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If I could only recommend one device for streaming video today, it would be the new Roku Streaming Stick. At $50 it's one of the least expensive home video devices you can buy. It's also one of the best.
Roku is the king of streaming, with more worthwhile apps than anybody else. Its search runs circles around the competition, hitting most major services and presenting the results by price. And I like its interface better too, with its full customization giving the power to arrange the apps you want, where you want them.
The old Roku Stick was my favorite device of its kind, mainly because it offered the cheapest way to get Roku's service. I also loved the tiny design, allowing it to be tucked up behind a TV, out of sight, or even slipped into a pocket for easy portability. But I always found it too slow to respond, especially with complex apps.
The new version -- available for sale as of April 20 -- is much faster, just as speedy in everyday use as the Roku 2 and Roku 3 boxes, and feels as responsive as any modern streaming device. It lacks the headphone jack and voice search found on the Roku 3's remote, but you can use both of those features via Roku's app on your phone, and they work great.
Is there any reason not to buy the Roku Stick? Maybe if you're perfectly happy with your current streamer. Or you don't mind paying extra for that fancy Roku 3 remote, or you want the 4K streaming available on the Roku 4. If you have a bunch of stuff on iTunes or want to play phone or tablet games on the big screen, get an Apple TV. If you really love using your phone instead of a dedicated remote, or want to put video from your computer on your TV, go with a Chromecast. There are a few other good reasons to buy something other than a Roku, but most are corner cases or involve streaming "files" on your home network.
Streaming video is more popular than ever, and the new Roku Stick is simply the best device at the best price for pretty much all of your streaming needs.
If you think there must be some benefit to the larger size of a device like the Roku 2, let me disabuse you of that notion.
The only advantage the $70 Roku 2 box has over the $50 Stick is a wired Ethernet connection. If you have wired Internet near your TV, and especially if your home Wi-Fi network isn't great, then you might want to get a box instead.
In my testing on a couple of Wi-Fi networks the Stick worked flawlessly. It connected to both 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks without any problem, and served up video with no delays. As expected video took a second or two to ramp up to full quality, but that's normal for streamers, and the Stick performed just as well as any other in this area. I could quibble that it doesn't support the fastest "ac" Wi-Fi standard, like the Roku 4 and Chromecast do, but it worked great nonetheless.
The new Stick is fast. Roku says it's eight times faster than the old (2014) Stick, thanks to a new quad-core processor. I performed a couple of speed tests between the Sticks (old and new), the Roku 2 and the Amazon Fire TV Stick. The new Stick launched apps much faster than the old one and at basically the same speed as the Roku 2, and beat the Amazon stick handily. It moved smoothly through the menus -- better than the other two sticks -- and responded quickly to other remote commands.
The new Stick also boots faster, which is nice if you plan to connect it to the USB port on your TV for power. It took about 28 seconds to power up, besting the Chromecast (35 seconds) and both the old Roku stick and the Fire TV stick (which both took more than a minute). I still recommend plugging the new Stick into AC power using the included adapter, to avoid any bootup time at all.
The Stick will fit fine into the HDMI ports of most TVs, but not all. If the port you want to use is recessed, the length of the Stick, plus the power cable, plus the HDMI jack itself might be too much. You'll need about 3.75 inches. If your TV's connection is too tight you might have to use a "port saver," which is basically a short female-to-male HDMI extension cable. Amazon includes one in the box with its streaming stick, but Roku does not. If you need one you can fill out this form on Roku's site and they'll mail you one for free.
Also notable is that the device even has a remote. To be clear, you can set it aside and use only the remote app on your iPhone or Android phone instead. But I mostly love the basic design of the simple clicker (identical to that of previous Roku models) for navigating the onscreen menu and basic transport controls. And, because it's not an infrared remote, it doesn't need to be pointed at anything -- it works via a form of Wi-Fi as long as it's in the same room.
"Private listening," where you plug your headphones into the remote control and automatically mute the TV's audio, is one of Roku's most popular features. The Stick remote doesn't have it, but it does offer an alternative: the app.
To test it I fired up the Roku app on my phone and selected the new Stick from among the available devices. The control screen shows a little headphone icon, and when I tapped it the TV audio muted and sound came through my headphones. I loved the fact that the video I was watching paused automatically when a call came in, and resumed once I hung up.
The only problem I found with the system was lip-sync delay via Bluetooth. With my wired headphones (or my phone's own speaker), the delay between an actor's lips moving and me hearing the sound was nonexistent or at least brief enough that I doubt most people would notice. But when I connected a pair of wireless Bluetooth headphones (Beats' Powerbeats2), sync became an issue -- the delay was bad enough to render the video unwatchable. A second pair of Bluetooth headphones (Skullcandy Grind Wireless) was much better, and sync was generally watchable if still slightly worse than using wired headphones. The moral? Not every pair of Bluetooth headphones will work flawlessly. (And, to be fair, that's often the case with Bluetooth audio lip-sync when watching phone-based videos, too.)
This feature isn't currently available on any other Roku device, although you can pair a Roku 3 remote with the Stick to get private listening via the headphone jack (as well as voice search). It's also worth noting that Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV can connect directly to Bluetooth headphones (no app required) for private listening.
These days, just about every decent streaming device has most of the major apps, including Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, HBO, Showtime, Watch ESPN, Plex and PBS Kids, and all offer many, many more. Roku still has the best selection overall, however, especially since it offers Amazon (unlike Apple TV and Chromecast/Android TV).
A major reason I like Roku better than other platforms is that Roku doesn't have an axe to grind. All of the apps are presented on equal footing, and you can move any of them around on the home page, and eliminate ones you don't like. Amazon and Android TV devices have much more locked-down interfaces. I gotta give credit to Apple TV's new system, however, because it allows pretty much the same freedom as Roku, and adds the option to create folders to better organize your apps.
Nobody comes close to Roku's search, however. It presents results from 30 different services, more than any other platform. Click on a result, a movie or TV show title for example, and you'll see pricing across all of the services Roku searches. The best part is that if you get the show "for free" as part of a subscription, it will be listed there too.
One catch is that it doesn't search HBO Now, Showtime, or Showtime Anytime (it does search HBO Go, however), so if the movie is available there, Roku's search won't find it. Apple TV will, for what it's worth, but of course Apple currently excludes any of the pay-a-la-carte video providers (like Amazon, Google Play and Vudu) except for its own iTunes service.
Roku is also the best at presenting TV shows and movies across the different services. In addition to the "Follow" feature, which allows you to tag shows, films and even actors and receive notifications for when they're available to stream, there's a new feature available to all Roku devices with the latest software update. It shows the most popular TV shows and movies across all of the services Roku searches, updated four times a day. It's a great way to find new things to watch, although I do wish there were a "Show only stuff I can watch for free" option.
It's also worth noting on a device this portable that the Stick can now connect to "captive portal" Wi-Fi networks, like an Amazon Fire TV can. Roku calls it "Hotel and Dorm Connect" since those are the places that are most likely to use such networks. I didn't test the feature for this review, but Roku's site explains how to use it.
The new Roku Streaming Stick is so good, and so inexpensive, that it's tough to think of a reason not to get one. If you're unhappy with your current streaming device for any reason, it should be at the top of your list.