Review: Roku Streaming Stick brings streaming to your MHL-enabled HDTV
Why bother with a set-top box when you can save space and cable clutter by using a set-side stick? That’s the basic rationale behind the Roku Streaming Stick, a device that looks like a USB flash drive but delivers the same high-def media streaming functionality as Roku’s current high-end box, the Roku 2 XS.
There is a catch, however: The Streaming Stick only works with sets that support MHL, a relatively new standard for high-definition connections between a wide array of devices and HDTVs. MHL stands for Mobile High-Definition Link, and one of its primary purposes is to let you use your HDTV to view high-def content from a compatible mobile device such as a cell phone or tablet.
The Roku Streaming Stick isn’t a mobile device, but it benefits from a couple of key MHL features: The connection provides power to the device, and it also lets you use the TV’s remote to control the Streaming Stick.
HDTVs that support MHL are just starting to appear, so the Streaming Stick is perhaps most interesting as a harbinger of things to come. I tested the Roku Streaming Stick with one of these MHL-enabled sets, a Hitachi Ultravision S606 LED-backlit 1080p TV which the company is marketing as being Roku-ready (and which Roku provided for the review).
Setup couldn’t have been easier. When I plugged the Roku stick into the color-coded MHL-enabled HDMI port (both the Roku stick and the port are purple), the set instantly recognized the stick and initiated a setup wizard for connecting to the Wi-Fi network. (The Streaming Stick supports both 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz 802.11n Wi-Fi, making it the first Roku product to offer dual-band support.)
After that, setup was identical to the routine for Roku’s existing set-top boxes: You must link the device to a Roku account using a browser to type in a code on Roku’s website, then choose content providers from Roku’s huge channel store. Roku supports pretty much all the big names in both free and commercial Internet streaming media, including Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix, plus popular social networking, photo sharing, Internet radio, news, and sports sites. Roku charges nothing for any of its channels, but you’re on your own in terms of paying for the commercial content.
Quality of video using the Streaming Stick was quite good, even in a crowded Wi-Fi network environment. As advertised, I was able to use the Hitachi remote to control the Roku Streaming Stick for accessing and viewing content, including navigating the on-screen keyboard for log-ins.
Roku does, however, package a current-generation remote with the Streaming Stick so that you can play supported games (the Roku remote has a couple of game control buttons). During setup, the remote automatically pairs with the Streaming Stick using a Wi-Fi Direct connection, so without any effort on my part, I was immediately able to play the Angry Birds and Jeopardy games in my channel lineup. (Like the Roku 2 XS, the Streaming Stick gives you access to a free copy of Angry Birds, which is a fun way to kill time on a big screen.)
On the Hitachi set, the Roku Streaming Stick isn’t even visible from the front of the set since the MHL port sits in a bank of recessed ports. And because it’s powered by the set, there are no extra cables to deal with. Granted, the Roku 2 SX box isn’t very large—it’s about the size of a hockey puck—but it does need an AC adapter for power, and a surface to sit on.
Roku confirmed that you could use the Roku Streaming Stick with a legacy HDTV equipped with an MHL adapter, but you won’t be able to control it with the TV’s remote. You’d also wind up spending more than with the Roku 2 XS, because you’d have to buy the adapter as well.
At $100, the Roku Streaming Stick isn’t a bad deal given small form factor and dual-band Wi-Fi support. The Roku 2 XS costs the same, but also supports an ethernet connection, which could deliver superior video quality under some circumstances (although not 5Ghz Wi-Fi). Either way, Roku continues to set a high standard for usability and content choices.
Compact, easy to install, and not outrageously expensive, the Roku Streaming Stick delivers great HD Internet media that you can control with your TV’s remote—but only works well with one of the new, MHL-enabled sets. Otherwise, the Roku 2 XS delivers the same experience at the same price.