The new Roku Streaming Stick has been granted the power of HDMI compatibility, making it the more app-inclusive alternative to the Google Chromecast, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV. It combines over 1,000 apps with an HDMI dongle design that's the size of a thumb drive, and this time it fits into the back of any modern TV.
That's important because Roku has been down this road before with a similar streaming stick that only worked with MLH-compatible TVs. It's an idea that pre-dated Chromecast as an affordable way to instantly project apps onto a big-screen television by nine months. But Roku's MHL requirement meant consumers had to buy or already own a "Roku Ready" TV with this special HDMI slot.
Now, the company is taking cues from Google with the Roku Streaming Stick 2014 that delivers apps to any TV when it's plugged into an HDMI port. It comes with a handy remote and sports a familiar interface that has made past Roku devices so easy to use.
It costs a little more than Chromecast and doesn't have all of the special features like mirroring an entire computer to the TV, but that's the price of having more than 50 times as many compatible apps and a physical remote control.
The Roku Streaming Stick is small, but its designers managed to bathe almost every inch of it in the company's familiar purple hues. It's a bit obnoxious to have what appears to be an oversized purple thumb drive jutting out of a black or gray television, as much as we appreciate Roku for sticking to its guns with the color choice.
The good news is that the Roku Streaming Stick dimensions allow it to easily hide behind a TV set - in most cases. It's 3.1 in x 1.1 in x .5 in, which is a tad larger than the Chromecast at 2.8 in x 1.4 in x .47 in. While the Roku stick is a lot lighter at 18 grams vs Chromecast's condensed 34 grams, the more important factor is the size.
These extra tenths of an inch could make the Roku Streaming Stick a tight squeeze in the back of a television set, depending on where the HDMI ports are located. We weren't able to slide it into HDMI 1 of the TV we tested it on because there wasn't enough room. Remember, these HDMI slots are designed to accommodate HDMI cables with flexible cords beyond a inch. The Roku? It can't be bent.
Google solved this problem by boxing Chromecast with an HDMI extender, an optional adapter with a flexible body. It's an extra accessory just in case your HDMI ports are too close together or the open HDMI slots are inconveniently on the rear of a wall-mounted TV. It's also supposed to boost WiFi reception. The Roku Streaming Stick includes none of this, even though it costs more.
Once the Roku is securely in an HDMI slot, it works as advertised as long as you have a way to power it. There's a micro USB cable included that's 6 feet long - the same length as the Chromecast micro USB cable - and a power adapter. They can be plugged into any power outlet or a USB port with enough wattage. Roku says that the streaming stick typically takes less than 2W when streaming HD video, so it's green-planet friendly and not overly demanding if your TV does have a nearby USB port .
The vents that line the sides of this HDMI stick ensure the hardware on the inside runs silently, and the dual-band wireless N antennas keeps the WiFi connectivity fast enough for all of the HD video thrown at it. We didn't experience slowdown from the single-band Chromecast once videos got started, but because Roku has dual-band antennas, it supports both the overcrowded 2.4 GHz frequency and the less trafficked 5 GHz frequency. Of course, this only matters if your router supports the 5 GHz variety.
Roku always confidently boasts that it has more apps than all of its competitors combined. With over 1,000 apps that statement is true, even if a large chunk of them are niche apps no one has ever heard of.
What's important is that all of the major apps or "Roku channels" are here. Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Crackle, Vudu and HBO Go all stream movies and TV shows without a hitch.
Amazon Instant Video is significant because only Roku and the new Amazon Fire TV support this vast library of free Prime content and often-cheaper movie rentals. There's no sign of it coming natively to Chromecast or Apple TV any time soon.
There's also a clutch Time Warner Cable app, but it's requirements aren't as subscriber-friendly. It not only needs the name and password of a TWC TV subscriber, it forces streaming to happen in the home using a Timer Warner cable modem. There's no HBO Go-style password sharing possible here.
The Roku Streaming stick ecosystem also has your music streaming playlists on demand with Pandora, Spotify, Rdio, iHeart Radio, Plex and so on. Google Music and the newer Beat Music are the only major music streaming services you won't find on this or any Roku device.
There are over 50 apps for kids, including PBS Kids and four separate Disney stations, and 66 apps for sports fans. WatchESPN is the most popular, while MLB.TV, WWE Network, MLS Live and NHL GameCenter make the top 10 list among sports apps. Each requires a subscription or pay-per-view for live streaming. There's an NBA GameTime app, but it only offers live score updates. Still, these 66 sports apps are 66 more than non-athletic Chromecast offers right now.
Other channel genres include News & Weather, Science & Technology and the niche among niche apps, Special Interest. QVC is the No. 1 app here followed by the Aliens and UFOs Channel, and it just gets weirder from there. You can fall for the dedicated Pranks channel or spend time checking out the bizarre Occult Network Channel. It's also nice to see the Liquidation channel is still hanging in there like an "everything must go sale" that never seems to end.
The Roku Streaming Stick remote control is just larger than the palm of your hand. It's size and pill-shaped form factor make it easy to hold with one hand and still reach all of the buttons. A two-handed approach to this small remote makes you look ridiculous. That's when you know a company got its TV remote design right.
Intuitive buttons for going back and home are up top, followed by the traditional Roku directional pad. Below that are skip backward, an OK button and the options key. Rewind, play/pause and fast forward are the only other media playback buttons. It's just the essentials and sometimes that's all you need.
The bottom portion of the remote is dedicated to four apps. The logos of M-Go, Amazon Instant Video, Netflix and Blockbuster, adorn these four shortcuts and make navigation a bit easier and less confusing. In fact, pretty much the only confusing about the remote is why Blockbuster was included as one of the shortcuts. HBO Go, Hulu Plus or, heck, even QVC wouldn't been a better choice.
As easy as it is to use the Roku Streaming Stick remote, it's not as advanced as the Roku 3 version. That's the one that includes a headphone jack for a unique "private listening" mode. It's one of those ideas that you haven't seen anywhere else before, so it's curious as to why Roku didn't it in this Roku model.
Motion control sensors for games are also absent. Fans of Angry Birds Space are going to have to bow out of the remote wagging fun when using the Roku Streaming Stick version. Of course, if it's games you're after, the Amazon Fire TV is shaping up to be the best choice. It has a dedicated gamepad sold separately and promises 1,000 games by the end of April.
Losing this Roku remote doesn't spell the end of streaming. There's a Roku remote app offered in the iOS and Google Play app stores, and it goes beyond simple on-screen controls. It boasts a QWERTY keyboard for a much quicker method of searching through content. You'll never want to hunt and peck with the remote's direction pad again after using the app.
The Roku Streaming Stick interface is decked out in purple, which helps emphasize the colorful logos of its apps. After all, the 1,000-plus apps are rightfully the main focus of every Roku.
Sorting through them is just as clear cut. The default My Channels menu arranges your favorite apps into a easy-to-navigate grid layout that can be customized with a few clicks of the remote. Do you want Netflix in the top row of this 3 x infinity grid? You got it. Want to demote Blockbuster to the very bottom or even delete it? That's just as simple. You just can't get rid of its permanent shortcut button on the remote.
Below My Channels are separate sections for movies and TV shows. Unfortunately, both menus are dedicated to the on-demand video service M-Go. As tempting as its "two free movies for signing up" deal is, it would've been nice to see a more fleshed-out pair of sub-sections. Ones that catalogued new and interesting video content from all apps installed, not just M-Go, would've done the trick.
The comprehensive search menu actually does just that if you do some of the heavy-lifting. It offers a deep dive through all apps installed when typing in the name of a movie, TV show, actor or director. Simply typing in "Wolf of Wall Street" lists four entries, all in HD, with Amazon Instant Video and Vuvu displaying cheaper rental prices. M-Go and Redbox Instant are more expensive. Save a dollar, earn a dollar, and eventually this Roku will pay for itself.
Searching through the Roku ecosystem is only matched by the Amazon Fire TV, which lets you perform voice searches. There's no hunting-and-pecking with the remote or even a need to pick up a smartphone to activate the on-screen QWERTY keyboard. Saying "Wolf of Wall Street" aloud is a whole lot easier than typing it out with the remote's directional pad.
Roku Streaming Stick vs Chromecast
The Roku Streaming Stick is the instant winner over Chromecast right now if you're looking for apps like Amazon Instant Video, Time Warner Cable or niche content that isn't available Google's device just yet.
However, the Roku Streaming Stick costs $50 (£50, about AU$54), which is half the price of a Roku 3, but more expensive than the Chromecast. Google undercuts the price of all streaming players at $35 (£30, about AU$39).
This Roku is also missing the ability to mirror a computer display onto a big screen. That's the standout feature of Chromecast and its clutch Chrome tab browser extension. All Roku devices can beam photos and music from iOS and select Android devices, but it's clunky software that isn't worth the buffering time.
Roku is clearly charging a premium for its more expansive ecosystem. It's going to be some time before Google is able to catch up to the 1,000 apps that are available right now on Rokus.
The Roku Streaming Stick slims down Roku's popular app delivery system and halves the price of the Roku 3. There are over 1,000 apps and yet the grid is easy to customize. Its interface ties everything together and the remote is small enough for one-handed navigation. Those are two things missing from Chromecast. It requires you to go into individual apps on a phone or tablet to beam them to a TV and it is only compatible with iOS and Android devices.
This Roku platform is the remedy for people who want ditch the smartphone and tablet and, instead, press the "easy button" on a physical remote to be entertained.
The size of this streaming stick is larger than the head of any HDMI cable, and some TVs tuck their HDMI ports into the frame of the television. That can make the Roku Streaming Stick a tight fit. Roku its all about its apps, but not much else. There's no computer or mobile device mirroring going on here, and its remote doesn't think outside the set-top box like the Amazon Fire TV does with its innovative voice search.
The Roku Streaming Stick isn't necessarily better than Roku 3. In fact, it's missing the unique headphone jack in the remote for its private listening mode. It just happens to be cheaper, but not as inexpensive as Google's Chromecast.
The Roku Streaming Stick is a cinch to plug into any spacious enough HDMI port now that it doesn't require an MHL-compatible TV. From now on a "Roku Ready" HDTV just means having a TV with an ordinary HDMI port thanks to this more compatible version of the device.
It's not quite as affordable as the Chromecast, but it has more of the apps that people want right now, including Amazon Instant Video. That's significant because Amazon often has cheaper HD movie rentals than other services. It's an app you won't find on either Chromecast or Apple TV.
There are a number of new streaming devices out right now, but the the Roku Streaming Stick stands as the most efficient way to make a normal HDTV into a smart TV without springing for a pricier set-top box. At least until the Google Chromecast app list is able to catch up.