These days, everything short of your toaster seems to have a Wifi connection and a Netflix app. Streaming support has become a given as more and more devices become "smart" and media providers smarten up as well, offering their content on demand or at the very least, pay to play.
Roku took an early lead in the days before the smart TV. It’s a no frills way to bring all those disparate streaming services into one simple interface. The Roku 3 remains one of the simplest solutions for streaming 1080p content, thanks to a remote that’s friendly to users of all generations
Not a Chromecast knock off, but not the only Stick in town
When it comes to the Roku Streaming Stick versus Chromecast, you shouldn’t see the Stick as a copycat. It’s actually more like a downsized Roku 1. The only difference is that the Stick requires an HDMI port and the Roku 1 can do composite. You know, those red, white and yellow cables poking out of your grandpa’s TV. Roku’s Stick also supports 5 Ghz Wifi, while Google’s streamer does not.
On the Stick you’ve got every "channel" or app Roku offers, familiar names like Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, HBO GO and newcomers like Showtime Anytime and the WWE app, plus music from Spotify and Pandora.
You can also cast videos, pictures and music stored locally on your phone or computer. There’s an iOS app for that, as well as Android. Sorry Windows Phone 8 fans, no love for you yet.
I didn’t personally get to cast anything to the Roku Streaming Stick during my demo at SXSW Interactive. It remains unclear to me how the Stick will be able to stream music or movies from an iOS device. I doubt it’ll be able to circumvent Apple’s famously locked down ecosystem, snagging a privilege exclusive to AirPlay with the Apple TV. Pictures on your iPhone seem like a simpler matter though.
There’s also no support for the Chromecast’s signature feature, the ability to cast browser tabs directly to the TV. Roku says that’s something it’s "looking into," but no more than that. I’m not terribly hopeful; it would seem difficult to get Apple and Google, makers of Safari and Chrome, to play ball with that. Someone get Mozilla on the phone.
One stop shopping
I’ve got a decent amount of Roku experience from setting up and using my parents’ Roku 3. I can say that the my whole family would be at home navigating the Roku Streaming Stick’s interface, which was just like other Roku products.
Menus were bright and snappy, which surprised me, given the molasses in January nature of convention Wifi. Best of all, Roku’s unified search is here, allowing you to look for a movie and see prices and availability across all platforms. It’s easily the interface’s best feature and it’s completely intact on the Streaming Stick.
On a whim, I searched for an obscure seventies Clint Eastwood film I knew was on Amazon. Not only did the Roku Streaming Stick find it, but it was easy to see the cheapest option.
Moving from the digital to the physical, that’s where the Roku Streaming Stick is at its most Chromecastic. It’s a simple little dongle, clad in Roku’s signature purple. Roughly the size of your thumb, it pops into an HDMI port and needs your TV’s USB port or a wall jack for power.
All the necessary plugs are right in the box, and a Roku remote is also part of the $50 package. It’s not the same remote you’ll find with more advanced models; there’s no headphone jack and it lacks the motion sensor that makes games like Angry Birds possible on more expensive Roku models.
Not such a loss on the latter but a pity about the former; while not amazing in sound quality the simple privacy that headphone jack provides is one of the Roku 3’s best features.
Roku Streaming Stick price, release date, in the US and UK
Roku’s Streaming Stick will be arriving in April. That’s as specific a date as I could get. It’ll be $50 here in the U.S. and £50 in the United Kingdom.
As far as being the latest version of a reliable streaming service, the Roku Streaming Stick looks like the complete package, crammed into an unassuming little stick. With its unified search and simple interface, it’s everything a seasoned Roku fan looking to upgrade should expect.
If you’re new to the streaming game and have a decently modern TV – one with an HDMI port, basically – it looks to be more than worth the money.
However, it’s those casting features that might be trouble, as well as manipulating different file formats, which has always given the little purple streamer grief. And without browser casting support there’s still a reason to keep your Chromecast plugged in.
I’ll be getting a Roku Streaming Stick in for review soon. Check back in April to see my final thoughts and official yay or nay.