Editors' note: The product reviewed here is the 2012 version of the Roku Streaming Stick, which only works with TVs equipped with MHL ports. Please see the 2014 Roku Streaming Stick review for the newer model that works with all HDTVs.
The Roku Streaming Stick is an oddity among Roku's line. If you're buying it separately, it's because you own one specific TV: the Insignia E480. While some other devices do have the necessary MHL port, and some like the Oppo BDP-103 have even had their firmware upgraded to "unofficially" support the Roku, the Insignia TV is one of the only products certified "Roku Ready," which doesn't already come with the stick in the box. As a result, the Roku Streaming Stick is currently a very niche item -- we suggest you get one of the other Roku devices instead.
While we hear there are more MHL TVs coming at CES, it's likely that these TVs will already include a smart TV suite. Even if you still want to get a Roku to maximize your streaming options for compatibility's sake, you're safer with a Roku HD.
Design and features
Given that the Roku Streaming Stick is simply an overgrown USB key, and because it's hidden at the back of your TV, its design is almost superfluous. Yet, what you get is a purple "stick" with an activity light, a reset button, and an HDMI plug variant known as Mobile High-Definition Link or MHL. It's an interface designed to connect smartphones and has been used in 2012 on TVs such as the Samsung ES8000 and the LG LM9600.
While based on MHL, the Roku Streaming Stick is designed to be used with products carrying the specific "Roku Ready" certification. At present there are only two devices available: the 3M Streaming Projector (which already includes a Streaming Stick) and the Insignia E480 TV. While more MHL-toting products are promised at CES 2013, the only future "Roku Ready" TVs are an upcoming line of Hitachi LCDs.
So, why buy the Streaming Stick instead of opting for a nearly identical Roku 2 XS? Both have 1080p playback as well as the Gaming Remote, but the Stick also includes dual-band 802.11n. Using the MHL port also supplies the Stick power so it means you can cut down on some entertainment unit clutter by not opting for the XS.
By the way, that Gaming Remote is actually a good one. It's designed to double as a gaming controller, and waving it around controls an onscreen cursor if you're using the right app (like Angry Birds). The remote has hard plastic buttons that feel akin to a Nintendo controller's rather than the squishy remote buttons you might be used to. (Why don't more remotes use hard buttons? They're actually better!)
If you get a Roku Ready device, then it means you can use the television's own remote but if you opt for a regular MHL TV then you'll need to use the Gaming Remote.
The CNET editors are divided about the future of MHL -- and therefore the long-term prospects of this Roku product. Some think that MHL will become part of the HDMI offering by default, whereas others say that manufacturers will give up once people find better, wireless ways to connect their smartphones to their TVs: Miracast, AirPlay, and so forth. CES 2013 will be a good litmus test for which future is more likely.
Content and user interface
Editors' note: As the content and interface of the Streaming Stick is largely identical to that of other Roku models, we have reprinted that section from the Roku LT review here.
The home screen has a basic interface, with a horizontal row of channels to choose from. The Roku comes preloaded with the most-important channels: Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, and Pandora. The first three are an outstanding trio for cable-cutters, letting you mix and match subscription and pay-per-view content to catch up on your favorite TV shows.
The user interfaces for the major services are excellent and comparable to what you'd get on a more expensive device like the Sony PlayStation 3. Unlike those very first Roku boxes, you can search through Netflix's streaming catalog, as well as browse titles that aren't in your instant queue. The new Rokus also support closed captioning on Netflix.
If you want more content, you'll go into the Channel Store. Here you'll find lots of excellent mainstream apps such as HBO Go, MLB.TV, Vudu, NHL GameCenter, Epix, Crackle, Picasa, Flicker, Mog, and Rdio, as well as more specialized channels like TED Talks, Revision3, TWiT.TV, NASA, and CNET. You can see a full list on Roku's Web site. The biggest omissions are currently YouTube and Spotify.
The Channel Store itself can be overwhelming, with the huge selection of channels presented as a seemingly never-ending grid. The lack of a search function can make it annoying to find a specific app, and even though there are filters, like "Most popular" and "Movies and TV," it's still easy to get a little lost determining what you're actually looking at. Luckily, once you add a channel, it shows up on the home screen, and you can arrange home channels in whatever order you'd like. You can also add channels to your box using using Roku's Web interface, which does have a search function, thankfully.
There are also dozens of unofficial "private" channels built by third-party developers. These include everything from quasi-legal re-streams of Web and international video channels to adult content. They're accessible using special codes available online. But parents need not fret: password controls are available to ensure that only the Roku account owner can add channels. And, because you can add and delete channels as you see fit, you see only the programming you want. Check out the Roku Channel Database and Nowhere TV for a full list of Roku channels. Just be aware that some of the private channels are unsupported, so they could be shut off without notice.
Rounding out the Roku's streaming functionality is one of its newest features: cross-platform search. If you know what you want to watch, but aren't sure what service it's available on, Roku Search combs through Netflix, Amazon Instant, Vudu, Hulu Plus, Crackle, and HBO Go, then lets you know whether it's available free for subscribers or for an additional pay-per-view fee. It works quite well overall, and you can even search for directors and actors, in addition to movie and TV show titles.
In use, the Streaming Stick performed as well as the other Roku boxes we've used previously, but one quirk is that the Stick remains on when the TV is off. Otherwise, using the gaming remote or the TV's own gave us a streamlined streaming experience.
Playback quality when streaming the HD Netflix title "Comic Book Men" via Roku was virtually indistinguishable from playing it through the Smart TV platform on the Samsung ES8000. There was some softness there, but that was likely source and network related.
Playing Angry Birds with the Gaming Remote was fun, with intuitive controls and movement of the cursor. However, if you're a fan you already have it loaded on every other device in your house, including your washing machine and dryer set, right?
Switching to the Insignia remote that shipped with the E480 worked fine, and the Home button brought up the Roku interface as expected. It includes more functions than the simplistic Gaming Remote so you may end up using it more often.
Of course, at the moment you're stuck using one of two budget devices -- the Insignia or the 3M -- which rely on the Stick to provide any form of smart TV. While it would be silly to buy this device and pair it with the Samsung ES8000, it's still possible.
The Roku Streaming Stick is a novelty at the moment, because it requires an MHL port, which is available on the Insignia E480 as well as a handful of additional TVs and one AV receiver. The Insignia TV is one of the only devices currently available that is certified "Roku Ready," which means it's fully compatible with the Streaming Stick. While you can cut down on some clutter and maybe gain some bandwidth by streaming over 5GHz, there is really no reason to get the Streaming Stick. The ability to control the device with your TV remote is nice, but combining a learning remote such as the Harmony One with any of the Rokus is even better.
At the moment, the Roku Streaming Stick occupies a very specialized niche in the market -- you're better off sticking with the other Roku devices until there are more compatible TVs available.