Hands on: Roku Streaming Stick+ review

Roku’s streaming stick is going full-on 4K

What is a hands on review?
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Our Early Verdict

Roku's new Streaming Stick holds a lot of potential. It offers 4K HDR streaming at four times the range of the original, which should facilitate an optimal streaming experience. That said, Roku's facing tougher opposition than ever from the Amazon Fire TV and Google's Chromecast Ultra, both of which come in at the same price and offer nearly the exact same features.

For

  • 4K HDR Streaming Stick
  • Wi-Fi antenna placement
  • Roku OS 8

Against

  • Proprietary power cable
  • No Dolby Vision or Atmos
  • It’s US-only … for now

People may have fawned over the new Apple TV 4K and Amazon Fire TV 2017 when they were announced back in September, but remember, it was Roku who started the whole streaming box movement almost a decade ago. 

It’s worth keeping that in mind while you read about the all-new Roku Streaming Stick+, the first 4K HDR streaming stick from the company and the second on the market when it comes out on October 8 – only being beat by the Chromecast Ultra and followed shortly by the aforementioned Amazon Fire TV. 

If you’re a streaming stick purist and discount the dongles, the Roku Streaming Stick+ is the first of its kind – an innovation built on the back of other innovations. 

What the new streaming stick will bring to the table – besides its small stature – is 4K HDR10 streaming and an improved 802.11ac Wi-Fi antenna that sits outside the chassis which, according to Roku, will offer a faster and more stable streaming experience. 

The other part of the Roku Streaming Stick’s inheritance is its price: a mere $69. 

It’s a price that makes the old Roku Premiere+ obsolete and puts pressure on the Chromecast Ultra and Amazon Fire TV 2017, two players that cost just as much as the Roku Streaming Stick+.

Design and features

For all its intricacies and little quirks, the Roku Streaming Stick has always been a deceptively simple machine. 

This time around the flash drive-sized form factor is packing some heat with a tweaked processor capable of 4K HDR. It will still fit behind your TV, however, and draw power from either your TV’s USB port or from the wall. 

It is, for the most part, a familiar design. It’s a form factor that Roku pioneered five years ago with its oblong and creatively colored purple Roku Streaming Stick, and it’s clearly served the company well over the years. 

The form factor was popular enough for Roku to warrant an update last year and throughout the years has been copied by main hardware manufacturers and cheap knock-offs alike.

New for the streaming stick this year is that strange, proprietary power cable that houses the external antenna – Roku told us that will provide the Roku Streaming Stick+ with four times the range as the old streaming stick and helps reduce interference. The benefit here is a faster and more stable streaming experience which translates to faster load times and less time buffering. 

Should the cable break or go MIA for any reason, however, Roku says it will make individual cables available for purchase – i.e. you won’t have to rebuy the entire system just because you’ve misplaced the power cable.

Roku OS 8

Of course, what’s hardware without software to go along with it. 

In the case of the new Roku Streaming Stick+, you’ll get Roku OS 8 – a pumped up version of the egalitarian operating system that mostly adds functionality for Roku TV, but packs a few tricks for Roku streaming players.

Those tricks, mostly, involve enhancements coming to Roku’s voice recognition software. You can now open apps via voice commands (e.g. Open Hulu) and you can go directly from rest mode into apps. 

Beyond better voice recognition and command cognition, Roku OS will offer the same spectacular universal search function we’ve come to expect. Roku’s entire platform is built on showing you content from every source, and barring the unremovable Fandango app, doesn’t play favorites with any one service. 

As far as we know, Roku has the largest catalogue of titles and therefore is more likely to display shows and movies at lower prices than either the Amazon Fire TV or Apple TV 4K, both of which are likely to push you towards their respective stores over a cheaper competitor.

Performance

According to Roku, the new Streaming Stick+ will offer four times the range of the base model. That would make it perfect for a back room or somewhere a fair distance away from your router, and would cut down on buffering times and dropped packets.

So far, so good. 

What makes things a bit tricky is when you start trying to compare the Roku Streaming Stick+ to the Chromecast Ultra and Amazon Fire TV (2017). 

Roku didn’t provide hard numbers on the Streaming Stick+’s specs, other than to say that it will have a quad-core processor and 802.11 AC dual-band MIMO wireless antenna. 

In past years, we’ve found the Roku Streaming Stick to be a bit faster than the other two – but Amazon has clearly done a lot of work on its new player. While we'd like to tell you which player will be the all-around speed king right this second, until we have all the players to run them side-by-side, we just can't. 

That being said, the big place we could see Roku losing out to the competition this year is on format support. Apple surprised many when it announced that it would support both Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, two new technologies that promise better visuals and better audio, respectively – neither of which will be offered on the Roku Streaming Stick+. 

Is that necessarily a deal-breaker? No. But it does provide a small chink in the armor that its already strong competition could exploit in the year ahead. 

Early verdict

The Roku Streaming Stick+ is playing to its strengths – it’s small, it’s powerful and, thanks to its new external Wi-Fi antenna, has an extended range. It’s priced appropriately ($69 seems to be the going rate this year for a pint-sized streaming device) and, don’t forget, the Roku Streaming Stick+ comes with a remote and Roku’s all-around awesome Roku OS. 

On the downside, though, the Roku Streaming Stick+ does use a proprietary power cable now. Lose it, and you can’t just replace it with any old USB-C cable you have lying around – you’ll need to purchase a new one from Roku. Roku also currently couldn’t speak to international launch which means that, for the moment, the player is going to stay Stateside. 

That’s something that could change in the future, a Roku spokesperson told us, but for now you’re going to have to live on this side of the Atlantic if you want 4K crammed into a Roku-branded smart stick.

  • Need a new Ultra-HD TV to go along with the Roku Streaming Stick+? These are the best 4K TVs in 2017

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.