If I could only recommend one device for streaming video today, it would be the new Roku Streaming Stick. At $50 it’s one of the least expensive home video devices you can buy. It’s also one of the best.
Roku is the king of streaming, with more worthwhile apps than anybody else. Its search runs circles around the competition, hitting most major services and presenting the results by price. And I like its interface better too, with its full customization giving the power to arrange the apps you want, where you want them.
The old Roku Stick was my favorite device of its kind, mainly because it offered the cheapest way to get Roku’s service. I also loved the tiny design, allowing it to be tucked up behind a TV, out of sight, or even slipped into a pocket for easy portability. But I always found it too slow to respond, especially with complex apps.
The new version — available for sale as of April 20 — is much faster, just as speedy in everyday use as the Roku 2 and Roku 3 boxes, and feels as responsive as any modern streaming device. It lacks the headphone jack and voice search found on the Roku 3’s remote, but you can use both of those features via Roku’s app on your phone, and they work great.
Is there any reason not to buy the Roku Stick? Maybe if you’re perfectly happy with your current streamer. Or you don’t mind paying extra for that fancy Roku 3 remote, or you want the 4K streaming available on the Roku 4. If you have a bunch of stuff on iTunes or want to play phone or tablet games on the big screen, get an Apple TV. If you really love using your phone instead of a dedicated remote, go with a Chromecast. There are a few other good reasons to buy something other than a Roku, but most are corner cases or involve streaming “files” on your home network.
Streaming video is more popular than ever, and the new Roku Stick is simply the best device at the best price for pretty much all of your streaming needs.
Small is beautiful (and fast)
If you think there must be some benefit to the larger size of a device like the Roku 2, let me disabuse you of that notion.
The only advantage the $70 Roku 2 box has over the $50 Stick is a wired Ethernet connection. If you have wired Internet near your TV, and especially if your home Wi-Fi network isn’t great, then you might want to get a box instead.
In my testing on a couple of Wi-Fi networks the Stick worked flawlessly. It connected to both 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks without any problem, and served up video with no delays. As expected video took a second or two to ramp up to full quality, but that’s normal for streamers, and the Stick performed just as well as any other in this area. I could quibble that it doesn’t support the fastest “ac” Wi-Fi standard, like the Roku 4 and Chromecast do, but it worked great nonetheless.
The new Stick is fast. Roku says it’s eight times faster than the old (2014) Stick, thanks to a new quad-core processor. I performed a couple of speed tests between the Sticks (old and new), the Roku 2 and the Amazon Fire TV Stick. The new Stick launched apps much faster than the old one and at basically the same speed as the Roku 2, and beat the Amazon stick handily. It moved smoothly through the menus — better than the other two sticks — and responded quickly to other remote commands.
The new Stick also boots faster, which is nice if you plan to connect it to the USB port on your TV for power. It took about 28 seconds to power up, besting the Chromecast (35 seconds) and both the old Roku stick and the Fire TV stick (which both took more than a minute). I still recommend pluggin the new Stick into AC power using the included adapter, to avoid any bootup time at all.
The Stick will fit fine into the HDMI ports of most TVs, but not all. If the port you want to use is recessed, the length of the Stick, plus the power cable, plus the HDMI jack itself might be too much. You’ll need about 3.75 inches. If your TV’s connection is too tight you might have to use a “port saver,” which is basically a short female-to-male HDMI extension cable. Amazon includes one in the box with its streaming stick, but Roku does not. Meanwhile the new Chromecast’s clever design, with its built-in floppy cable, obviates the issue entirely.
Also notable is that the device even has a remote. To be clear, you can set it aside and use only the remote app on your iPhone or Android phone instead. But I mostly love the basic design of the simple clicker (identical to that of previous Roku models) for navigating the onscreen menu and basic transport controls. And, because it’s not an infrared remote, it doesn’t need to be pointed at anything — it works via a form of Wi-Fi as long as it’s in the same room.