Roku Streaming Stick Plus review: Still a great 4K HDR streamer, but not the best Roku value anymore

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The Good The Roku Streaming Stick Plus delivers 4K and HDR video in a compact package for an affordable price. Its dead-simple interface puts every streaming service on a level playing field. Roku's responses are lightning fast, its video quality as good as any streamer, and its remote can control your TV's volume and power.

The Bad It costs $10 more than the newer Roku Express 4K Plus, which has basically the same features. The menus can seem dated compared to rivals, it lags behind Fire TV for voice support and it doesn't stream in Dolby Vision.

The Bottom Line Roku's affordable 4K HDR stick is excellent, but the newer Express 4K Plus is a better value.

9.0 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Ecosystem 10
  • Features 9
  • Performance 9
  • Value 9

The Roku Streaming Stick Plus debuted in 2017 and spent more than three and a half years as CNET's favorite Roku and our favorite streaming device overall. It streams 4K and HDR video from Netflix, Amazon, Disney Plus, Vudu, Apple TV and others, comes with worthwhile features like a voice remote with buttons that can control your TV and runs Roku's best-in-class streaming system. It has all of the stuff you need and none of the fluff.

The Streaming Stick Plus remains a part of Roku's 2021 lineup, but it's no longer our favorite. The newest 4K HDR Roku, the Roku Express 4K Plus, is our new pick over the Roku Streaming Stick Plus and the best streamer for the money overall. The newer model offers essentially the same features but costs $10 less. 

The Streaming Stick Plus is still a solid choice, however, and if you can find it on sale for the same price -- and maybe you prefer its stick-like form factor -- it's worth considering. Its closest competitors are the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K and the Chromecast with Google TV, both of which also cost $50. Both offer Dolby Vision HDR and superior voice support, thanks to Alexa and Google Assistant, respectively. Their menu systems are more modern-looking than Roku, with TV shows and movies on the home pages as opposed to just app tiles, but they're also more cluttered and potentially confusing.

If you're knee-deep in the ecosystems of Amazon or Google you might appreciate those devices' ability to control smart home gear using your TV remote. But Roku has support for Apple's AirPlay system, a feature Amazon and Google lack. It allows iPhones and other Apple devices to connect to your TV wirelessly, to mirror screens, show photos, control apps and more. AirPlay makes the Roku a strong play for people knee-deep in Apple's ecosystem who don't want to pony up for an Apple TV 4K.

Roku need-to-know-ku

  • The Streaming Stick Plus designed to hide behind your TV and plug directly into a free HDMI port. If space is tight you can use a male-to-female HDMI cable or "port saver," and Roku will even send you one for free.
  • The Advanced Wireless Receiver cable plugs into the stick with an old-school Mini -- not Micro -- USB connection. The Receiver in turn plugs into the supplied AC adapter, or a USB port on your TV, for power.
  • If you elect to power the stick from your TV it takes longer to boot up so plugging directly into AC is usually the best route.
Roku Streaming Stick Plus

That thing in our right hand is the Advanced Wireless Receiver.

Sarah Tew/CNET
  • You can't use the Plus without the Receiver cable. We tried plugging an old USB-to-Mini-USB cable in instead and received an error message.
  • The Plus lacks Dolby Vision HDR, so all HDR is delivered as HDR10. This isn't a big deal unless a) you have a Dolby Vision-capable TV, and b) it performs significantly better with Dolby Vision compared to HDR10. 
  • Streaming in 4K requires more bandwidth, and in the case of Netflix, a more expensive plan. Amazon recommends 15Mbps is ample for 4K streaming, while YouTube and Netflix recommend 20.
  • The Roku Stick Plus can support Dolby Atmos, Dolby's best in-home audio format. 
  • The more expensive Roku Ultra offers most of all the same features as the Streaming Stick Plus, but adds Dolby Vision and several remote-centric functions. Its remote adds two voice shortcut buttons, a headphone jack for private listening, and a remote finder so you don't lose it among the couch cushions. There's also an SD card slot to expand the memory for faster app loading, a USB port and a wired Ethernet port. 
Roku Streaming Stick Plus
Sarah Tew/CNET

4K stick with the Roku you know (ku)

The iPhone has used a basic grid of apps since time immemorial, because it works and people are used to it. So does Roku, and every time we ask the company representatives about an update they essentially tell us it's working too well to mess with. And for the most part, we agree.

Roku's home page is fully customizable, allowing you to move app tiles to taste. All apps get equal footing, from Netflix to Toon Goggles, scrolling through them is smooth and fast, they launch quickly and responses within every app we tried were lightning fast. The interface doesn't surface individual shows and movies on the home page, like Fire TV, but it's visually simpler and less intrusive; there's just one big ad to the right of the app list.

Strong on apps and search, weaker on voice

With the exception of Peacock, which continues to remain unavailable on Fire TV, major app support on Roku, Google TV, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV is basically the same -- all have access to nearly all of the big apps most people want. 

Roku has a few extras not found elsewhere, including My Feed and headphone private listening via the Roku app (if you want it on the remote, you'll need to get an Ultra), but the most important is the Roku Channel. It's a hub for on-demand movies and TV shows and also includes live news feeds, a Kids section and even subscriptions to services like HBO

Featured Free is another Roku-only extra. The idea is to surface TV shows from network apps that are available to watch immediately without having to sign in to those apps. Clicking a show title, like New Amsterdam, Family Guy or Grey's Anatomy, launches the app (NBC, Fox Now or ABC, respectively) and begins playing the episode (with ads). The section also mixes in movies from The Roku Channel and plenty of older shows available to watch for free, like Seinfeld (from Sony's Crackle), Duck Dynasty (from Tubi TV) or Hell's Kitchen (from the Roku Channel). 

30-roku-screenshots
Sarah Tew/CNET

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