Chromecast vs Roku: £65 gets you the best of both worlds

There are now so many ways to stream content from Netflix, Now TV and a raft of other services to the biggest screen in your house, that it’s tempting to choose one on price alone. But the cheapest devices are sometimes also the most fiddly.

The Mi Box S by the phone maker, Xiaomi gives you Android TV for £65.
The Mi Box S by the phone maker, Xiaomi gives you Android TV for £65.

Google’s Chromecast is a case in point. Just £30 buys you the basic version of this dongle, which plugs into the back of your telly and lets you play video from compatible apps on your phone. It also allows the mirroring of video from the Chrome browser on your PC.

But the key word is compatible, because not all apps are. Communication with the TV is sometimes hit-and-miss, and unless you have a particularly powerful phone, you’ll find yourself unable to do anything else with it while it’s playing.

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What’s more, if you want to play video in the highest 4K definition, you will need to upgrade to the Chromecast Ultra at nearly £70 – and there’s still no remote control, because Google expects you to use your phone instead.

So while many people swear by them, I have always preferred the more conventional approach of the Roku range of streamers. Around £40 buys you the 4K version and you operate it jut like a regular set-top box.

But for an extra £20 you can have the best of both worlds.

Android TV is big brother to the Chromecast – a version of the Android operating system you have on your phone, designed by Google for set-top boxes. It displays a home screen of the services you’ve installed, and an app store to download more. Every streaming service has an Android app, so the ones you want will almost certainly be available. Better still, Chromecast is built in, and can be controlled from a normal remote.

Some TVs come with Android pre-installed but they’re in the minority, most makers preferring proprietary smart platforms of their own. However, several third-party boxes are now available which turn any set into an Android set.

In choosing one, the rule is to look for a box that its seller guarantees to be Google-certified. Most boxes sold as “Android TV” are no-name devices from China that are basically smartphones without a screen, loaded with a pocket version of Android and an app store whose contents may or may not be compatible with your TV remote. There is no Chromecast and often not even a TV-friendly home screen. Such boxes are widely sold on websites, sometimes with wildly inflated claims about their functionality.

They can be had for less than £30 but with compatibility not guaranteed, it may be money down the drain. A better option is the cheapest “official” Android TV box, the Mi Box S, by the phone maker, Xiaomi. Currently £65 online, this streams in 4K resolution and supports Google voice search, as well as Chromecast. But buy with care, and avoid any version not sold specifically for UK use, because international variants of the app store may not have the services you want.

The £75 HiMedia S500 box, which has a more recent version of Android, is another option, as is the £150 the Nvidia Shield, from the leading maker of computer graphics cards. All have two gigabytes of memory and 8GB of storage, which is adequate though not ample. However, the Nvidia has a more powerful processor, and the £200 Pro model an extra gigabyte of memory and twice the storage.

Inevitably, all these boxes will find most favour among those who enjoy tinkering, but such is the nature of the streaming world, where the simplest solutions from the likes of Amazon and Apple are also the ones most likely to stop you accessing rival streams. For the best choice, it’s a case of boxing clever.