It's tough to beat $35. That's the challenge facing Roku's new Streaming Stick ($50), as it goes head-to-head with Google's Chromecast, jockeying to be the best low-cost media streaming stick for the living room. And Roku has a good case, as the $15 premium for the Streaming Stick buys you a lot: a remote control, a polished onscreen interface that includes cross-platform search, and a rich ecosystem of over 1,200 apps. Chromecast has made significant strides since its initial launch, especially on the content side, but Roku remains a much more mature platform.
The Streaming Stick isn't perfect. It's not as fast as the Roku 3 when navigating menus, and some apps, like YouTube, take over 30 seconds to load. And booting up the Streaming Stick when it's powered off still takes a pokey minute-and-a-half, which you'll run into frequently if you power the device with your TV's USB port. On the other hand, Roku has greatly improved the Streaming Stick's Netflix boot-up speed since the initial launch, booting up the app in just around five seconds.
But overall those are minor issues, and in the $50-or-less category, the Roku Streaming Stick is unambiguously a better buy than the Chromecast for those who want to take advantage of the expanded content offerings or prefer a regular remote (like I do). The Roku 3 is still the better all-around streamer, especially if you want the neat remote with a headphone jack, but it's tough to argue that the Streaming Stick isn't a better value at half the price.
Design: Roku box in a stick
Roku's boxes have continued to shrink over the years, and the Streaming Stick is the culmination of that process. It's essentially all the hardware of a full-size Roku box packed into a device not much bigger than a USB flash drive. The plastic casing sports Roku's signature purple color, which won't be on display since it's designed to live behind your TV in a spare HDMI port. (And it works with any HDMI port, unlike Roku's original Streaming Stick, which required a newer TV with an MHL port.)
The back-of-the-TV placement would leave the Stick almost entirely concealed, except it needs power, which it can get from a USB port on your TV or via the included power adapter. That means you'll have a bit of cable clutter behind your set, and the once-coiled USB cable can be a little unruly. And note that if you do use your TV's USB port for power, that means the Streaming Stick will need to boot up every time you turn on your TV, which takes about 90 seconds.
There's not much else to the device, save for a Micro-USB port, a small indicator light, and a tiny button that you can use to reset the stick if it freezes up. At just a little over 3 inches long, it's easy to throw in a bag for traveling, although be forewarned that hotel Wi-Fi doesn't always play nice with media streamers, regardless of the brand.
In terms of internal hardware, the Streaming Stick has 1080p output and dual-band Wi-Fi support, and Roku says the internal chip is similar to the one in the Roku 1.
If you're familiar with the Chromecast, everything should sound familiar so far, as it's very similar to Google's streamer. But while the hardware is largely the same, the two streamers have different approaches when it comes to navigation and finding content.
A real remote and user interface
Unlike the Chromecast, Roku's Streaming Stick includes a remote in the box. It's essentially the same remote you'd get with Roku's other budget streaming boxes, although it works via Wi-Fi Direct, so it can communicate with the Stick when it's hidden behind your TV. If you were hoping the remote would include Roku's neat headphone-jack feature, you're out of luck, as that functionality is still available only on the Roku 2 and Roku 3.
The Streaming Stick also includes Roku's standard user interface, which is best-in-class at this point. While an onscreen display and a remote may seem old-fashioned compared with the Chromecast's "your smartphone is your remote" approach, I personally find it provides a better experience in the living room, as it means I can keep my eyes on the TV, instead of shuttling my attention between two screens. Especially when one of those screens may be reminding me about notifications and emails that I'm typically trying to unplug from while watching TV.
In addition to the remote and onscreen interface experience, you can also control the Streaming Stick with Roku's mobile app, which is available on Android and iOS. And for Netflix and YouTube, you can also "cast" content straight to the Roku box from those respective Android and iOS apps, just as you can with a Chromecast. (And Roku says it's working on adding casting functionality for more apps.) In other words, if you're a "smartphone-as-remote" fan, you can throw the Roku remote into a drawer and never touch it again.
Ultimately, the Streaming Stick gives the best of both worlds, letting you control via smartphone -- including "casting" from major apps -- but also providing the traditional remote experience. The only major drawback is that the Streaming Stick's back-of-the-TV placement means it doesn't work with traditional IR-based universal remotes.