The Amazon Fire TV took the digital streamer set-top box world by storm when it was unveiled earlier this month. In our last face-off we pitted it against the current third-generation Apple TV... and it kicked its ass. So how does it fare against the current king of the living room, the Roku 3?
Design, Specs, and Features
Amazon came out with guns blazing with the Fire TV. Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s take a look at its specs compared to the Roku 3.
Here’s the specs for the Fire TV:
- Output: HDMI, CEC compatible
- Processor: Qualcomm Krait 300, quad-core to 1.7 Ghz
- RAM: 2GB
- Storage: 8GB flash
- Max. Output Video Resolution: 1080p
- Dimensions: 115(L) x 115(W) x 17.5(H) mm
- Weight: 281 g
- Connectivity: 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n (MIMO), Bluetooth 4.0, Ethernet, USB
- Power: Built-in universal 6 W power supply
And here’s the specs for the Roku 3:
- Output: HDMI (not CEC compatible)
- Processor: Dual-core Broadcom Merlyn 900 MHz
- RAM: 512MB
- Storage: unknown
- Max. Output Video Resolution: 1080p
- Dimensions: 89(L) x 89(W) x 25(H) mm
- Weight: 142 g
- Connectivity: 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, Ethernet, USB
- Power: Built-in universal 6 W power supply
You’ll note that both the Fire TV and the Roku 3 take the familiar cube form other set-top boxes have, like the Apple TV, instead of the dongle-stick form of the Chromecast or Roku Streaming Stick. The cube form factor gives manufacturers more room to cram better specced components, like processors and hard drives, inside. Amazon chose to make the Fire TV a little thinner but wider and longer while Roku chose to make the Roku 3 thicker, but shorter and narrower.
The two devices also feature the same connectivity: 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, Ethernet, and USB. Each is also powered by a standard power adapter that plugs into an outlet. The Fire TV is significantly heavier than the Roku 3 at 281 grams versus the Roku 3’s 142 gram, but honestly, that doesn’t matter at all since you don’t carry either around with you. Both also offer a max HDMI output of 1080p.
Where the similarities end, however, are with the processor and the RAM. In the Fire TV you’ll find a 1.7GHz quad-core Qualcomm Krait 300, which is an insane amount of power to pack into a set-top box, but it reveals just how big Amazon’s plans are for the Fire TV. That’s compared to the Roku 3’s comparatively miniscule-looking dual-core Broadcom chip running at 900Mhz. The other huge difference is the Fire TV offers a whopping 2GB of RAM versus the Roku 3’s 512MB. The RAM in this case is really to help with video buffering, so videos on the Fire TV should load without a hitch.
The Fire TV also offers 8GB of internal storage. This helps buffer video and also makes room for games, which we’ll get to later. Roku has never stated how much internal storage the Roku 3 has but it’s likely 1GB or below. But the Roku 3 does offer storage expansion in the way of a microSD slot. However, it’s the Fire TV’s 2GB of RAM and quad-core chip which really kills the Roku 3. Amazon has powered this thing for the future, while the Roku 3 is built for 2012.
Content and Channels
But specs aren’t the most important thing; a set-top box is only as good as the content and channels it offers. As far as content, both the Roku 3 and Fire TV offer a lot. The Roku 3 offers over 1000 channels, which is a bit insane, but in a good way. But the Fire TV is no slouch either. It’s backed by the entire catalog of Amazon Instant Video. However, the Roku 3 also offers Amazon Instant Video.
Amazon Instant Video offers thousands of movies and TV shows you can buy, rent, or subscribe to. If you watch a lot of movies, forking out £79 a year for an Amazon Prime subscription is a good idea as it gives you access to the complete Amazon Instant Video library on any device.
Besides direct content, both the Roku 3 and Fire TV also offer channels which let you stream content from dedicate providers. With the Fire TV you get Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Crackle, YouTube, Showtime Anytime, WatchESPN, Bloomberg TV, Vevo, and Pandora, among some other lesser ones. The Fire TV lacks HBO GO, but other than that offers all the major channels the Roku 3 has.
In addition to the major channels listed above, the Roku 3 also offers over a thousand channels of other content. Some of these channels are very obscure, so it’s not like you’ll be viewing even 10% of them most of the time. But channel for channel, the Roku 3 blows the Fire TV out of the water.
It’s inevitable that our set-top boxes will also become our games consoles. And while none on the market right now can match the power of the Xbox One or the PS4, that isn’t stopping both Amazon and Roku from offering a gaming experience in their boxes.
The Roku 3 comes with a remote control that doubles as a game pad. However, its form factor resembles one of those bar phones you find on the back of your airline seat that has a simple D-pad and an A and B button. It’s not too ergonomic and is more of an afterthought. Gaming on the Roku 3 is also limited to casual titles like Angry Birds and Blackjack.
Gaming on the Fire TV, on the other hand, is a whole different experience. Amazon has designed the Fire TV with gaming in mind. At launch it has over 100 titles available including Minecraft-Pocket Edition, Asphalt 8, The Game of Life, and Amazon’s own Sev Zero. The last one is made by Amazon’s own game studio, so it shows you just how serious they are about gaming. The company is also working with indie game developers and marquee big ones like Mojang, EA, Disney, Ubisoft, and others to bring more titles to the platform.
The company is also releasing a dedicated Amazon Fire Game Controller, sold separately, that gives you an Xbox-style game controller to play all the games the platform offers. Given how much thought they’ve put into creating a controller, it’s just another sign that this set-top box isn’t only for watching videos. Amazon wants to enter the living room gaming market hard.
Remotes (Physical and App-based)
The Roku 3 comes with a physical remote that, as mentioned above, doubles as a basic game controller. It also features a clever built-in headphone jack. Plug in your headphone to it (Roku includes a pair) and the sound on your TV is automatically muted and directed through the remote into your ears. This is great for those who may be using the Roku late at night while others may be sleeping. Roku even built volume buttons into the side of the remote so you can control the volume when the headphones are plugged in.
But the Roku 3 remote looks positively archaic next to the Fire TV’s remote. That’s because Amazon has built voice search directly into the Fire TV’s remote. The remote has a built-in mic, too. Simply tap the voice button on the remote and speak the name of the TV show, movie, actor, director, or genre you want to watch and the results are displayed on screen. Right now the voice search is limited to content offered through Amazon’s own services, but that content is legion. Because of the Fire TV’s voice search, its remote hands down beats any remote options of any other set-top box maker and it’s this extra little feature that is going to set the tone of how viewers interact with their TVs in the future.
However, if you want to use your smartphone or tablet as your remote, you’ll need a Roku 3. The Fire TV doesn’t offer app remotes for Android or iOS yet (though they say they are coming). The Roku 3 offers app remotes for both OS’s.
OS and UI
The Roku 3 runs its own OS, which is based on a version of Linux. Its UI is a familiar grid-style interface with a category list on the left of the screen. Though Roku offers users over 1000 channels, they all aren’t installed by default, nor are they available in the main menu. This is a good move, as browsing through 1000 channels could become tedious and time consuming.
Previously, users needed to load up a separate interface to shop the channel store to add them to the main menu. Roku decided to ditch that approach, thankfully, and now Roku’s Channel Store is built right into the main UI without having to load it up separately — this allows you to quickly see what channels are available to you and add them without having to bounce back and forth between separate interfaces. Because of the channel store the Roku 3 has a highly customizable interface.
runs Android with a custom HTML5-based skin. You’ve got various-sized tiles representing different content (movies, games, TV shows) and then on the left fifth of the screen you have a list-type menu, which allows you to navigate everything from search to movies to games to settings.
The Fire TV’s UI reminds me a bit of Metro for some reason, though that’s not a bad thing. One thing I wish it did was allow you to customize your channel placement like the Roku. But with the Fire TV what you see is what you get.
Just as when it faced off against the Apple TV, hands down, the Amazon Fire TV wins this time around against the Roku 3. The reasons are the same too: Amazon is building the Fire TV with the future in mind. They are skating to where the puck is going to be, not where it is today. The unique voice control and search functions built into the remote control and Amazon’s heavy focus on gaming makes this the clear winner. The Fire TV also wins in the specs department. The quad-core processor and four times the amount of RAM put the Roku 3 to shame.
But I wouldn’t count Roku out just yet. They’ve just released the Roku Streaming Stick, which kills its main competitor, the Chromecast. Plus, the Roku 3 is over a year old now. And given that the company created the modern digital streamer set-top box market, I suspect they have some very cool things up their sleeves.
The Roku 3 is £99 in the UK. In the US the Fire TV is $99 and is likely to be £99 when it hits the UK sometime, hopefully, later this year.