Roku Streaming Stick (2016) Review

Roku has released two other Streaming Stick media players. Despite their superior selection of apps and user interface, competing sticks have been better. Prior Roku sticks are slow to boot and unresponsive to the remote, making the whole experience one you don’t want to come back to. With the new 2016 Streaming Stick, Roku has finally gotten it right. Quick to boot, a smooth user experience, and extra features that the competition doesn’t offer make it a winner. Throw in a low $50 price point that includes a remote, and you have the best media streamer on the market today.

Most importantly, the Roku Streaming Stick is now as fast as the Roku 2 when you’re using it. The Streaming Stick is powers over Micro-USB, letting you connect it to a USB port on your TV or projector instead of an AC outlet if you would like. The other Streaming Sticks could do this, but they took over two minutes to power on. The new Streaming Stick is ready to go in 20-25 seconds by comparison. Now you can have it connected to an HDMI port, powered off USB, and completely hidden away on the TV with no other wires.

New Features

Specs
Manufacturer: Roku
Model: Streaming Stick
Streaming Services: Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Hulu, and more
Outputs: HDMI
Includes Remote: Yes
Size: .5" x 3.3" x .8"
Weight: 0.6 oz.
Review Date: April 24, 2016
Price: $49.99
Company Website

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To achieve this you do lose the Ethernet port from the Roku 2. Given that most people use WiFi for their Roku and not Ethernet, this probably won’t matter to you. Compared to the Roku 2 the new Streaming Stick offers a pair of advantages: an RF remote and a new Private Listening mode. The RF remote is key for the Roku Stick, as it is typically hidden from view. Now you can control it without needing line-of-sight or to hope that the IR signal reflects off the ceiling.

Roku also updated their iOS and Android apps to include a new Private Listening mode. When you fire up the app and plug in headphones, the audio now goes to your device instead of through the TV. For people who want to listen to a program at night without disturbing anyone else, it works great. I was able to walk around the house and still have audio stream to my headphones. This might not be typical behavior, but it shows that the feature works well.

You can also use the Roku 3 remote control with the Roku Streaming Stick. This includes a headphone jack for the Private Listening feature, and is also RF. If you prefer doing this instead of using an app you can buy both for $80 and save $20 over the usual cost of the Roku 3. You give up the Ethernet port, but it’s a good deal for most people.

The Roku Experience

What makes Roku the choice is that the user experience is just better than other options. Unlike Google, Amazon, and others there is no push to put one company ahead of another when searching. If you search for a title on a FireTV, it shows the options from Amazon first no matter what. When you search on the Roku, sorts the results in two ways. First, it sorts by if you have the channel (what Roku calls apps) installed, since you likely favor those sources. Then it will sort them in descending order of price. If you have Netflix and Amazon installed and a movie is free on Netflix but $3 on Amazon, then Amazon will come after Netflix. This is far more in line with how most people want to find their content.

You can use text search from the included remote, or you can use voice search from the iOS and Android apps. If you spend $30 for the updated Roku 3 remote you also get an integrated microphone for doing voice search. If you plan to use the search feature a lot, the extra money for the remote is worth it. The apps work fine, I just prefer to have a solid remote control I can use all the time instead of needing to open the app.

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The user interface on the Roku is clean and simple. You can rearrange the order of channels, and you can remove the ones you don’t want. It doesn’t force you to use any of them, or place one ahead of everything else. Some channels come pre-installed but you are free to remove them. The channel grid isn’t as cutting edge as AndroidTV or FireTV, but it does the job just as well.

What is a bit inconsistent is how the different channels appear once launched. Netflix features the most recent user interface, making it feel the same as it does on any other platform. Amazon Instant Video has a much simpler look instead of being custom designed like the Netflix one is. The Amazon app on SmartTVs looks much better than the one in the Roku, but the content stream is exactly the same.

Roku also lets you set up alerts for content that you want to see. Say you wanted to see Zootopia in theaters but, like me, you didn’t get the chance. I can setup an alert for it and my Roku will tell me when it’s available for streaming. Since Roku has the largest selection of content providers I’ll see when I can buy or rent is as soon as it is available. This feature works great for those movies you want to watch, but don’t feel like spending $20 on a movie ticket on or buying a Blu-ray copy.

The WiFi range on the Roku Streaming Stick is very good. Set up across the house from my router, going through multiple lathe-and-plaster walls with no drops and quick buffering. Other WiFi devices have had issues streaming in this location, but the Streaming Stick did just fine and didn’t make me miss the Ethernet jack at all.

Finally Roku has added the ability to use their devices with captive WiFi portals. If you’re traveling you can now use the Streaming Stick in your hotel even if you need to login to the WiFi service. Before Amazon was the first to offer this with the Fire TV Stick, making it one of the main reasons to buy one. Since Roku does now as well the reasons to get a Fire TV over it are small to nonexistent.

Downsides

The Roku Streaming Stick is close to perfect. The RF remote is nice, but can take a second to turn on when you first press a button. I’m guessing it does this to save battery and then has to resync with the Streaming Stick, but it’s not a big deal. I do wish that Roku would start to give their remote controls a backlight. When you watch at night it can be hard to know what button you need to press unless you’ve memorized the remote.

The Streaming Stick also doesn’t stream 4K. I don’t think you should care, and I don’t care, but some people will label it as a downside. Since every TV that is 4K includes the 4K apps, you don’t need your streaming stick to support them as much. Also you can’t currently do HDR with streaming services from external devices, so it won’t help there anyway.

You also don’t get a USB input for your own media on the Streaming Stick. Since the Roku was always bad at this before, this isn’t a huge loss. You’re much better off using Plex to stream content from other devices. If you need to play back local media files, the Nvidia Shield does this better than anything else.

Roku Streaming Stick Conclusions

For adding streaming services to a TV or a projector you can’t beat the Roku Streaming Stick. Soon it will even be able to replace your Comcast set-top box, saving you a monthly rental fee as well. I have many Roku devices around the house and the Streaming Stick is the best of them.

Unless you need the 4K ability of the Roku 4, the Streaming Stick should be the Roku that you look at first. At $50 it’s cheap enough to be an impulse buy for home and travel or a nice gift. With the included remote it’s the best value in home streamers today and comes highly recommended.

Review Summary
Product: Roku Streaming Stick
Reviewer:
Pros: Fast performance, RF remote, lower price, improved private listening mode
Cons: It isn't 4K, remote could be backlit
Summary: The Roku Streaming Stick is now the best media streamer for most people. It offers a fast interface, quick boot times, a new RF remote, and a new private listening mode in the app that makes it a great update. All of the previous Roku features that are so great, from a large library of services to the best search, are still present.
Value: 5/5
Performance: 4.5/5
Overall: 5/5

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