to control your Fire TV from an Echo, which is shrewd since I imagine many of those smart-speaker owners would opt for Amazon's streaming dongle.
The differences between Amazon and Roku's streaming interfaces are really just a matter of taste. Roku's simple, menu-based system is incredibly fast and easy to navigate. But it's not exactly flashy. Amazon's Fire TV UI is a lot more extravagant, relying on large images and bright colors to point you to its many offerings. While I've long hoped Roku would revamp its UI, I ended up preferring it to Amazon's, which is a little confusing.
When it got down to actually watching video, though, there wasn't a huge difference between the Streaming Stick+ and Fire TV. Both ran Netflix without a hiccup. Even when it annoyingly started playing trailers automatically when I highlighted a movie. Daredevil loaded in around a second, even in 4K/HDR. The show looked as great as it does on my LG's built-in Netflix app and the Apple TV 4K. Hopping around to different portions of an episode took around three seconds on both devices, as well.
Surprisingly, they both performed about the same with Amazon Prime videos, too. Bosch loaded up almost instantly, and it took around five seconds before it crept up to full 4K/HDR resolution. Basically, we've reached the point where streaming boxes are at a performance standstill. These two devices, in particular, have fast processors and speedy networking that can handle 4K content with ease.
HDR was the big addition for the Fire TV, and both embraced the HDR10 standard. Dolby Vision, which Apple TV and Chromecast Ultra support, isn't included. That's not a huge deal since HDR10 is by far the more widely supported. But if you're lucky enough to have a TV that supports both formats, you're effectively robbing yourself of a slightly superior HDR experience by going with one of these dongles.
While Roku has a larger app ecosystem, both devices have all of the major streaming channels you'd actually care about. When it comes to renting 4K movies, though, Roku has an advantage since it supports Vudu, which has almost every new release. Amazon has a small selection of 4K titles, and notably some of them are available free to Prime Video subscribers. But they still have a long way to go before they can compete with Apple and Vudu.
The one area where Amazon wins out is in voice search, mostly because the Fire TV packs Alexa. You can search for content on both devices, but the Fire TV also lets you ask about the weather, simple facts or set up reminders. More importantly, it works together with other Alexa-enabled devices in your home. After I linked the Fire TV with my Alexa app, I just asked my Echo to "Play Bosch on my Fire TV," and the latest episode immediately popped up on my LG. You can also search for non-Amazon content via Alexa, but that won't play automatically, only show search results.
Roku's voice search is far more basic: It simply tells you where you can find specific movie titles, genres or films based on their actors or directors. It's useful, but not nearly as versatile as Fire TV's Alexa integration.
A big reason I recommended the last Roku Streaming Stick was portability. And while the Streaming Stick+ and Fire TV aren't nearly as small, they're still pretty easy to move around. If you travel a lot, though, and you're unsure about what your power situation will be, Roku's device has an edge since it can be powered just by some USB ports. I'd still pack the AC adapter to be safe, though.
Pricing and the competition
As I swapped between Roku and Amazon's $70 dongles over the past weekend, it was tough to come up with a clear favorite. The Streaming Stick+, with its fast interface and simple setup, packs in just about everything I'd want in a 4K/HDR streaming device. But I also appreciated the Fire TV's integration with Alexa, even though it didn't have as many 4K titles readily available. Ultimately, your choice between the two comes down to ecosystem. If you've got an Echo, the Fire TV makes the most sense.
And of course, they also compete with the $70 Chromecast Ultra. I really liked that Google device since it was a cheap path to 4K/HDR streaming. But now that there are full-fledged streaming gadgets at the same price, it's far less appealing. Personally, I'd rather have something self-contained with its own remote and interface. Casting content from my phone and computer is never as smooth.
If you're looking for something more advanced, the new $100 Roku Ultra is even faster and features an Ethernet port and support for USB storage. But you won't be gaining any significant features. And of course, there's the Apple TV 4K, which is basically the luxury choice at $179. I'd still recommend that if you're an iTunes user, simply because it's the easiest way to watch Apple's content on your TV.
You can't really go wrong with either Roku's Streaming Stick+ or Amazon's new Fire TV. That's not a very exciting conclusion, I suppose, but it's where the streaming hardware market has been going. Everything is getting faster and cheaper, to the point where there's very little difference between the many options out there.