The 2016 version of the our favorite inexpensive streaming stick is better than ever, with faster responses, new browsing features and the option to listen privately via headphones connected to your phone.
Roku's streaming philosophy? Speak softly and carry a small stick.
Year in and year out the little company manages to create our favorite TV streaming gear, beating out Apple, Amazon and Google in our reviews. Roku trails Google in sales according to NPD, however, and Google's $35 Chromecast is the most popular streamer overall.
The new Roku Streaming Stick, available for preorder starting today at $50, seems aimed directly at Chromecast. And from what I've seen so far, the extra $15 gets you a lot more stick.
The 2014 Roku streaming stick is my favorite pint-sized media streamer, and will continue to be available for $40 while supplies last. I love that it tucks discreetly behind your TV, and that it has an actual remote and on-screen display (unlike the Chromecast, which depends entirely on your phone). Unfortunately it's showing its age. Responses can be slow, particularly with complex apps like Sling TV. It also takes a long time to boot up, which is an issue if you want to use a USB port on your TV for power.
Roku says its 2016 stick is eight times faster than the old one, with more processing power than the Amazon Fire TV Stick or Chromecast. In my hands-on demo with Roku's representatives it did feel lightning-fast, zipping through menus, loading apps and responding just as quickly as the company's boxes, including the $70 Roku 2, which was my favorite streamer of 2015.
Its performance was so impressive, in fact, that I don't see much reason to buy a Roku 2 anymore, unless you want to use a wired Ethernet connection. I'll need to see how it performs in a full review, coming soon, before I can say for sure.
Another big extra is the new ability to listen via your phone's headphone jack. An updated version of Roku's mobile app, available for Android and Apple phones and tablets, has a little headphone icon that you can tap to enable private listening mode. Doing so mutes the TV and pipes audio from the Roku Stick to your device, allowing you to listen without disturbing others.
More-expensive Roku devices, including the Roku 3 and Roku 4, offer this feature via a headphone jack on the remote control, but the 2016 Stick is the only Roku so far to offer it via the app. When I asked, Roku did not confirm that this app-based private listening feature would eventually make its way to other devices. It's exclusive to the 2016 Stick, for now at least.
Roku says it has improved the Wi-Fi on the new stick as well, adding 802.11 a/b/g/n dual-band (5GHz and 2.4 GHZ) MIMO capability, although it's not .ac, like the Roku 4. The new remote is also bit slimmer and I like the button arrangement better, mainly the central placement of the "OK" key.
Like previous Roku devices, the Stick offers the company's Hotel and Dorm Room Connect feature, which makes it usable on the kinds of "captive portal" Wi-Fi networks common in those places.
Roku is CNET's favorite streaming platform thanks to its industry-best selection of streaming apps and customer-friendly interface. Unlike Apple TV or Chromecast it actually has an Amazon Instant Video streaming app, and unlike Fire TV it doesn't push Amazon down your throat. It places all apps on a level playing field, allows full customization of app icons on your home page (just like your phone) and delivers the best search, combing through more than 30 services and presenting results by price.
An update to Roku's software is also rolling out, adding Movies and TV categories to the My Feeds page. These categories show the most popular films and shows trending across all of the services that Roku searches, allowing users to quickly find something to watch without having to delve into the various apps individually. The update will hit all compatible Roku devices by the end of the month.
The new Roku Streaming Stick will be available later this month from national retailers. We'll have a full review soon.