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Roku Streaming Stick Plus review: All of the 4K HDR streaming goodness, none of the fluff

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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 has more 4K HDR apps and better search than competitors. Its 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 The menus can seem dated compared to rivals, and some apps use old-school layouts. Voice search and control is worse than some competitors.

The Bottom Line With its simple design and focus on features you'll actually use, Roku's affordable 4K HDR streamer is one you should get.

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

Update winter 2018

The Roku Streaming Stick Plus reviewed here was released in October 2017, and more than a year later it remains our Editors' Choice as the best value video streamer you can buy. It currently costs $60 in the US, although it frequently goes on sale for less.

While the Apple TV ($169 at Walmart) continues to offer a more polished experience -- especially on cord-cutter TV services such as YouTube TV -- the Roku Streaming Stick Plus delivers nearly all of the same channels and apps (except iTunes and Apple Music), excellent 4K HDR video and surround sound audio for a fraction of the price. 

The Streaming Stick Plus' closest competition is the new-for-2018 Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K. Its advantages over the Roku include a $10 cheaper list price, Dolby Vision HDR and superior voice support thanks to Alexa. Roku works with Google Assistant now so the voice gap is narrower than before, but Assistant on Roku isn't as capable as Alexa yet, and can't control Netflix. The main reason we like the Stick Plus better than the Fire TV 4K is Roku's interface, which puts all apps on an equal footing. Fire TV's menus are more modern-looking, but they steer you toward Amazon's stuff.

The Stick Plus is also our favorite among Roku's own devices for 2018, even after the release of the $50 Premiere Plus and $40 Premiere. Both have inferior Wi-Fi support and the Premiere lacks Roku's point-anywhere, voice and TV control remote. We think it's worth the extra $10 and $20 respectively for most people to step up to the Streaming Stick Plus.

Check out CNET's best media streamers for more information on competitive products.

The original review of the Roku Streaming Stick Plus -- first published Oct. 28, 2017, and updated with relevant information since -- follows. 

It's not tough to see why Roku beats Apple, Amazon and Google by making the most popular streamers. They combine affordability and a simple design with more useful features and apps than the competition.

The Roku Streaming Stick Plus streams the best-quality 4K and HDR video from Netflix, Amazon, Vudu and others, but lacks Alexa voice controls, Dolby Vision support and modern-looking menu system of the rival $50 Amazon Fire TV 4K. I haven't tested the Amazon stick yet, but based on past experience I'll like Roku better overall because its menu system, while more dated, puts apps and content on a level playing field rather than force-feeding you Amazon's TV shows and movies. Coming soon to Roku is support for Google Assistant (you'll need to add an Assistant-capable device to your network), which should help it even the voice control odds against Amazon.

Roku also threw in an Advanced Wireless Receiver to help in weaker Wi-Fi areas, but in brief tests we didn't see much improvement. No matter; reception was still fine, and Roku's responses were lightning-fast. And of course there's best-in-class search and more 4K HDR apps than anyone else offers.

To take full advantage of those apps you'll need a new 4K HDR TV, but even if you don't have one, it's worth considering the Plus over cheaper, non-4K streamers like Roku's standard streaming stick. The price difference between the two is so small it might be worth paying in case you do get a 4K TV soon, and want to be ready.

The Roku Streaming Stick Plus is my favorite streamer of 2018 so far, and hands-down a better value than the feature-laden Apple TV 4K or Nvidia Shield. It easily beats Google Chromecast Ultra since that streamer lacks both a separate remote and Amazon Video. Its closest competitor is Fire TV Stick 4K (stay tuned for that review). 

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
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That thing in my hand is the Advanced Wireless Receiver.

Sarah Tew/CNET
  • You can't use the Plus without the Receiver cable. I tried plugging an old USB-to-Mini-USB cable in instead and received an error message.
  • Unlike the new Fire TV Stick 4K, the Plus lacks Dolby Vision HDR, so all HDR is delivered as HDR10. This isn't a big deal unless 1) you have a Dolby Vision-capable TV, and 2) it performs significantly better with Dolby Vision compared to HDR10. If you want Dolby Vision, your only current streaming options are the Fire TV Stick 4K, the much-more-expensive Apple TV 4K or the apps built into your TV.
  • 4K HDR video on Roku is currently available from Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Vudu and FandangoNow. Apps with 4K (but not HDR) support include Plex, UltraFlix, Toon Goggles, 4K Universe and Smithsonian, as well as a few other niche apps. No other platform can match that selection.
  • 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.
  • Unlike Apple TV 4K, the Roku Stick Plus can support Dolby Atmos, Dolby's best in-home audio format. The only app on Roku that currently supports Atmos is Vudu, and it passed through with no issues in my test.
  • The $100 Roku Ultra box has all the same features as the Streaming Stick Plus, minus the advanced wireless receiver. Its remote adds a headphone jack for private listening and the remote finder function 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. Check out Roku's full 2018 player lineup here.
Roku Streaming Stick Plus
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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 I ask the company representatives about an update they essentially tell me it's working too well to mess with. And for the most part, I 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 I 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.

Providers have also been steadily delivering their most updated app interfaces as well. Last year the latest versions of PlayStation Vue, HBO Now and Watch ESPN for example all used Roku's generic template interface. Now all three have the most up-to-date designs on Roku, as do Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Sling TV, YouTube TV, DirecTV Now and every other app I tested.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Stronger on apps and search, weaker on voice

Roku continues to have more apps than the competition, as well as best-in-class cross-platform search. I love that results are sorted by price, especially now that Movies Anywhere allows you to consolidate your Vudu, Amazon, Google Play and even iTunes libraries. Now if only Vudu would update its Roku app to something like the clean experience it uses on Apple TV.

Roku has a few extras not found elsewhere, including its My Feed service 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 in my book are two exclusive apps: "4K spotlight" and the Roku Channel. The former is a one-stop shop for 4K and now HDR videos from Amazon, Vudu, YouTube and others, broken down into categories for easy browsing. Unfortunately it's missing Netflix, a major source of 4K HDR content, but it still helps make finding actual 4K and HDR videos easier than on other devices.

Roku Streaming Stick Plus
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Sarah Tew/CNET

The Roku Channel is a hub for free on-demand movies (with ads). It gathers films from MGM, Sony, Warner and Lionsgate, intermixing them with free content from existing Roku channels such as FilmRise, OVGuide, Popcornflix, YuYu and Vidmark. 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.

New for 2018 is the Featured Free section of Roku's main menu. 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

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