Roku Streaming Stick (HDMI Version) review

Pros

  • Inexpensive
  • Tiny form factor
  • Lots of Roku channels available
  • Dual-band Wi-Fi

Cons

  • Doesn't have the Roku 2's headphone jack

The original Roku Stick seemed like a promising idea when it first emerged in the US, but its reliance on MHL left it far behind Roku's much more broadly compatible media hubs like the Roku 2. Since MHL isn't a standard feature on many HDTVs, it simply didn't work on most screens.

Fortunately, with its new HDMI version of the dongle, Roku has fixed this issue, and made the device available in the UK (it's on pre-order currently). The Roku Streaming Stick drops the MHL requirement and simply uses USB power to run, turning it into the invisible-when-installed Roku device that should have been made in the first place. It doesn't have the compelling remote-based headphone jack of the Roku 2 and Roku 3, but it's functional, accessible, and at £50 it's very affordable.

Design

The Roku Streaming Stick is a tiny purple plastic rectangle with an HDMI connector on one edge and a microUSB port on the other. It measures just 79mm long including the HDMI plug, 27mm wide, and 11mm thick, making it smaller than a pack of gum and about the same size as the Google Chromecast .

The included remote, a rounded wand that itself is tiny compared with most other remote controls, downright dwarfs the stick. It's similar to other Roku remotes – it's black and purple with a minimum of buttons. Besides the direction pad and playback controls, the remote has Home, Back, Options and Replay buttons.

The remote lacks the headphone jack found on the Roku 2 and Roku 3 remotes, which allowed for private listening and was one of the best new features of the current generation of Roku devices. It also lacks the Roku 3's motion controls, but that's a much less useful feature unless you really want to play Angry Birds.

Features and setup

From a technical standpoint, the Streaming Stick is nearly identical to the Roku 1, the budget member of the company's current line of media hubs. The Streaming Stick has almost all of the same features, including 1080p video output and full access to Roku's hundreds of content channels. It also trades the Roku 1's legacy standard-definition composite video output for the much more useful dual-band Wi-Fi radio used by the Roku 2 and Roku 3 for a faster, more stable connection.

Once you plug the Roku Streaming Stick into an HDMI port and connect the microUSB port to either your HDTV's USB port or the included USB wall adapter, you can set up your viewing experience just as with any other Roku product. It's a very simple process, similar to authorising a device to access Netflix: The Streaming Stick prompts you with a code you enter on Roku's website to link your account to it. After that's done, you can add content channels (or restore your channel list from a previous Roku device) to the Streaming Stick either through the Roku website or the on-screen channel store.

Performance

Roku's on-board content is impressive, with channels from all the major players including the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Sky, and YouTube. There are some 450 free channels, plus you can access music channels like Spotify.

You can also stream media from your smartphone or tablet through the Play On Roku feature. The free Roku app for iOS and Android can stream photos, videos, and music from your mobile device straight to the Streaming Stick, like AirPlay and the Apple TV. The local streaming stuttered in our tests; it will largely depend on the strength of your Wi-Fi signal between the stick and whatever you're streaming from.

Menu navigation was smooth, and it took only a few seconds to switch between the main menu and an online service. A lot of content requires thumbnails and other information to be loaded, though, so you might find yourself waiting for a menu to "fill up" if your connection is slow.

The Streaming Stick worked perfectly after I set it up. Once it was plugged in and linked to my Roku account, it was just like having a Roku media hub connected to an HDTV, but without any visible product or cables cluttering things. It effectively made the HDTV a smart HDTV, with tons of streaming content available at the touch of a remote but no little box to tuck anywhere.

Chromecast comparison

It's tempting to compare the Roku Stick to the Google Chromecast, but really they're two very different beasts. The Roku Streaming Stick is a fully functional media hub that can access streaming media services by itself with the included remote. The Streaming Stick is built around an on-screen menu and Roku's own channels, placing direct user control at the forefront and leaving mobile device control as a supporting feature.

The Chromecast is more of a smartphone and tablet accessory, and requires one (or a PC with the Chromecast software installed) to be connected to the same Wi-Fi network to work at all. It focuses on letting users send whatever they're watching on their mobile devices to the Chromecast without any direct control over the Chromecast itself. However, it's limited to only supported apps and services, and currently that means a very limited selection of content, even if it includes major players like Netflix, YouTube, and so forth (all of which are on Roku as well).

Google has released the Chromecast SDK and opened it up to development, but currently Roku's ecosystem is much more powerful from a consumer standpoint, if less hackable. You can do more with less effort on the Streaming Stick compared to the Chromecast, and that makes it well worth the extra £20 the Roku device will cost you.

Verdict

The Roku Stick is the new go-to budget media hub, boasting convenience and features in spades. It doesn't have our favourite new feature from the Roku 2 (the remote headphone jack), but it adds a huge number of services to your HDTV for little effort and little money, and stands as a bargain for all it offers.

If you can afford the extra £30, the Roku 2 (at £80) offers more listening convenience thanks to the headphone jack. If you want to shave some money off the price and don't mind a much more limited experience (and if you have the smartphone or tablet necessary for it to work), the £30 Google Chromecast adds some useful streaming features for less, even if those features require a bit more effort and aren't nearly as varied.

As the Roku Stick stands, though, it's an ideal, economical way to give your HDTV streaming media features without making it look like you plugged in anything.

Specifications

Manufacturer and Model

Roku Streaming Stick (HDMI Version)

Tuner

None

Web Browser

No

Wi-Fi Compatibility

Yes

Smartphone/Tablet Control

Yes

Online Content Services

Roku Channels

DLNA

Yes