Roku Streaming Stick 2017 review: The best streamer if you don't want 4K or HDR
Update: Winter 2018/2019
The Roku Streaming Stick reviewed here was released in October 2017, and it remains our top pick for the best video streamer you can buy under $50 in the US if you don't need compatibility with 4K HDR video. That said, if there's any chance you'll be upgrading to a 4K TV in the near future, it's worth spending as little as $10 to $20 more on the step-up model, the Roku Streaming Stick Plus.
On the other hand, if you want the absolute most affordable Roku streaming experience, opt for the Roku Express 2017 (for HDMI TVs) or the Roku Express Plus 2017 (for older analog TVs with only composite yellow/red/white AV inputs).
Check out CNET's best media streamers for more information on competitive products.
The original review of the 2017 Roku Streaming Stick -- first published Dec. 15, 2017, and otherwise mostly unchanged -- follows.
These days just about every TV above 49 inches or $300 has 4K resolution and probably high dynamic range, too, so if you're buying a streaming device for a newer TV, chances are you want one that does that stuff. My favorite this year is the $70 Roku Streaming Stick Plus.
But let's say you don't care about 4K streaming or HDR. Maybe you want to connect that new streamer to an older or smaller TV. Or maybe $70 is just too expensive for 4K's admittedly minor boost in video quality. Or perhaps your TV's HDR kinda sucks.
For you, 2K SDR dude, the cheapest option is the Roku Express, a device that's packed with all the typical Roku goodness: the industry's best selection of apps, awesome search and the simplest menu system. But the better option is the Streaming Stick.
So compared to the Express, what does the extra money for Roku's latest non-4K Streaming Stick get you?
- A sleeker design that hides behind your TV and plugs directly into HDMI, no cord required
- A remote you don't have to aim at the TV
- Voice search and voice command from the remote
- The ability to control your TV's volume and power from the Roku remote
This last one's the biggie. New for 2017, the Roku Streaming Stick's clicker has volume and power buttons that can control just about any TV, and setup is a cinch. If you're sick of having to reach for your TV's remote just to turn it on and adjust volume, stepping up to the Stick might be worth it.
The Stick is also Roku's cheapest device ever to build voice search into the remote, along with some basic commands such as, "launch Netflix" or, "show me some comedies." It's no Alexa-infused Fire TV, however. Speaking of...
Where's the Fire (TV)?
The Roku Streaming Stick's biggest competition is the $40 Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote. It's cheaper than the Roku, and runs circles around it for voice control. You can use its voice remote to ask Alexa for just about anything and get relevant results, including onscreen displays like the weather and Wikipedia entries. Better yet, if you own an Echo speaker you can use it to control Fire TV hands-free, no remote required.
But I still like the Roku better for a few reasons. Its menu system is simpler and more familiar, and not cluttered with Amazon ads and promotions everywhere. Where every item in Amazon's system seems designed to push you toward that company's own videos, Roku takes a neutral approach, not prioritizing any one provider over another. Yes, the Fire TV looks cleaner and more modern, but the Roku is easier to customize. And Roku's cross-app search is much better than Amazon's, including its excellent ability to compare pricing across different apps -- including, yes, Amazon Video itself.
If you're a heavy Alexa user and don't mind Amazon's pushy menus, the Fire TV stick is probably a better choice than Roku's stick, but otherwise, get the Roku. Especially if you want to be sure you can access YouTube.
Ditch your TV's remote
If you only pick up your TV's original remote to turn it on or adjust the volume, Roku's new clicker has another advantage over the Fire TV. Its power and volume controls worked great on multiple TVs.
Setup was super simple. Instead of making you enter some numeric code, as required by most cheap universal remotes, Roku knows what TV you have and programs itself automatically.
The secret is the extended display information data (EDID) in your TV. EDID is essentially a list of information about the set -- brand, model, size and other characteristics such as what signals it can accept -- that can be transmitted over the HDMI plug. The Roku reads this data and sends it to the remote, programming its power and volume buttons wirelessly. The only thing you have to do for setup is confirm it works, by adjusting the volume of a music sample.
Roku's system primarily uses infrared commands, so you have to keep the remote pointed at the TV for it to work. Of course you don't need to aim the remote to control the Stick itself -- that's handled via Wi-Fi -- just TV volume and power.
The Fire TV uses a less reliable system, HDMI CEC, for input switching and TV power, but doesn't have any way to control volume. The Roku also uses CEC, for example to switch inputs automatically, and it worked well on the newer TVs I tested. Ideally I'd like it to include an input button (and corresponding IR commands) on the remote too. Still, Roku's control scheme is the best and most universal of any streamer.
Roku Stick quick hits
- In my tests the Stick was just as quick and responsive moving around menus and launching apps as the Fire TV and the Streaming Stick Plus, and a tad quicker in some cases than the Roku Express.
- Power is supplied by an included USB adapter and cable. You can power the Stick from a free USB port on your TV, but it will take longer to boot up.
- Like most new streamers (but not the Express), the Roku Streaming Stick can access less crowded 5GHz Wi-Fi networks in addition to 2.4GHz ones.
- The Roku mobile app also lets you listen privately by plugging headphones into your phone or tablet. Doing so automatically mutes the audio on your TV.
- The menus on some prominent apps, such as PlayStation Vue, HBO Now and Watch ESPN, are better on the Fire TV than on the Roku, with a more updated interface and in some cases, more features. Many others, however, including Netflix, YouTube, Hulu and Sling TV, are basically the same on both, and Vue is getting a Roku update soon.
- The exclusive Roku Channel app has free on-demand movies (with ads). The selection is a lot better than you'd think, and the ads aren't that bad, although you might have to put up with some awkward breaks.
The king of (non-4K) streamers, FWIW
As I said above, and in the Streaming Stick Plus review, for many people it's worth getting something that can do 4K and high dynamic range. You could slap the Plus on your TV (or your next TV) and put your old, non-4K streamer on a secondary set.
And for many others, the non-4K Streaming Stick's fancy remote isn't worth the extra money compared to the cheaper Express, which does pretty much everything you really need and performs just as well.
The appeal of the Roku Streaming Stick is much less broad than last year's version, mainly because of the Rokus above and below it in the lineup. That said, the 2017 Stick is still my top streamer recommendation if you don't care about 4K.