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The latest rage in media streamers are small form-factor “streaming sticks”. The Chromecast was the first device to create this new category, but it’s no longer the only choice. Roku has made its competing Roku Streaming Stick that is similarly priced and supposedly offers all of the features Roku is known for.
Does the Roku Streaming Stick deliver on these promises? Is it worth the price? We’ll take a look at all of this and much more. And at the end of the review, you’ll have a chance to win one for yourself!
About the Roku Streaming Stick
The $49 Roku Streaming Stick is Roku’s attempt to compete with Google’s Chromecast. The idea behind the two is very similar – instead of using a relatively large box for all of your media streaming needs, you can simply carry around a dongle-sized stick that can do most if not all of the same things. The main benefits behind this idea is that the media stick is small, easy to hide, and cheap – the Chromecast only costs $35 and the Roku Streaming Stick slightly more, at $50.
While the Roku Streaming Stick is a competitor to virtually every media streaming device out there, including the Apple TV and Roku 3 (which we reviewed), its biggest and direct competitor is definitely the Chromecast.
Although it’s more expensive than the Chromecast, its main advantage is that there are far more services that can be played via the Roku Streaming Stick which is around 1,200 services compared to just 17 (not including the Chromecast’s ability to display any Chrome tab on a computer). The Roku Streaming Stick even comes with its own remote, which the Chromecast doesn’t. However, there are still various other factors that can come into play, such as the device’s performance, as to whether one is necessarily a better overall choice than the other.
Unboxing, Design, and Specifications
The device comes in a pretty small box. Included is the streaming stick, a USB cable to plug in to power the device, a USB power brick for a wall socket in case your TV doesn’t have a USB port, a user manual, and a remote with a pack of batteries for it. The remote is a nice addition, but it’s lacking the nifty headphone jack built into the side.
The stick is 3.1 x 1.1 x .5 inches and weighs 0.64 ounces. That’s quite comparable to the Chromecast – it’s a bit longer, not quite as wide, and about just as thick, but almost half the weight. It also includes dual-band 802.11n WiFi instead of the Chromecast’s single-band 802.11n WiFi, and both devices support up to 1080p resolution. The Roku offering also allows 7.1 and 5.1 surround sound via HDMI, while the Chromecast leaves that question unanswered.
When you start the Roku Streaming Stick for the first time, you’ll need to connect it to your WiFi and then log into your Roku account using your phone or computer – an account is required. It will then automatically start downloading all of the services that you’ve already added to your account, if any. You will however still need to log in to all of those services individually as it doesn’t remember the your credentials. Then you’re ready for the the full Roku experience.
The Good Stuff
Here is where the Roku Streaming Stick absolutely shines. The stick supports all of the existing products and services that the other Roku devices support, which means that it can play over 1,200 different sources. This includes all of the major providers such as Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu. There doesn’t appear to be a limit on the number of services you can install to the stick.
Better yet, the Roku Streaming Stick offers the killer feature that Roku devices are known for – the ability to search across all of your installed services. This means that if you have Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and other services, you can use the Roku’s search functionality and find whatever you’re looking for no matter where it originates.
You do have the option to control the Roku through smartphone apps, but a remote is included anyway. It’s very handy to have while navigating the interface on the Roku Streaming Stick (which is identical the Roku 3). It’d be nice to have the headphone jack included in the remote, but that would undoubtedly have increased the price.
Because the stick comes fitted with a processor that’s similar to that found in the Roku 1, but includes the latest versions of all services (the same versions that the Roku 3 runs), there are some performance hits. Thankfully, the performance issues isn’t noticeable during playback or while navigating through the interface, but is when loading a service.
YouTube takes a whopping 30 seconds to load, while the Chromecast takes approximately 5 seconds. Maybe these are bugs that can still be fixed, but the problem is present nonetheless. It’d be great if the stick included a better processor, but I assume that the Roku 2 or Roku 3 chips either wouldn’t fit in that small amount of space or would have needed more power than an HDMI port can supply.
Don’t dwell on that fact though – the performance is far from bad. Besides the loading times, the interface and playback is smooth, which is what you’ll be doing 99% of the time anyways.
Compared to the Chromecast
We’ve made quite a few comparisons to the Chromecast throughout the review, but let’s talk in a general sense about the two experiences. The Chromecast acts more like a receiver stick which can take certain things from your smart device or computer and throw it onto the TV screen. But that’s all you can do – you can’t really interact with the device directly. Everything from the content to settings changes need to be made with an app on a different device. And the fact that the Chromecast only has 17 supported services at time of writing does feel pretty lackluster when you think about it.
The Roku Streaming Stick, on the other hand, is like a regular media streaming box, except it’s crammed into a smaller space and is relatively cheaper (but still more expensive than the Chromecast). You can interact with it directly, and it even comes with a remote. It’s indistinguishable from any other Roku experience, albeit with slower app loading times. Do I need to mention again that it supports over 1,200 different services?
Overall, I would definitely recommend the Roku Streaming Stick. I had really hoped that more services would be made available for the Chromecast, but progress on that end has been moving at a snail’s pace. You can simply do so much more with the Roku offering, and you’re only investing $15 more for a far more capable device. I’m sure you can sacrifice three drinks from Starbucks to pay the difference, right?
MakeUseOf recommends: Buy – the higher price compared to the Chromecast is worth all of the extras you get!
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