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How Roku can build a Chromecast killer

Roku's streaming dongle hasn't caught fire like Chromecast. Here's what Roku can learn from Google's hot new streamer.

Roku Streaming Stick: the pre-Chromecast Chromecast
Sarah Tew/CNET

Google has shaken up the world of streaming video with its new (and hard to get) Chromecast. The $35 unit effectively turns any "dumb" HDTV into a smart TV with Netflix and YouTube, and uses any iPhone, Android phone, or tablet as a remote.

Some pundits were quick to declare the ultra-affordable Chromecast the new top dog of the streaming media world ("Google's miracle device"), suggesting that it would leave current market leaders Apple TV and Roku as roadkill. While some of them made these declarations before actually using the product, there was no doubt from the level of general Web enthusiasm that Google was making consumers sit up and take notice. (The official CNET take: we like what the Chromecast has to offer for the price, but we feel that it needs some feature upgrades before it can be recommendable to a wider, non-techie audience.)

Somewhat lost in the Chromecast hullaballoo was the fact that Roku already has a Chromecast-like streaming dongle called the Roku Streaming Stick. It's basically the guts of the Roku 2 XS (the 2012 flagship Roku player, now discontinued and replaced by the Roku 3) crammed into a the form factor of -- you guessed it -- a stick.

Like the other Roku boxes, the Streaming Stick bests the Chromecast's meager built-in app selection with a panoply of channels including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, Pandora, Crackle, Spotify, Vudu, and HBO Go -- to name just a handful of its hundreds of mainstream and niche offerings. But Roku seems to underplay the existence of the Streaming Stick -- it's tough to even find it on the company's website. But the frenzy over the Chromecast suggests to me that this would be a perfect time for Roku to revisit the Streaming Stick.

What follows are my suggestions to make a (theoretical) Roku Streaming Stick 2.0 a better product. The result might not be a full-on Chromecast killer, but it could be something that would at least be far better than the current model -- and possibly the best Roku to date.

1. Add a real YouTube app.
This is still the Achilles' heel of all of Roku's boxes, from the $50 Roku LT to the $100 Roku 3. Yes, using the free Twonky app on an Android or iOS device allows you to get any YouTube video on your TV via the Roku (ironically, using Chromecast-style mirroring). And yes, as a Roku rep pointed out to Gigaom, many of YouTube's key third-party video providers -- Machinima, Vevo, College Humor, and others -- are already available on Roku via their own apps. But a real YouTube app on Roku boxes would remove the asterisks and workarounds, and make things easier for real-world users. (Whether Google, YouTube's owner, wants to cooperate and make its video service available on Roku -- which is now, arguably, a hardware rival -- is tougher to answer.)

Roku remote control
Sarah Tew/CNET

2. Make the remote optional.
Chromecast doesn't have a dedicated remote. Instead, it uses the Netflix and YouTube apps already on your smartphone or tablet -- you just click an icon, and video from your handheld screen instead appears on your big-screen TV. Some people -- presumably, those of you who "watch TV" while simultaneously interacting with your Facebook or Twitter stream -- love this idea, and prefer your touch-screen controls to an old-fashioned clicker. While a smartphone screen is certainly a great way to search for and choose content, I still prefer the dedicated hard buttons of a real remote control.

The good news for Roku is that it already offers the best of both worlds. The company already has an Android and iOS remote app, so anyone who doesn't like the company's minimalist clicker can toss it in a drawer after initial setup. Roku could potentially work with other app providers -- Netflix, YouTube, whoever -- to add the "play to Roku" option that works identically to the existing Chromecast one.

The point is, so long as the Streaming Stick can work without the need for the hard remote, you can pull it out of the box and make it an optional add-on. Given that the current Roku remote sells separately for around $34, that would help get the Streaming Stick price closer to $50.

3. Add screen mirroring.
This one isn't a big deal for me, but I know that a lot of geeks some to love the Chromecast's screen mirroring function, which lets Macs and Windows PCs beam the contents of the laptop screen directly to the TV. (We found this beta feature to be less than 100 percent reliable when streaming video sites like Hulu on the Chromecast.)

Because it was already competing with Apple TV's nearly identical AirPlay functionality, Roku's remote apps feature a "Play on Roku" function that streams any music or photos on your phone to the TV. Roku just added video support to the iOS version, too. For now, it only works with self-shot video that's sitting on your iPhone. But if Roku has gotten that working, it makes me think that PC/Mac mirroring shouldn't be too hard to pull off, either.

Chromecast and the Roku Streaming Stick
Sarah Tew/CNET

4. Add USB power.
This is the big one. The Roku Streaming Stick is designed only to work with TVs that are equipped with MHL-capable (Mobile High-Definition Link) HDMI ports. Unlike standard HDMI, MHL ports provide enough power to charge connected mobile devices -- or, in this case, to keep the Roku Streaming Stick up and running, even when the input is powered off.

It's a nice idea -- the Roku is "always on," ready to be toggled on. (Otherwise, the Roku would have to go through its full reboot sequence whenever the TV was turned on -- no fun if you want to jump straight into a Netflix movie.) But the "feature" limits the Streaming Stick to only MHL-compatible TVs. You'll find more of them in 2013, but it's still not a widely supported feature, especially if your TV is more than a couple of years old.

Chromecast has an easy workaround: the dongle is powered by a micro-USB input, just like most cell phones. Sure, it's a bit unsightly -- no one wants more wires -- but it works like a charm. (Google throws a USB power adapter in the box, but many TVs also include a USB port with enough juice to power the Chromecast.)

If Roku were to adopt the same design change to the Streaming Stick -- just adding a USB power port -- it would effectively remove the product's biggest caveat. Instead of compatibility with just the handful of MHL TVs, it would work with nearly every HDTV on the market. That's how you get from niche to mainstream.

5. Lower the price.
Chromecast's biggest asset is its rock-bottom $35 price tag. That undercuts Roku's current low-end options, the $50 Roku LT and $60 Roku HD. (Those two units are nearly identical, with the HD offering a remote that has an "instant replay" button not found on the LT.)

In fact, the Roku LT is currently selling for $40 on Amazon -- just $5 more than the Chromecast, despite having hundreds more apps and a dedicated remote.

The current Streaming Stick is selling for $84 on Amazon at the time of this writing. Again, separating out the remote would probably knock about $30 off that price. While the added expense of the USB cable and power adapter would have to be factored in, I would hope that Roku could get closer to $50 and still make a profit. It would be tough, but not impossible.

What about Apple?
Apple doesn't currently have a dongle-based version of the Apple TV, but there's no reason that company couldn't follow this exact same gameplan. Apple TV already has YouTube; it already has remote apps; and it already has screen mirroring, with the excellent AirPlay functionality. Apple would just have to determine if it wants to go with a USB-powered dongle style design, and if the company would want to compete in a price war. Given that its $99 box has already sold more than 13 million units -- and that Apple has traditionally resisted a race to the bottom on pricing -- I wouldn't bet on this. In fact, I agree with my colleague Scott Stein, who posits that we could see the opposite -- a more robust Apple TV box that doubles as a game console. But you never know.

The ball is in Roku's court
Regardless of a curveball from Apple, Roku has a real opportunity to learn from Chromecast here. A cheaper, USB-powered Streaming Stick 2.0 would be a viable Chromecast alternative, and allow the streaming upstart to reclaim the initiative in the field that it pioneered. Best of all, the Roku engineers don't have to start from scratch -- they can just tweak the already promising Streaming Stick that's currently on the market.

Hey, it's something I'd buy for 40 or 50 bucks.

Senior Associate Editor Matthew Moskovciak contributed to this story.