By Samantha Bookman
How well will the top three streaming sticks sell this holiday season?
By top three, we mean in terms of popularity, consumer reach and, in two cases, sales. After all, Amazon's (NASDAQ: AMZN) new Fire TV Stick is out of stock and will not ship until Jan. 15. But that hasn't stopped the retail giant from trying to garner pre-orders for the device--presumably hoping customers will be satisfied with slipping an "IOU" into those stockings dangling from the mantelpiece.
A recent Parks Associates survey found that in 2013, a significant percentage of all streaming sticks sold were intended as gifts. For example, 46 percent of all Chromecasts sold last year were used as gifts.
This year, Parks believes streaming media devices will have an even bigger impact: The firm said that already in 2014, 25 percent of all dedicated streaming devices--such as the Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV--were intended to be gifts.
Predicting which of these sticks will outsell the others should be easy--after all, Roku has been a top seller for years, right? But this year, all three of the major streaming stick providers know they've got some solid competition to beat.
In this feature, we'll take a look at these three streaming sticks, what they have to offer, and how well they may sell. Keep in mind this is simply educated speculation--we have no inside information. Feel free to let us know in the comments how you think these products will sell.
Availability: online, in retail stores, on Amazon.com
Roku's stick is likely to be the top seller for Christmas 2014, if sales of its bigger brothers are any indication. Parks said in a separate study that Roku led streaming device sales in the first three quarters of 2014, garnering 29 percent of the market.
In terms of performance, Roku regularly tops product review lists. Its stick offers reliable performance, is simple to set up and use, and it offers more apps than any other device on this list. Those are attractive features to consumers who are looking for a value edge to a device that's priced nearly the same as competing sticks.
How well will it sell?
As the granddaddy of streaming devices, with an established user base and with more than 1,000 apps available, Roku will probably lead the market this quarter for sales.
Availability: Through Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) online store, via Amazon.com
Don't hold too tightly to that Roku prediction. In the first three quarters of 2014, Google grabbed 20 percent of the streaming device market, Parks pointed out. It also rapidly overtook Apple TV in sales this year, following its mid-2013 release.
What's more, the Chromecast is Google's only streaming device option currently. The dongle has a dedicated fan base and a unique "cast" feature that is attractive to millennials, who by and large consume online video content via laptops but are just as enchanted by big screen TVs as any other consumer.
That cast feature and Chromecast's initial lack of native apps has confused some reviewers. The AP's Anick Jesdanun, in an early-December comparison of streaming devices, called the stick "useless on its own. Your only option is casting, and I have found the experience and video quality to be poor."
Casting is exactly what many die-hard fans of the device want, however--the ability to shift video viewing from one device to the other, when and where they want. It's multiscreen capability without necessarily having to be tied to a cable subscription. The value lies in its utility.
How well will it sell?
Chromecast will come in a solid second place for streaming stick sales.
Fire TV Stick
Availability: Pre-orders only via Amazon.com
Amazon's entry into the streaming stick market is probably the best-reviewed device that most people can't get yet. The first run of Fire TV sticks sold out on Nov. 19, with the next batch not shipping until Jan. 15. That leaves many end-user reviews out of the picture when considering which stick to buy, and that uncertainty could dramatically impact sales.
It's admirable from a business standpoint that Amazon took the plunge anyway to get a streaming stick to market ahead of Apple (if it's working on one) and Walmart, which plans to introduce its own stick, the Vudu, early next year. But while Amazon said the Fire TV stick's launch is the "most successful device launch ever," it really remains to be seen if holiday pre-orders of the stick will have any impact on the retailer's earnings.
Reviews of the Fire TV Stick have been generally positive. It boasts more memory than its two competitors: 1 GB of memory and 8 GB of flash memory, and has a voice search capability like its bigger brother. (It does not come with the remote that features voice-activated search, but that device can be purchased separately for $30).
Like Chromecast, it has far fewer native apps than Roku. Amazon will make HBO GO available on the stick sometime next spring. Beyond that, users have Amazon Prime Instant Video, Vevo, Hulu Plus, Crackle, and Showtime Anytime available. The stick will also offer more than 300 games, playable with a separately sold game controller.
How well will it sell?
The Fire TV Stick will trail a distant third. Not being actually available is a pretty good way to depress sales, and relying on the American consumer's patience and long-lasting excitement about a product may not be the best strategy. But once its stocks do replenish, Google needs to watch its back: the Fire TV stick could outpace Chromecast this time next year.