Sticking it to Chromecast?
What is the Roku Streaming Stick?
It had looked as though Roku would beat Google to the punch with the release of a streaming media stick for the UK market.As it transpired, Chromecast got out of the gates first but it’s debatable how much of an impact that will have on the Roku Streaming Stick, in terms of sales. In fact, one could argue that Google’s national advertising campaign might actually be of benefit to Roku in terms of raising public awareness of both the existence of the product sector and what they can actually do. Not that Chromecast and the Roku Streaming Stick are identical in applications. Roku has been in the market for a good few years now and, over that time, has established a healthy market-share in the USA, together with a very large number of channel partners to provide the streaming content. As a result, Roku has far more in the way of support and ‘apps’ to offer than Google’s effort, so far, and in operation it will be a more familiar proposition than Chromecast.
Where Chromecast is a ‘casting’ only deal, whereby you browse for content on your phone, tablet or PC and then ‘instruct’ the stick to show it on your TV via an app, the Roku comes with a proper remote control that will directly launch apps from the stick. It is capable of ‘casting’ too, but it’s not wholly reliant on that method of delivery, so it’s more of a feature than a focus. In essence, the Roku Streaming Stick is just a Roku 1 box in an even more compact form, partnered with a remote control that operates wirelessly, rather than via infra-red. In actual fact, during the course of the review, we discovered some advantages the Stick currently holds over the Roku 1, which we’ll address later in the review. Let’s see if Roku can stick it to Google with their latest streaming device.
It's a Chromecast competitor, for sure, but casting is a feature and not a focus.
Roku Streaming Stick Design & ConnectionsThis won’t take long. We’ve all seen a dongle before, we are grown-ups, after all, and in this day and age there should be no embarrassment in admitting to it. The Roku streaming stick is a relatively large example of the type, measuring exactly 80mm from tip to base and it’s bedecked in the Company’s hallmark purple colouring. Said tip is a conventional HDMI connector and, aside from that, the only other noteworthy features are a power indicator light and a mini USB input for the power source.
The supplied remote is chunkier than the one that ships with the Roku 1 but otherwise is of identical design. The added bulk is down to the fact there’s a wireless transmitter in there and we have to say we prefer the added feeling of solidity it brings. At the risk of sounding like a product endorsement, we have to award some kind of bonus to Roku for including Duracell batteries in the box, as opposed to the usual two-week-wonder, no-name cr@p we normally get with review samples. Buttons wise, it’s a simple controller with all the expected playback transport controls, Home, Select, Options and Back buttons, plus one for Instant Replay (last 7 seconds of video).
Roku Streaming Stick SetUpFor something so small and seemingly simple, the Roku Streaming Stick does pose quite a few installation questions. For starters, you will need to decide how it is to be powered. This can either be done using the supplied cable in to a spare USB port on your TV or a USB plug, which is also in the box. If you go with the former option, you will need to be sure your TV can provide enough continuous power through its USB port and there’s no other real means of doing so other than plugging it in to find out.
As it happens, we were able to test with four TVs (2 x 2014, 1 x 2011, 1 x 2012) and they all had enough juice from their USB ports, so you’re probably safe but we can’t guarantee it. However, only one of the TVs we had at our disposal gives the option of providing power though its USB ports when in standby. One of the great things about the Roku boxes is their speed and always-on-ness so having to wait 40 seconds, or so, for the stick to boot up felt wrong.
Depending on where your HDMI and USB ports are, achieving a tidy install might be a bit of challenge too. Whilst we quoted a dongle length of 8cm, one really needs to add another 3cm to factor in the connection with the power lead. So, with a total length of 11cm, it’s going to be touch and go, in many cases, as to whether the stick will be entirely concealed by the bezel of your TV, if you’re using a side-facing HDMI port.
Even if you can overcome that issue, you still have the question of cable management. Roku includes only one cable which measures 150cm, in length, so coiling that in such a fashion so it looks neat when you’re using HDMI and USB ports, that are in even fairly close proximity, is a bit of challenge. We used a couple of wire-tidies to do the job but it didn’t look elegant, so we’d suggest the optimum set up would be a rear-facing HDMI port with power in to the USB plug. We really think there should be another, far shorter, USB lead in the box as an option.
Depending on the location of your HDMI & USB ports, install might not be all that easy to make tidy.
Once your physical connection challenges have been overcome, you’ll need to complete some routine online and menu processes. Being part of the Roku gang does entail registering online for an account which, in turn, means providing your credit/debit card or PayPal details. The reason for this is the availability of a number of ‘Premium’ channels – i.e. they are not all free, so if you want to add one direct from the box UI, your payment process is straightforward.
Once you have an account, you are then able to activate the stick by means of an on-screen code and assuming you’ve established a connection with your WiFi network, you’re good to get streaming. As an aside, the Roku stick is dual band WiFi capable so supports both 2.4 Ghz and 5GHz bands, where the Chromecast currently only supports the - less optimum for streaming - 2.4Ghz band, only.
Roku Streaming Stick Mobile AppWe have previously gone on record as stating that the Android version of the official Roku app is the best we’ve used with a video device. It’s just a shame Roku saw fit to since update it to bring visual parity to the iOS version as it’s now a little more difficult to read and, as a result, use. It now has purple icons overlaid on a black background, where once there was a clearer grey, white and purple colour scheme. They have also got rid of the menu top bar so the various functions are now an extra press away as it entails hitting up a menu button to see them.
Visual criticisms aside, this is still an excellent app which is more than a match for those used with a Smart TV. Obviously it will act as a full replacement for the remote control but it also affords full access to the Roku Channel Store, too, meaning you can browse and download channels from your tablet and/or phone. The app-based remote also has the added advantage of being able to launch channels by voice control (and it works really well), as well as an on-screen keyboard which is really useful when having to log in to your various online accounts to activate channels – Netflix, Facebook, Spotify etc
The Android app has been given parity with the iOS version but Apple users still get the best of it.
The app also has a ‘Play on Roku’ feature, allowing you to cast photos, music and videos stored locally on the device to your TV screen. This works in all cases on the iOS version but video casting is much more limited to Android devices including Samsung Galaxy SIII, Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One, Nexus 4, and Nexus 7 (2012 edition), and requires Android 4.0 or later. In all honesty, we found the video casting much more reliable using our iPad 4 over the Nexus 7, so it scores better in that regard, too.
Should you have multiple Roku’s on your home network, switching between controlling them is a simple matter of delving into the app menu but, again, we found the iOS version better at doing this and we had to disconnect our Roku 3 before the app would communicate effectively with the Streaming Stick. We’ve fed our app findings back to Roku and hopefully they can explore the causes and find a cure but, a few minor Android glitches notwithstanding, this is a truly excellent and better-than-conventional-remote experience - which is something we seldom find ourselves saying.
Roku Streaming Stick ChannelsChannels, Apps, Services, call them what you will but Roku certainly has plenty in its Channel Store. Admittedly, to put it generously, many of the circa 925 channels currently available to UK users are most kindly labelled as ‘specialist’ but there are plenty of excellent and big-hitting services there too. We’ve been using the Roku platform for months now and it’s been our go-to device for BBC iPlayer, 40D, Sky’s NOW TV, Demand 5, YouTube and Netflix in all that time, which is testament to just how well it all works.
Provided you keep the stick permanently powered, loading up the channels is a near instantaneous process and you will find scrolling through the likes of iPlayer to be free of the kinds of stutters or pauses you can experience with other hardware. The Streaming Stick comes fully compatible with the new Netflix User Experience, which is very slick and supports multiple profiles so your landing page can become free of the kids nonsense. One day. Maybe.
As we said in the intro, Chromecast-style casting is currently only viewed as a feature, and not a focus, of the Roku offering but since there is support on the Stick, for both YouTube and Netflix – and it works extremely well - some may consider this sufficient. Chromecast can cast BBC iPlayer, over and above the Stick, in terms of hugely desirable services but Roku says there will be further channels that support casting down the line. Roku are an extremely tight-lipped outfit when it comes to their future plans, however, so when and what they may be, remains an exercise in guesswork at this time.
There are a number of other channels we found ourselves using on a fairly frequent basis, too. If you have a decent set of speakers attached to your TV set up, the Roku makes almost the ultimate jukebox using your Spotify subscription, and there’s a Vevo Channel for music videos. There are also various internet radio and podcast apps for your music and audio needs and the Roku Media Player is a versatile option for streaming locally stored music, videos and photos - either from USB storage or on your Network.
Platform agnosticism should hopefully keep Roku ahead of the competition in terms of the variety of services on offer.
If you’ve ever wondered what to do with all those UltraViolet codes you get with your Blu-ray and DVD purchases, Flixster is the answer to that, allowing you to create an online library that you can then stream through the Roku. This is something particularly useful with the kids’ (frequently missing) DVDs where picture quality isn’t of paramount importance but it’s no replacement for your Blu-ray discs.
There’s also the matter of the PLEX channel. The Plex Media Server app is available across multiple platforms including Windows, Mac, iOS and Android, which obviously does require that the device is running. Plex allows the user to manage and play video, photos, music, and podcasts from a local or remote computer, making the Roku Streaming Stick a fully-fledged – not to mention very polished – media player but there’s more besides, including the ability to add community-driven plugins, of which there are many, including one for your very own AVForums. With some online shenanigans, PLEX will also let you access the Netflix US catalogue but it’s not an experience we’d really recommend.
Another ‘door-opener’ comes via the Twonky Beam app which is kind of like having Apple’s AirPlay on the Roku. Twonky Beam is essentially just an enhanced browser - available for both Android and iOS - which provides a simple way to play internet videos on your tablet or smartphone and then stream or 'beam' them to your Roku through your Wifi network.
There are some other major streaming services we’d like to see added. Amazon Instant is the one that springs to mind first as it’s emerging as the current competitor to the dominance of Netflix with its growing range of original and must-see exclusive content. We just hope that Amazon isn’t holding out because they are set to launch their own competing device, in the form of the FireTV, but there is a Prime Instant Video app available on the US Roku Channel store so let’s just hope we’re being too cynical.
Despite the fact it’s currently missing in action, that does highlight one of Roku’s inherent advantages over the competition. It is platform agnostic, where the likes of the Apple TV, Chromecast, Now TV Box and FireTV could never claim that, and that should hopefully mean that Roku devices will, in time, play home to all the major streaming services where the others are all likely to have an omission, or two, owing to competitive strategies. Time will tell but we’re optimistic and whilst they are busy badgering Amazon they can also make similar advances to ITV Player and Wuaki TV, whilst they are at it.
- A cinch to set up
- User Interface is clean and responsive
- Lots of really good streaming services
- Spotify Support
- Casting abilities
- A very good media streamer too
- Remote App is excellent
- Portable and well priced
- Might be troublesome to install tidily
- Still some major streaming services we'd like to see added
Roku Streaming Stick ReviewThe Roku Streaming Stick is compact, certainly, but it may still be large enough to protrude from the edge of your TV if you’re using a side-facing HDMI port. In fact, the device presents a few installation challenges, if you value tidiness and/or abhor trailing wires, but once you have solved the location question, set up could barely be easier. Your TV will need one HDMI input spare and the Stick is a WiFi only device but they are just about the only connectivity questions you’ll need to answer.
We’ve always liked the simplicity of the interface on the Roku platform and navigation through the menu system is both speedy and straightforward. You can do that either with the bundled wireless remote - which is a joy to use and comes with high quality batteries – or you can elect to go with the equally excellent app for iOS and Android app. The app brings the advantages of voice control and on-screen keyboard with it, too, but we wish Roku had stuck with the old UI for the Android version of the app, as we feel the iOS version is inferior from a usability point of view. It’s still great, just not quite as much as before.
The obvious main competitor to this device at retail will be Google’s Chromecast and the Roku clearly has that trumped in terms of the number of available apps – or Channels, as Roku likes to call them. There are over 900 official channels available to Roku users in the UK, at the time of publishing, but we would concede many of them are of marginal interest and hardly big-hitters.
Still, we can name BBC iPlayer, Netflix, 4OD, YouTube, Spotify, NOW TV, SKY Store and Demand 5 amongst the major video services available on the Roku Streaming Stick and there are plenty of other useful and interesting channels, besides. We would still like to see Amazon Instant and the ITV Player added to the line-up, amongst others, but this is a very strong Smart TV platform that can be bolstered with the local media streaming capabilities of either PLEX or the Roku Media Player.
We also wouldn’t mind seeing an extension to the number of channels that support Chromecast-esque casting from tablet or phone – at the moment that’s limited to Netflix, YouTube and the app – for Roku, casting is a feature rather than a focus but we think they would be doing their commercial cause no harm by competing right in the face of Google’s device. The Chromecast may be cheaper but it can’t boast a ‘proper’ remote control, nor the extensive number of apps at the Roku’s disposal.
Slight concerns over how best to deploy the Roku Streaming Stick, aside, we think it’s an excellent little device. It’s incredibly easy to set up and use, priced very attractively and it also boasts a massive range of available channels that all seem to function extremely well. The platform is also ever-growing and since, unlike most of the competition, Roku has no content of its own to sell you, we’re optimistic it will soon have all the major UK services under its wing. The market for streaming devices is already a very competitive one but this particular entrant comes with a strong recommendation from us.
Networking, Internet, Streaming quality9
Set up, Menus, Remote8
Value for Money9
Our Review Ethos
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