On paper, Roku's new HDMI stick looked like the best bargain for all your streaming desires. But does it actually deliver on those promises in real life? You're damn right it does.
What Is It?
A $50 HDMI stick that you pop in the back of your TV to stream TV shows, movies, and music from subscription services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Spotify, and more. Roku's previous streaming stick only worked on TVs with an MHL port. Since this one is HDMI, it works on pretty much any TV you could dream up.
Why Does It Matter?
You have plenty of options in the streaming service department, be it Google's Chromecast, Apple TV, or any other of the Roku players. They're all pretty good! But for its price (50 bucks!) and content selection (more than 1,000 channels, many of which are from apostolic churches?), the Roku streaming stick has a slight edge over the rest.
It's a purple HDMI stick—slightly bigger than a pack of Trident—that fits right into a port in the back of your TV. It comes with a USB charger as well, because your TV's HDMI port is most likely not powered. Roku also included a very simple remote—something the similarly cheap Chromecast lacks—that has buttons for home, back, play, and so on, as well as dedicated buttons for Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, M-Go (a rental service you'll never use), and Blockbuster (likewise).
Simple, straightforward, and speedy are recurring themes with this device. I tend to use "how much would I have to explain this to my mom?" as a metric for how easy something is to use; this passes that bar easily (your mileage may vary based on your mom).
Let's start with setup. First, load up the remote with the two AA batteries it comes with (duh). Then pop the stick into the HDMI port on the back of your TV (double duh). This is where the size of the dongle is especially nice. If you have a wall-mounted TV, it's not going to get in the way of anything. It's fun-sized. The only downside is that you have to actually plug it into a power source, which makes for one more annoying wire. At least it's out of sight.
Once you've got all that squared away, the menu will prompt you enter your Wi-Fi password, then it will ask you to make a Roku account or ask for your login details. You'll want to have your laptop out for this part, because you can go ahead do most of this stuff there, without having to tap out usernames and passwords using a remote. From there, you pretty much just go to the activation pages for all of your services (HBO Go, Netflix, Spotify, etc.) and type in the code that shows up on the screen, and you'll be all logged in.
Once you're set up—which is an annoying process but no more so than it is for any kind of streaming device—the fun part kicks in: using it, which I just want to do forever. Navigation is barely worth explaining if you've ever used a television in your life. You have your home screen with a left-hand panel that lists all your destinations: channels, movies and TV shows (sourced from M-Go), news, search, channel store, and settings. You press the arrow pointing right to select something, and the back button to go back.
In fact, the only times you'll probably prefer using the app is when you've either lost the remote (inevitable) or are mirroring YouTube or native content from your smartphone or tablet (enjoyable).
Yes, while it's not as seamless as Apple TV AirPlay mirroring, you can throw content from your device of choice to your Roku streaming stick. From within the app, in a section called Play on Roku, you can beam photos, videos, and locally-stored music to your television without a hitch. Yes, I watched Beyonce and 2 Chainz videos to my heart's content right there on my 46-inch Samsung TV in 1080p. And when I got sick of that, it was just a quick hop over to Amazon Instant Video to catch finally watch the rest of this season of American Horror Story, or over to HBO Go to catch up on Girls. One of the best parts of the streaming stick is the ease with which you can bounce around your different channels.
The only time I experienced any kind of lag was when I was trying to load up Netflix. Sometimes it took so long to load that I thought it wasn't going to load at all, but that's likely less about the Roku than it is Netflix and my bandwidth.
Search is the bomb dot com. Say you're on somewhat of a Matthew McConaughey kick like me and everyone else in America. Just type in his name, and the screen spits out basic details about the actor, as well as a list of every single TV show or movie he's ever been in. Want to watch Dazed and Confused? Boom, right there Roku lists every possible place you could stream it from, be it Vudu, Amazon Instant Video, Netflix (which it's not actually on, but if it was it would say so), or whatever, along with the price. Presumably, you will have already set up these accounts, so you can just select it and it'll charge your card, and viola, you are watching Mud. Remember video stores? Haha, me neither.
Of course, you get all that interface goodness no matter what Roku you have. But this one costs just $50, which is just about the perfect price. Yes, Chromecast is cheap too, and brings a lot of the same stuff to the table as the Roku, but Roku includes a remote—handier than you might assume—and, for now at least, a lot more functionality.
There are two things that are more or less minor annoyances than they are deal breakers. For starters, it's slightly inconvenient that you have to plug the damn thing in. So you need to make sure you're near a free outlet, but you probably are anyway since we're talking about something that you plug into your TV. This also isn't a problem that's specific to the streaming stick, it's just a little disappointing when you remember that it's plug-n-plug-n-play.
Also, one of Roku's big selling points for this thing is how many channels it offers. That is true! There are more than 1,000 you can plop right up on your screen, from Spotify to Amazon to YouTube to Showtime to HGO Go to the WWE Network, to wait, I'm sorry is that the Living Way Apostolic Church? Next to... oh, yes definitely porn. While Roku does have lots of channels, most of them are pretty junky.
Should You Buy It?
If you're in the market for a streaming device, this is your bag. It delivers on promises of speed, ease of use, and stuff you actually want to watch. And when you put it up against other streaming products, it consistently wins out. Apple TV is great, but costs twice as much, doesn't place nice with non-Apple, and is missing a few key native services like Amazon and Spotify.
Then there are the other Rokus, which are also still good products, but chances are, they offer more than you really need. Take the Roku 3. It's $100 and it comes with a headphone jack for private listening and the ability to play Angry Birds. Those aren't bad things, per se, but how often do you see yourself watching a movie on your living room TV with headphones?
Which leaves Chromecast, which is $15 cheaper than Roku but doesn't include a remote and doesn't do a whole lot quite yet. Sure, Google has opened up the Chromecast SDK, meaning the apps you really want are coming, but I'd rather pay 15 bucks more and have them now, than be waiting for who knows how long for them to arrive in the name of saving a little money. Those dollars are well-spent on Roku's streaming stick.
I have long been frustrated by the piss-poor, molasses-slow Samsung Smart TV interface my telly has strapped me with. Roku makes it look like amateur hour, for not a lot of cash. This stick is a great buy; the only real downside is that it's going to make doing anything other than watching TV an insanely difficult task.
The Roku Streaming Stick is available now from Amazon and other online retailers. It should show up in brick-and-mortar retailers in early April.