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

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

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David Katzmaier Ty Pendlebury
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David Katzmaier

Editorial Director -- TVs and streaming

David has reviewed TVs, streaming services, streaming devices and home entertainment gear at CNET since 2002. He is an ISF certified, NIST trained calibrator and developed CNET's TV test procedure himself. Previously David wrote reviews and features for Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as "The Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics."

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Ty Pendlebury

Editor

Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.

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7 min read

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.

Roku Streaming Stick Plus
9.0

Roku Streaming Stick Plus

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.

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 rocks 4K and HDR with this tiny $50 stick

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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). 

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Voice support isn't nearly as good as Fire TV or Google. You can talk into Roku's remote (or its app) to search titles, actors and more. Now it supports limited natural language queries, so when we said, "Show me movies starring Bruce Willis," or, "Show me some comedies," we got relevant results. We were also able to use voice to launch apps. You can pair your Alexa speaker or Google Home speaker to work with Roku, but overall Amazon's voice support is more robust.

Ditch your TV's remote

If you only pick up your TV's original remote to turn it on or adjust volume, Roku's clicker allows you to ditch it entirely. In our tests it worked great on operating multiple TVs. 

Setup on Roku 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.

roku-streaming-stick-plus-remote-inset

Roku's remote is ready to control your TV. (Note that this image is from 2017; the newer versions have a mute button on the side too).

Sarah Tew/CNET

The secret is the Extended Display Information Data 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 connection. 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 (IR) 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.

Roku Streaming Stick Plus
Sarah Tew/CNET

Roku's TV-controlling clicker isn't unique. In fact Amazon aped Roku by including TV volume and power buttons on its Fire TV Stick remotes and Google added the feature to the new Chromecast. Apple TV's remote has volume buttons that work without needing line of sight, but they rely on a HDMI protocol called CEC and it's not as universal as the standard infrared commands Roku uses to control the TV. Roku also uses CEC, for example to switch inputs automatically, and it worked well on the newer TVs we tested. 

A Wi-Fi bridge too far

In our experience, most of the major problems with streaming -- the ones that make the video look terrible, take forever to load, drop out multiple times, or fail completely -- are due to a poor internet connection.

The Roku Streaming Stick Plus was the first streamer to make a big deal out of better Wi-Fi. Roku claims the Advanced Wireless Receiver can improve reception up to four times compared to its 2016 streaming stick. In our quick tests, however, we couldn't discern much benefit.

Roku Streaming Stick Plus

The Advanced Wireless Receiver didn't help much in our quick test.

Sarah Tew/CNET

We hooked the Plus, the 2017 Fire TV and the 2017 Roku Streaming Stick to the same TV and wheeled it around the CNET office, moving to four spots progressively further from the Wi-Fi access point in our lab. In no instance did the Plus perform better than the other two, despite having the Advanced Receiver. All three failed to detect our AP at one distant location, and when we moved a bit closer all three did connect, but with relatively weak signals -- Netflix loaded slowly and took longer to get to full resolution, if it did at all. At one location Roku's basic stick actually saw and connected (albeit crappily), while the Fire TV and Plus did not.

So what about 4K HDR quality?

If you've made it this far you might be hoping for our extensive run-down on the Roku Streaming Stick's image quality. Sorry, but that's not happening here.

We tested it side-by-side with the Fire TV 4K and included plenty of details in that review, but the bottom line is that, depending on your TV and the video in question, 4K and even high dynamic range may not provide much improvement in video quality compared to "regular" HD. But it's almost never worse, and often, especially on a good TV with certain content, significantly better. For that reason we definitely think it's worth spending the extra few bucks to get a 4K HDR streamer if you have a compatible TV.

And in case you're wondering, we didn't see any difference in streaming quality between the two. That's par for the course.

First published in 2017. Last updated May, 2021 with the release of the Roku Express Plus 4K.

Roku Streaming Stick Plus
9.0

Roku Streaming Stick Plus

Score Breakdown

Design 9Ecosystem 10Features 9Performance 9Value 9
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