Roku Streaming Stick Plus Review
This Stick beats all of the competition in many key areas
What is the Roku Streaming Stick Plus?We had started to think that Roku was perhaps giving up on the UK market in the face of stiffer than ever competition from the multitude of similar streaming devices available. Once upon a time, in the not too distant past, Roku was the most popular streaming device in the US and looked poised to repeat that success on this side of the pond but other big hitters joined the market or upped their games which appeared to break the company’s stride, somewhat. In fact, Roku took the sensible step of providing certain US TV models with their Smart TV platforms while it refocussed its hardware strategy. It’s been more than three years since we last had a new Roku to look at but now we've got the Roku Streaming Stick Plus, which retails for £79.99. There’s also another new device – the Roku Express – but that’s a 1080p only device, whereas the Streaming Stick + fully embraces the ‘4K’ revolution.
The last quarter of 2017 has been very busy in the world of video focussed streamers, with new releases including the Apple TV 4K and the Amazon Fire TV 3, as well as the NVIDIA SHIELD TV offering a new remote-only option, so Roku very much has a major fight on its hands to regain prominence in the market. All of those devices offer streaming – including Ultra HD and HDR - from services including Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube, iTunes, Google Movies & TV, NOW TV and BBC iPlayer although none offer, what we consider, the full deck of all of the major VOD players in one box. Can Roku once more make itself truly relevant in the UK market and is the Streaming Stick Plus up to the fight? Let’s find out…
Design & ConnectionsThere isn’t much that can be said of the Roku Streaming Stick Plus, itself, and nor are there many connections to describe but here goes… The total package you receive contains the Stick, a UK power adapter, a USB power extender cable, the newly designed remote control and a pair of Duracell AAA Batteries for it. We don’t normally name-check the battery manufacturer but most devices come with less impressive power cells so we think Roku deserves some credit here. The Streaming Stick Plus is a surprisingly solid feeling dongle that is gloss back for the most part but the bottom portion, housing the Mini USB port, power indicator and reset button, is hewn from a softer, matte black plastic. There’s the familiar ROKU logo embossed in charcoal running up toward the HDMI 2.0a/HDCP 2.2 output.
We would have liked to see some kind of HDMI extender cable packaged, which would benefit those with installations close to a wall as the Stick will protrude nearly 9cm outward when inserted in to a rear-facing HDMI port. You could pick an extender up online, if required, for relative peanuts but it would have been nice if there was one in the box. Roku has designed the up to 802.11ac MIMO dual-band, wireless receiver to fit in to a housing on the USB power cable which slightly distracts from the overall neat feeling but it performs really well so it’s probably worth the slight compromise. On the subject of tidiness, you will get the neatest install if you can hook the (non-standard) mini USB cable up to a port on your TV, projector or AV Receiver for the power supply. We can’t find an actual recommendation from Roku but it’s fairly safe to say that if the USB port is supplying a consistent 5V/1A, it should be OK. Roku does recommend that you use the USB extender for best performance, however, but we had no issues using it from the USB port on a Samsung mini-connect hub on a 2015 TV.The supplied remote control is the star of the package with its new design more ergonomic and tactile than the previous generation of Roku remotes. The (most used) navigational and OK buttons are placed exactly where your thumb comes to rest when you’ve gripped the remote with your index finger placed in to the groove on the reverse side while the (next most used) playback and transport controls lay where your thumb ends when you minimise its extension. In another words, it just seems to be proportioned perfectly for the average sized hand and becomes second nature to use, without looking at it, fairly quickly. The Home and Back buttons sit above the Directional keys while the Search, Instant Replay and Options buttons are underneath. A new feature for the Roku remote is its ability to learn IR (infra-red) commands to power up or down and control the volume of your TV and this is taken care of during the installation process; more on that below.
The only minuses we can think of is that the fabric tab at the bottom of the remote is quite stiff and can dig in to the palm of your hand and that the selection of the four ‘Channel’ shortcut buttons – Netflix, Redbull TV, Ratuken and Yupp TV – could have been better. It’s probably a given that at least three of those four services have paid Roku for the privilege of their prominence so we have to let them off from a commercial perspective. We do miss the headphone jack output from previous incarnations for the private listening feature, however. This feature is now available on the mobile app which, in theory, could be an advantage to those with high quality outputs from phones but it relies on Wi-Fi and, in our experience, is prone to drop-outs making it unusable for us. We do wish that Roku would see fit to introduce a Bluetooth remote.
Setup, Menus & InterfaceThe Roku User Interface is the cleanest and simplest in this device category and if you can operate a touchscreen phone with any degree of success, you really should have no trouble. My mid-70’s Mum has no problem but cowers at the sight of the more bloated Fire TV UI, for instance, and that's down to the fact that Roku themselves have no content to sell unlike Apple, Amazon and NVIDIA. The Home screen is just a selection of icons that open up apps or, as Roku terms them, Channels with a recommendation panel to their right. You can alter the theme between Graphene – which is essentially monochrome, Decaf – which is shades of brown, Daydream – mainly sky blue and Nebula which, as the name might suggest, gives a starry theme to your Roku. You can also move the Channels about, if you like, but we think one of the beauties of the Roku experience is in its unashamed simplicity. It might not be especially pretty but it is highly functional and a piece of cake to get to grips with.
Roku arguably has the friendliest setup wizard in the business, too. First you will be asked to select your wireless network and then any necessary software updates are applied. Following that your HDMI connection will be assessed and (hopefully) the correct output settings are applied and then it’s time to set up the infra-red compatibility with your TV. The Roku makes this almost completely pain-free so there’s no pointing your TV remote at the head of the Roku, all it takes is for you to hold the Roku remote toward the telly while it plays a little tune and it then asks you to press OK when it thinks it has a match; as an extra layer to ensure compatibility, you then enter your TV manufacturer and it’s done. That’s the final process in the basic setup on the Roku, itself, but it is a requirement to set up a user account with Roku in order to use the device, online. Some might not like the fact that they do ask for payment details, although we have no real problem with it and there is a PIN protection feature to prevent unwanted purchases. Once all that is complete, you will be asked to link the device to your Roku account (see above) and the box will then go about the business of downloading any Channels you chose during the online setup process, although many come pre-installed.
It’s a bit of a shame there is no voice search available on the Roku platform, directly via the remote – there kinda is on the app but more on that below – as it’s certainly one of our favourite features of the Fire TV experience but the universal(ish) search functionality is very good, with it returning results from services including Netflix, Amazon, NOW TV and Google Movies & TV. The MyFeed page allows you to select from a (limited) range of TV shows and upcoming movies and will notify you when they’re available on a supported service. There’s also a recommendations panel on the Home page that suggests more random (and possibly sponsored) content.
Mobile AppThe Roku app for iOS and Android is super slick and mirrors all the functionalities we’ve noted with remote in hand, while adding a couple of its own. You get a voice search facility based on names, programme and film titles which is very good but the launching of anything you find is slightly convoluted. In the case of Netflix, it would open the content on our Netflix mobile app and then you could cast the content over but we find it slightly unreliable. With Amazon & NOW TV it would just open the appropriate channel, directly on the Roku, meaning you have to then find the content you’re looking for within it. It’s definitely no Alexa beater but hopefully the voice search will get more sophisticated over time. The other unique feature of the app is the Private Listening mode which lets you listen to audio via your phone or tablet and while we can understand why Roku removed the capability from the remote, as it is/was a battery killer, it proved unreliable, as noted above. The remote app is also a boon when it comes to text entry as it’s much easier to use a phone keyboard than it is one on-screen using the remote for entry.
Streaming Channels (Apps)The selection of high profile and mainstream video streaming apps present on the Roku Streaming Stick Plus is unrivalled in the UK market. We could make things really simple and say that all that is really missing is iTunes – if you consider that a miss. To be a little more informative, we can tell you that the Roku platform carries all the major UK specific services including BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4 and Demand 5, although it is missing the UKTV Play catch-up app for Dave, Drama, Really and Yesterday channels. That said, it does have the TVPlayer app (yes, it’s confusing) which provides 64 free to air channels (including the UK TV suite) with many in HD, for free. TVPlayer does also offer a subscription model which adds a further 34 premium channels and wider catch-up options but it’s not something we use.
Roku’s good relations with Sky means the Roku platform also benefits from full integration with NOW TV for sports, live channels, kids and movies but this is one Sky service looking ever more unimpressive with its maximum 720p resolution, two channel stereo output. Speaking of resolution, the Roku Streaming Stick plus has Ultra HD and/or HDR (High Dynamic Range) offerings from Netflix, Amazon and YouTube and also gets in on the (very limited for the time being) Ultra HD trials from BBC iPlayer. It should be noted that, for the time being, the Amazon channel is 'restricted' to Ultra HD so there's no HDR but we're told that Roku is working on HDR support and it should hopefully happen soon. The Roku can also output seven channel Dolby Atmos (Dolby Digital+ variety) over HDMI but there are no Channels taking advantage of that in the UK, at present. The Amazon and YouTube channels are also custom versions for Roku which means they get better integration with the platform than we see with others; the YouTube even previews content in the thumbnails which is something we’ve not seen before. The Roku platform even gets a custom version of Google Play Movies & TV, although, as yet, there is no UHD content on it although it is very thin on the ground for its UK customers, in any case, on any platform.
One of the things we love the most about this new Roku device is a feature that has gone pretty much unpublicised and is not that easy to find. In fact, to activate it requires a visit all the way down to the System >Advanced System Settings>Advanced Display Settings>Auto-adjust Display Refresh Rate, which can then be toggled on or off. UK Video enthusiasts have been crying out for this particular feature to appear in a ‘mainstream’ streamer (main-streamer?) and for it to work with the likes of Netflix, Amazon and iPlayer for what seems like forever. It is possible with the NVIDIA Shield TV (and others) but Android requires the function to be added to the individual app and only two or three apps take advantage and they don’t include the likes of Netflix. We presume the Roku applies refresh rate switching at operating system level, meaning everything benefits from the optimally synchronised video playback. If you don’t have this switched on, the Streaming Stick Plus is locked at a 60Hz output which can lead to very jerky playback with much of the content available via the Channels. You may get the odd Channel that doesn’t play nicely with the feature and YouTube can be a minefield with its range of differently encoded video but you can always switch it off when needed and we’d not be without the option. In fact, it’s something that Apple and Amazon are looking to bring to their latest streamers but, for now, they’re playing catch-up in this regard. It’s not without the odd hitch, however, we occasionally got a blank/snowy screen when exiting from a show or app as the TV and Roku failed to renegotiate the HDMI connection and you will more than likely get a brief black screen as refresh rate changes but they are small prices to pay.
The Roku Players have never really been considered great choices for local or networked media playback. The lack of auto refresh rate switching was a drawback, for one, and there’s a dearth of media centre channels, too, notably KODI. Things are certainly better on this front now, although the Streaming Stick Plus definitely would be at the top of our choices. We find the best alternative for media streaming – by quite some margin – to be PLEX, especially since it can now dynamically adjust refresh rate. The Roku PLEX channel (client) is another custom version and it is, quite simply the best we’ve seen on any device in terms of presentation. It is capable of Ultra HD playback up to 60 frames per second and it played most of our HDR tests, too. In terms of audio, it was able to pass multichannel but not HD audio formats, e.g. DTS-HD MA & Dolby True HD, where just the core DTS or Dolby Digital track would play. The major drawback of PLEX is that it needs a back-end device to act as the server but if you already have one running, as we do on our NAS, the Streaming Stick Plus is remarkably capable with the super wireless performance allowing us to stream bitrates of up to 60Mb/s without issue.
If we do have a criticism over the channel line-up, it’s that UK customers don’t get all the special treatment that those in the US do. Our transatlantic cousins get two features that we’d really like to see here, namely the 4K spotlight and Roku Channel. The 4K Spotlight channel, as you would expect, shows channels that offer 4K content, and showcases 4K and 4K HDR movies and TV shows that are available across multiple channels in different categories. The Roku Channel, meanwhile, highlights content that requires no subscription, fees or log-in, We can understand that both require Roku UK to expend extra resources but it would be good to see that level of commitment.
- Auto refresh rate switching for all apps
- The most comprehensive selection of mainstream apps in the UK market
- Very simple to use
- Excellent Wi-Fi
- Very good remote with IR functions
- Very competitively priced
- 4K HDR support
- Unified search is excellent
- Great app
- Some HDMI handshake problems
- Private listening issues
- No Bluetooth
- Missing some Roku services available in the US
- No voice assistant
Roku Streaming Stick Plus Review
Should I buy one?Roku is back in the UK with a bang. The Streaming Stick Plus, in many ways, is now the standard by which we will judge the other mainstream boxes on the market. The Roku platform has more of the major streaming applications than the likes of the Apple TV 4K, Amazon Fire TV 3 and NVIDIA SHIELD TV. In terms of UK centric services, those include iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, Demand 5 and TVPlayer. The Streaming Stick Plus also brings to the table 4K and HDR streaming from Netflix, Amazon and YouTube and HD from Google Play Movies & TV. The Roku Streaming Stick+ is also now setting the standard for video playback with near faultless, system wide, automatic refresh rate switching – matching the frame rate to the video signal to ensure smooth playback of all content and the Roku also effortlessly switches between High and Standard Dynamic Range, when called upon.
Apple TV 4K proponents will point to the lack of Dolby Vision HDR and iTunes and those are valid reasons to choose Cupertino’s device but then it costs the best part of a £100 more and doesn’t have 4K or HDR YouTube, Google Movies & TV or any UK catch-up services bar iPlayer and even that is a dated, somewhat limited version of the BBC’s VoD service. For the time being, at least, the ATV 4K can’t automatically adjust refresh rate or dynamic range, either. The NVIDIA SHIELD also costs a minimum of £100 extra and lacks widespread support for refresh rate switching with only KODI, PLEX & TV Mosaic that we know of using it. The SHIELD TV also lacks All 4, Demand 5, a native NOW TV app and HDR YouTube (it does do 4K) but it’s a better alternative if you value local and/or networked playback of your own media content. That said, the Roku PLEX client is very good and only really lacks HD audio passthrough but it’s definitely the best-looking version of PLEX we’ve seen
Roku also boasts the best dedicated mobile app in the business with a (flawed) Private Listening option, a keyboard that makes signing in to services a breeze, casting features and voice search. On the last point, we think the Fire TV 3 rules the roost with Alexa and Siri on the ATV 4K is also far more capable than Roku’s efforts in this direction. Heck, even the SHIELD’s half-hearted (outside the US) implementation of Google voice control trumps the Roku so that’s an area that could be improved but then the Roku offers the best unified content search, over various services, which could be more important to you. The Fire TV 3 also trails the Roku in terms of mainstream app support, with the lack of NOW TV and Play Movies & TV the most glaring examples of that. It is also, for the time being, incapable of refresh rate switching or even a ‘film mode’ option to select manually.
There is no real ‘best’ when it comes to choosing a video streamer, it’s all about matching an individual devices’ capabilities to your exact needs but, in our estimation, the Roku Streaming Stick Plus offers the best selection of big-hitting services, the best (and simplest) interface, the best video playback and the best dedicated mobile app. For those reasons, and more, you will be unsurprised to learn that we’re awarding it a Best Buy badge.
Networking, Internet, Streaming quality9
Set up, Menus, Remote10
Value for Money10
Our Review Ethos
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