Roku was one of the first companies in the streaming set-top box market. Over the years, it has released quite a few devices, ranging from Chromecast-shaped sticks to 4K-capable boxes. You may recall that Roku revamped its lineup last month, and now sells five different products for different use cases.
The original Streaming Stick was released in 2012, and while it received generally favorable reviews, the requirement of MHL-enabled TVs (to draw power) and the poor performance were major drawbacks. An updated model with a microUSB power connector was released in 2014 to positive reviews. Roku replaced it again in 2016 with a smaller and more compact version.
The 2017 Streaming Stick and Streaming Stick+ are Roku's new mid-range options. The former is priced at $49.99 and is limited to 1080p output, while the later costs $69.99 and can play 4K HDR content. They look slightly different, and the Stick+ has enhanced wireless reception. Besides those differences, they are identical.
This is the first time I've tried a Roku product, and even as someone who has stuck with the Chromecast for years, I've been very impressed by the Stick and Stick+.
|CPU||Unknown quad-core processor|
|Software||Roku OS 8|
|Connectivity||802.11ac dual-band MIMO Wi-Fi, enhanced wireless range on Stick+|
|Resolution||1080p on Stick, 4K on Stick+|
|Charging||5V 1.5A microUSB port|
|Price||$49.99 for Stick, $69.99 for Stick+|
|Size||It's similar in size to the first-gen Chromecast and previous Fire TV Stick.|
|Software||Roku OS is simple and easy to navigate, with apps for just about every streaming service in existence.|
|Performance||The Stick and Stick+ are plenty fast.|
|Remote||The included TV volume and power controls are great.|
|Remote (again)||The streaming service buttons aren't configurable. There's also no headphone jack for private listening, and the volume controls don't work with soundbars.|
|Software (again)||The login methods range from app to app, and you can't use the microphone for standard text inputs.|
Design and hardware
The Roku Streaming Stick
The base Streaming Stick model is an inconspicuous black rectangle, similar in size and shape to a USB flash drive. It has the Roku logo embossed on the side, with a tiny power light across from it. There's an HDMI connector on one end, and a microUSB port on the other. Like the Chromecast and similar products, you can use the included cable to connect the Stick to a wall adapter, or to a USB port on your TV (if it has one).
Back side of the Roku Streaming Stick
The Streaming Stick+ is a bit more flashy. It's covered in a reflective plastic, with a centered Roku logo. The microUSB port has moved to the side, presumably to keep the included wireless antenna from straining the connector. While the Streaming Stick only has internal Wi-Fi, the Stick+ has an external wireless antenna embedded in the microUSB cable. Roku says this should provide up to four times the range of the 2016 Streaming Stick.
The Roku Streaming Stick+, with the included remote
Roku is a bit secretive about the hardware inside, but we do know that both models have a quad-core processor with 802.11ac dual-band MIMO Wi-Fi connectivity. There are no ports, besides the microUSB connector used for charging, so you can't use a wired Ethernet connection or external media drives. If you absolutely need either of those, the new Roku Ultra should suit your needs. The Stick is limited to 1080p video playback, but the Stick+ supports 4K HDR video playback at 60FPS.
Overall, I don't mind the design of either stick. They aren't bright purple like the first two Streaming Sticks, and they don't have the signature purple Roku strap. The black and unassuming design blends in perfectly with most TVs, and unless you move the stick between rooms (or it sticks out the side), you'll probably never look at it more than a few times.
The overall remote design has barely changed from the previous Stick, but if it's not broken, don't fix it. You still have a directional pad, back and home buttons, basic media controls, and a button for opening app/playback options. The signature purple strap with the Roku logo is also still here. The remote uses RF to communicate with the Streaming Stick, so you don't have to worry about which way you point it.
At the bottom are four media buttons for Netflix, Hulu, Sling TV, and DirecTV Now (the remote for the Stick+ has PS Vue instead of DirecTV, for some reason). This is a minor change from the previous design, which had Prime Video in place of DirecTV Now. Unfortunately, there is no way to remap these buttons. I assume these companies pay a fair amount of money to be prominently featured on the remote, but since I don't use Sling or DirecTV, half the buttons are useless to me.
However, there are two major changes that you might not notice right away. In addition to the RF connectivity for interacting with the Streaming Stick, the remote has an infrared emitter on the front to control your TV. The power button at the top will turn your TV on or off, and the volume rocker on the side controls your TV volume. This eliminates the main reason I usually don't like using set-top boxes for streaming - having to use a separate remote for operating the TV.
Unfortunately, there is one major flaw with this feature - it only works for TVs. My main television outputs the audio to a Sony soundbar, which has its own volume controls. However, the Roku doesn't seem to have an option for setting up a soundbar or other external audio solutions. So if you have a more advanced home theater setup, you'll still need a separate remote within arm's reach.
The second major change is a new microphone button below the directional pad. Voice control is a brand new feature in Roku OS 8, and the remote included with the Streaming Stick/Stick+ has a built-in microphone (the Roku Ultra also comes with a voice remote). You just hold down on the button and start talking. I'll get to the specifics of voice control in the Software section.
Some visible wear on the remote after two weeks of use
For power, the remote uses a pair of AAA batteries, which are included in the box. My one complaint with the remote is that the soft-touch plastic scratches very easily. I've only had my Streaming Stick for about a month, and there is already a fair amount of scratches (full disclosure: it was in a drawer with other remotes). The Roku logo on the purple strap has also started to wear off. But for this price, I probably can't complain too much.
All of Roku's products run a custom Linux-based operating system called Roku OS. The setup process is comprised of connecting to a Wi-Fi network, setting the display type, setting up TV power/volume controls, and logging into your Roku account. After that, you're ready to start watching content.
The interface is about as simple as it can get. The home screen has a list of your channels (aka apps), which you can re-arrange to your liking. Then there's 'My Feed,' which lets you follow certain movies/shows and get alerts about them. For example, you can follow a movie still in theaters to know when it comes out digitally, or follow a show to know when a new episode is available for streaming.
Below that is an integrated movie and TV store from Fandango, a 'News' screen with videos from AOL (they're still around?), a search, the channel store, and the settings page. The store, as you might expect, is where you can download additional channels for streaming more content.
Just about every streaming platform in existence has a Roku channel, and that's by far the biggest strength of the Stick/Stick+. Even Amazon Prime Video is supported, which still isn't available on Chromecast or most Android TV boxes. In addition to popular streaming services, many TV channels have Roku applications available, provided you have a cable login.
Most of my usage was with the Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and Plex channels. I also tried the ones for Prime Video, CBS All Access, YouTube, Google Play Movies & TV, and PBS Video. I didn't encounter any problems in any of them, beyond the annoying process of logging in.
You can connect some streaming accounts to your Roku account via Roku's website, during the initial device setup process. If that option isn't available, most channels will give you a code that you can enter on the service's site (or app) using a phone/tablet/computer. Netflix was the only one I found that required you to enter the full username/password on the device itself.
The channel for Google Play Movies & TV was the only one I had problems with. Logging in worked fine, but the audio quality wasn't very good. I tried playing an episode of The Expanse through the app, and the sound quality was noticeably worse than the same episode played through my Chromecast. That's almost certainly Google's fault, but I thought it was worth noting regardless.
The Streaming Stick and Stick+ also include the 'Roku Channel,' which is a completely free library of movies and TV shows available for streaming. For the most part, the selection mirrors what you would find in the bargain bin of DVDs at your local Walmart. But the service is entirely free, so I can't complain.
The selection shifts over time, much like other streaming services, but I did notice a few highlights. Some of the movies available at the time of writing include the RoboCop trilogy, Men in Black, the original King Kong, Terminator 2, and Short Circuit. If you like watching bad movies to make fun of them, there are plenty of those as well - I found Battlefield Earth hiding in the sci-fi section.
One of the new features in Roku OS 8 is voice search. The Streaming Stick and Stick+, as well as the Ultra, come with a voice remote. You can also use the mobile app, which I'll go into detail about later, to speak commands.
The voice functionality is a bit limited at the moment, but it's still nice to have. You can open channels ("Go to Amazon" or "Launch Netflix"), search for a show or movie ("Harry Potter" or "show me episodes of Westworld"), or look for content in a specific genre ("show me comedies" or "show documentaries on Hulu"). There are additional commands for TVs running Roku OS, but that's it for the Streaming Stick/Stick+.
After you search for something, you have to select it from the list of results. Then the Roku will show all the services that have it available. In the above video, it shows that Bob's Burgers is available on Hulu, Prime Video, Fandango Now, and VUDU. Once you pick a service (and you have the relevant channel installed), the content will start playing.
The major catch is that you can't resume playback of a TV show using voice commands. For example, I couldn't say 'play Bob's Burgers on Hulu,' and have it start playing the episode I was already watching. Still, the search is nice for content discovery, and I didn't have any issues with voice recognition.
While the Roku is definitely tailored towards people who want a remote, you can also control everything from your phone, Chromecast-style. Once you install the Roku app, you can not only use your phone as a remote, but also manage your Roku's installed channels and cast local photos/videos from your phone.
The remote feature works great, and it even has a private listening mode. Once you turn it on and plug in some headphones, you can watch content on your Roku while the audio is piped to your phone. Surprisingly, there's no lag (or at least none I could notice). As mentioned above, you can also use your device's microphone to use voice commands.
The app's private listening feature makes me wish the included remote had a headphone jack. Only the $99 Roku Ultra has a remote with private listening, and there aren't any remotes on Roku's online store that work with the Stick or Stick+ and have private listening.
There is one major limitation to the private listening feature, at least when it's used through the app. When you turn it on, the Roku sets its internal volume to 50%, presumably to make sure you don't blow out your ears immediately. While you can adjust the volume of the phone/tablet being used as the remote, there is no way to change the Streaming Stick's output volume. In other words, the maximum volume is always 50%.
I couldn't find any setting for it, and the volume buttons on the physical remote only work for a connected TV. This is especially a problem for movies, where the volume is typically low to start off with. I'm not the only one having this issue, so hopefully Roku will fix it in the near future.
Ever since Google unveiled the Chromecast in 2013, it feels like the rest of the industry has been playing catch-up. The Chromecast's ease of use, speed, and low cost have proven difficult to copy. Roku and Amazon have been making stick-shaped streaming players for years, but the overhead of full-fledged operating system on cheap hardware has left them slow and cumbersome to use.
While many people will continue to prefer Chromecasts to avoid more remotes, the Streaming Stick and Stick+ are great products. They're fast, easy to use, and platform-agnostic. I think $49.99 for the Stick and $69.99 for the Stick+ are fair prices, but the lack of private listening on the remotes is a sore point. The Stick+ will only be $59.99 this Black Friday, making it an even better deal.
There a few software bugs that definitely need to be addressed, like the lack of sound bar support on the remote and the low volume with private listening through the mobile app. But if you're looking for a cheap way to stream content on a TV, without compromising on the content library, the Roku Streaming Stick and Stick+ are great options.