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Editors note (April 5, 2016): Roku has announced that its new, faster 2016 Streaming Stick is coming soon. Anyone interested in this product should wait for the new one to be released.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.