When it comes to living room set top boxes, there's Roku and then there's everything else. And yet, this past year has seen a sudden competitive surge, with new generation video game consoles, a suddenly resurgent Apple TV, Google's odd Chromecast, Amazon's new Fire TV, and even new wireless display technologies like Miracast. And so Roku has evolved its lineup of set top box solutions to include a new entry, the Roku Streaming Stick.
This isn't a formal review, per se. But I've been using the Roku Streaming Stick on and off since the beginning of this month, and as you may know, I have experience with all of the current living room offerings. So where does the Roku Streaming Stick fit into the equation? And how does it match up against the competition?
As it turns out, both of these questions are easily answered.
The Roku Streaming Stick only exists because of the Google Chromecast, a device that is itself successful almost solely because of its low, low price of just $35. As I noted in my Google Chromecast Review, that "almost" is important: Until Google releases a true "Chrome TV"—or whatever—Chromecast remains the only reasonable way of getting Google Play movies and TV shows on the typical HDTV.
So the Roku Streaming Stick is like a Roku version of the Chromecast, an HDMI-based "stick" that can plug into one of the HDMI-in ports on your HDTV and be powered via a short USB cable (or, if there is no USB port on your TV, via a normal power plug with an included adapter). From a visual perspective, the Roku Streaming Stick (like Chromecast) will remain hidden in most set ups, and there's something to be said for that.
From a functional standpoint, Roku Streaming Stick offers an interesting mix of traditional Roku capabilities and the so-called "casting" capabilities of a Chromecast.
For the former, that means that Roku Streaming Stick comes with a real remote control, which I consider a huge advantage over Chromecast, where you can only use your smart phone or tablet as the remote. (Why is that bad? If you need to pause a show suddenly, such as when the phone rings, your device will most likely be asleep, so you'll need to wake it up and enter your PIN before you can use the onscreen controls.)
It also means that you get the full Roku streaming experience, with all of the same 1000+ entertainment channels (though only a core selection of less than a dozen will matter to most), 1080p HD video out, modern Wi-Fi (in this case dual band), and cross-service search capabilities. So it works almost exactly like a full-fledged Roku 3, minus a few niceties such as USB and microSD ports (for playing media), Ethernet (for a more solid connection), and gaming. The bundled remote includes hardware buttons for quick access to Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, MGo and Blockbuster (and two of those are somewhat curious choices, no?)
For the latter, Roku appears to be aping the Chromecast, in that it allows you to start playing content in certain mobile apps—like Netflix and YouTube—on a compatible device and then "cast" the playback to the Roku. I wrote "appears" because Roku 3 actually supports this functionality too, but I think it's fair to say that Roku will be pushing this kind of thing more now because of Chromecast.
It's a given that Roku is the best all-around living room set top box solution, the exception being that those people with huge Apple/iTunes or Google/Play content investments will of course want the device(s) that work with the content they purchased. But with mainstream Roku models costing $50 to $100, the firm needed something that could compete better with Chromecast. And the Roku Streaming Stick, which costs $50, does fit the bill. That additional $15 is more than offset by the Roku Streaming Stick's physical remote. It's a standalone device, unlike Chromecast. And it's much easier to set up, configure and use.
If you do have a Roku 2 or newer, you probably won't need or want a Streaming Stick. Some have suggested to me that this device, like a Chromecast, would be a reasonable travel solution, as you could potentially plug it into the TV in your hotel room or whatever and access your content on the road. And that's true enough, though I find myself using a laptop or tablet for that purpose when I travel. You way prefer the Roku Streaming Stick approach.
If you're looking to replace an older Roku or don't yet have a living room solution like this, choosing between a Streaming Stick and full-blown Roku 3 is a bit more complicated. There's the $50 price difference, of course, and the Streaming Stick does offer a cleaner, hidden functionality that many will like. For me, the Roku 3's additional features—the aforementioned USB/microSD and Ethernet ports, and its faster performance put it over the top. But either one is a decent choice.
Overall, the Roku Streaming Stick is superior to the Chromecast with which it most closely competes, thanks to its superior content catalog and that all-important remote control, which lets this device works standalone, without any phone or tablet requirement. But until Google Play content is available elsewhere, Chromecast will remain a viable option for some users.
You can purchase the Roku Streaming Stick from Amazon.com (using my sponsored link) or directly from Roku.