Roku Streaming Stick Review

The original Roku streaming stick is a good idea that never caught on. It integrated better with a TV than other smart devices, but it required an MHL port, which many TV’s lack. This year Roku has redone the Streaming Stick to make it easier for people to use. The new version uses a MiniUSB port, includes a remote instead of using your TV remote, and has dropped in price to $50.

Specs
Manufacturer: Roku
Model: Streaming Stick
Streaming Services: Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu, TuneIn, Spotify, Pandora, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, and more
Outputs: HDMI
Includes Remote: Yes
Size: 3.1" x 1" x 0.4"
Weight: 0.6 oz.
Review Date: April 29, 2014
Price: $51.84
Company Website

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What sets Roku apart from its competition today is the focus on providing the best selection of apps from everyone and letting you pick what you want to watch, instead of trying to sell you content. The Roku Streaming Stick provides the same great access to all those apps, but I would still pick the Roku 3 over it. The slower speed of the Streaming Stick isn’t worth saving $50 to me, but if you want the cheapest streaming upgrade for your TV, you should still consider it.

Ecosystem Free

Roku doesn’t push of one type of content over another because there is no Roku Store. If you love Netflix, you can make it your first choice. If you prefer Vudu, move it to the first option. You can install and remove Channels, what Roku calls their apps, as you want from the main screen. There is a bit of a promotion for M-GO now, but you can hide this in the settings menu.

If you buy an AppleTV, Chromecast, or Fire TV, they all have their own marketplace to sell you music, movies, and TV shows. While you can still use Netflix and Hulu Plus on them, they often push those options to the background and try to get you to buy their content. If you only get some of your content from their stores, this can make it harder to watch or listen to what you want.

Compact Design

The size of the Roku Streaming Stick is impressive. Not quite as diminutive as the Chromecast, it still is small enough to remain hidden when connected to a side mounted HDMI port. When powered off the USB port from a TV or receiver, however, it takes two minutes to reboot every time you power the component on. Using the USB-to-AC adapter doesn’t offer much benefit over a regular power cable, so I remain unconvinced of the benefits of the choice of USB power.

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One big difference from the Chromecast is the inclusion of a remote with the Roku Streaming Stick. Like other Roku remotes, it doesn’t rely on IR so you need not aim the remote at the Roku, which allows the Roku to remain hidden behind your TV. Roku also has a free app for control, if you prefer your smartphone to the remote. The remote itself is compact and feels good in the hand, although I wish the front wasn’t as glossy and prone to smudges. Since it isn’t used for games, it lacks the wrist strap that the Roku 3 remote includes.

Extensive Selection

Roku benefits from having the largest selection of channels available. While the count of channels is inflated by a bunch of junk ones, it has every major channel you want. Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, M-GO, Blockbuster, Redbox, ESPN, TWC, HBO Go, Spotify, TuneIn, MLB, and so on. Finding and installing channels is easy. They are sorted by category, with the most popular ones listed as well. The large channel count includes many local TV station channels and religious service channels.

For my use, the channels that I need are present on the Roku. If you rely on content that you buy from Apple or Google, you may run into trouble. There are no iTunes or Google Play channels, locking you out from that content. Purchases made from Amazon are available through their Instant Video and Cloud Player apps. You can also buy content through M-GO, Vudu, and others. If you do buy more of your content through Apple or Google, then an AppleTV or a Chromecast is a better option for you.

Great Search

With the large amount of streaming content available, a big problem for people is finding the content they want. I have an account on many different streaming services, but lots of that content overlaps. Other times, content switches from one service to another, and I can’t remember where it is.

The Search feature in the Roku makes this much easier by letting me search across all platforms for the content I want. If I want to watch Breaking Bad, I can enter it into the search feature and it shows me where it is available, and broken down by Season. Lacking on the TV search is the knowledge of whether I need to buy episodes or not. Breaking Bad is free on Netflix, but you have to buy the episodes on Amazon, so I know which choice I would like to load first.

You can also search by the name of an Actor or Actress. A search here for Audrey Tautou brings up a list of her films. We see Amelie listed twice, as different services have cataloged it in different ways. Here it does break down the price to watch the film, including if it is free with your subscription. Looking at The DaVinci Code we can see the difference in price among the streaming services, making it easy to pick the option that is cheapest.

This is where not trying to sell you content pays off for the Roku again. We can find content across all the different services, and we have the ability to compare prices between them. It does seem to favor M-GO by pushing those results to the top of the list, but it doesn’t push them over other options.

Where Search can improve is through entering text. The autocomplete works well and pushes the most likely responses to the top, but entering text with the on-screen keyboard is still a pain. Either a remote with a keyboard, or voice search like the Amazon Fire TV, would improve it.

Slow Speeds

The downfall for the Roku Streaming Stick is speed. The long time to load Netflix, close to a minute in my testing, is bothersome but it’s the feeling of the UI that is the larger issue. The Roku 3 is responsive and snappy while the Streaming Stick feels slow. The lag from when you hit a button on the remote to the on-screen cursor is longer than I would like and it diminishes the user experience. I can live without the Ethernet port, Headphone Jack, and motion sensing remote of the Roku 3, but I don’t like to give up the responsive feeling.

Little Quibbles

There are other small things to pick apart on the Roku Streaming Stick, which apply to all their products. I wish it would allow for a static IP address in the settings as it is DHCP only. I use my Control4 system to control the Roku, which works fantastic, but it needs to know the IP address to work. I can set this in the router, but doing it in the Roku is preferable.

I also would like to see a colorspace selection in the menus. A receiver I was testing would cause the Roku to use the expanded RGB colorspace, destroying the shadows and highlights. Part of the problem might fall to how the receiver is talking to the Roku, but there could be an ‘Advanced’ menu in the Roku settings to let you fix this. Since it is choosing it in software for you, it should allow you access to it as well.

Great Content and Value, OK Performance

If you can put up with the slow responsiveness of the Roku Streaming Stick, the selection of content and features are fantastic. Compared to the Chromecast, I will pay $15 more to get a dedicated remote and to not need to use my smartphone anytime I want to watch something. It also supports far more content than a Chromecast does at this point, though the gap keeps closing.

Though it is almost twice the price, I would consider the Roku 3. You may not notice the extra features but the speed difference is clear, providing a more enjoyable experience. The Streaming Stick is smaller, but you can hide the Roku 3 behind your display. If you only want to spend $50, however, the Roku Streaming Stick is a good choice.

Review Summary
Product: Roku Streaming Stick
Reviewer:
Pros: Great content selection, well done search, compact size
Cons: Slow speeds
Summary: The Roku Streaming Stick provides the largest selection of channels and the best access to streaming content out there. The slower speeds of the Roku Stick compared to the Roku 3 detract from the experience.
Value: 5/5
Performance: 3/5
Overall: 4/5

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Why Amazon Links?