Roku's big advantage over its competitors is content. The Streaming Stick, like other Roku boxes, supports over 1,200 apps, including nearly every major service as well as a huge number of niche content sources.
Movies and TV: Netflix, Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Crackle, Vudu, Disney, PBS, Fox Now, Showtime Anytime, M-Go
Sports: Watch ESPN, MLB.TV, NBA GameTime, NHL GameCenter, DishWorld, UFCTV, MLS Live, SEC Digital Network
Music: Pandora, Spotify, Rdio, Vevo, Amazon Cloud Player, Slacker, iHeartRadio
Internet: YouTube, Yahoo Screen, CNET, TED Talks, Revision3, TWiT, Vimeo, Picasa, Flickr
Just throwing around the 1,200 figure overstates Roku's edge -- there are a lot of filler channels, including those of dozens, if not hundreds, of local churches and schools. But there are quite a few big-name mainstream apps that are still exclusive to the platform, and Roku continues to typically get new apps before everyone else -- Showtime Anytime being the latest example.
Roku is also ahead of the pack when it comes to true live TV. Roku's Time Warner Cable app allows subscribers to access on-demand content and hundreds of live channels, including most major broadcast and cable networks, as long as you're on your home network. Sky News (which is free) and Showtime Anytime (available to many existing Showtime subscribers) also offer live streams of their TV channels. There are also third-party hardware products, like Slingbox, Simple.TV, and Tablo, that stream live or recorded TV to the Roku.
In addition to all the streaming content, the Streaming Stick lets you access your personal media stored on a computer using the Plex app and media server. You can also beam music, videos, and photos stored on your phone straight to the Streaming Stick using the Play On Roku feature of the mobile app, which offers an AirPlay-like experience.
With all that content, it can be tough to remember where a specific TV show or movie is offered, which is where Roku's cross-platform search comes in. Start typing in a few letters of your favorite movie or TV show, and it will scour through several major streaming-media services (including Netflix, Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, and Vudu) to find where it's available and how much it costs. If you've ever rented a title only to find later that it was available for free elsewhere (I have), you'll love the cross-platform search feature.
The Streaming Stick is also the first Roku box to support cross-platform search using Roku's mobile app. It's a particularly nice implementation; it's easier to type on a smartphone, and once you select the service from which you want to view your content, it loads the app right to the content you've selected.
Performance: Much improved, especially with Netflix
When you first fire up the Streaming Stick, it feels relatively quick. Cruising through the menus isn't quite as fast the Roku 3 -- there's a little bit of lag -- but it's in line with what you'd expect from the company's less-expensive boxes, like the Roku 1 and Roku 2.
When it comes to loading apps, the Streaming Stick can sometimes feel downright sluggish. That's the case with YouTube, which takes over 30 seconds, which feels like an awful long time when you're staring at your TV.
However, Roku has greatly improved the boot-up speed of the Netflix app since the Streaming Stick's launch, and that makes a huge difference since Netflix is arguably the most important app on the box. It used to take over 30 seconds to boot-up, but now it's under 5 seconds; you barely even notice the boot time. That makes the Streaming Stick even faster to load Netflix than the Chromecast, although it's tough to compare since the Chromecast doesn't have an onscreen interface.
Overall the major takeaway is that although the Streaming Stick isn't as fast as the Roku 3, the speed difference matters a whole lot less now that Netflix loads quicker.
Conclusion: The best stick and budget streamer
The Roku Streaming Stick gets nearly everything right. The hardware is compact and portable, tons of apps are available, and the combination of the remote and the onscreen interface still makes for the best experience in the living room. For most buyers, it's well worth the $15 premium over the Chromecast, unless you're heavily invested in the Android media ecosystem.
The remaining flaws are minor. It doesn't work with typical universal remotes, and if you're planning on using your TV's USB port, be aware that the Streaming Stick will likely need to boot-up each time you turn on your TV. The Roku 3 is still the best streamer overall and worth considering if you're a frequent streamer or want the headphone jack remote.
Otherwise the Roku Streaming Stick is an outstanding value at $50 and sets the bar when it comes to stick-based streamers.