Roku Streaming Stick review: Big Roku experience in a downsized package
At a Glance
Media streamers are getting to be like the possessions of the Three Bears, and consumers are Goldilocks: The products are basically fairly similar, and it’s just a matter of finding the balance between features, ecosystem, and price that makes one just right. The $50 Roku Streaming Stick aims for the sweet spot between Roku’s line of set-top boxes—the top model being the $100 Roku 3—and the $35 dongle-shaped Chromecast from Google. And it mostly nails the best parts of each, with the familiar, user-friendly Roku experience in a small Wi-Fi-enabled stick that you can hide behind your TV.
Like the Chromecast, the Streaming Stick plugs in to a free HDMI port on your HDTV, but it still needs to be powered separately, so you connect the included USB cable to a powered USB port on your TV, or you can use the included adapter to plug it in to the wall. Then you just change your TV’s input to that HDMI port, and use the included remote control to navigate the setup steps, which include adding the Stick to your Wi-Fi network, downloading firmware updates, logging in to a Roku account, and adding channels.
As convenient as the dongle form-factor is, when I tried to set the Stick up on my home network, I wished it was a real set-top box with an ethernet port so I could at least complete the initial steps with a wired connection to my router—if not just leave it wired all the time. The Stick had trouble connecting to the 802.11n network created by a dual-band Apple AirPort Express just a few feet away, and Roku’s support suggested I try replacing my router. I’ve actually been meaning to do that anyway, but wasn’t able to by press time—instead, I tried setting up the Stick on Wi-Fi networks at work and at a friend’s house, and on those networks, it whipped through the setup process in just minutes, completely error-free. That made me feel better, but I’m still bummed about—and stumped by—its continued refusal to work at my house.
This remote rocks
Once it’s up and running, though, the Roku Streaming Stick works just great. Its remote doesn’t have the headphone jack or the motion control (for games) that the Roku 3 remote has. You can actually use the Roku 3 remote with the Streaming Stick, but the headphone jack and motion control features won’t work.
Four dedicated buttons let you quickly access Netflix, Amazon Instant (which I use) as well as subscription-free movie-rental services M-Go and Blockbuster (which I don’t). So it’d be cool to be able to reprogram those buttons—maybe they could have E-ink labels that would change depending on what four channels I wanted to bookmark. And I do appreciate that Roku purposefully went minimal with its 16-button remote. But including a little keyboard would help for entering usernames and passwords and using the Search function. Vizio includes a small, backlit QWERTY keyboard on the back of the remote controls for its smart TVs, for example. Thankfully, those setups are once per channel, and you can use the free Roku app for iOS and Android to enter search terms using your phone or tablet.
Plus, just including a remote is a huge point for Roku. The Chromecast has no remote—you can only control a Chromecast with another device on your network, like a smartphone, tablet, or PC. That’s fine when I want to watch something, since my iPhone is usually within arm’s reach anyway. But its gets more complicated when I leave the house, with my phone, and my toddler and his babysitter want to watch Sesame Street. Instead of having to explain how to do that with the Chromecast, I can just point to the Roku remote, which is simple enough for anyone to figure out.
The Streaming Stick is a joy to use—one it was on a Wi-Fi network, the performance was snappy, and the content looked great. The Channel Store is packed with things to watch, from services like Hulu Plus and Netflix that require a separate subscription to plenty of channels that show free content. You could spend hours just browsing the Channel Store—there are nearly 1200 channels total, although you'll probably only watch a dozen or so. But that whole experience is the same as a Roku set-top box, so which one should you get?
I would get the box. The Roku 3 box, while twice as much as the Streaming Stick, makes up for that price hike with its Ethernet port (just in case your Wi-Fi doesn’t cut it), the headphone jack on the remote, and the expansion slot—you can sneakernet your own content over on microSD cards or USB drives. But if you don’t care about those features, the Streaming Stick is very capable and a great deal.