13 March 2015

REVIEW: Roku Streaming Stick

Stream dreams

Here at The Test Pit we're big fans of Roku, the tiny TV box that allows you to stream online media content from the likes of Netflix and YouTube. So far we've reviewed three separate devices from Roku, finding them all to be excellent little telly pals who aided our binge watching addictions. Now we try another, and this time the box is significantly smaller. It's the Roku Streaming Stick.

Although it's been out for a few months now, this is the first chance we've had to test out the device that has been called the main competitor to the Google Chromecast. The Roku Streaming Stick is essentially a Roku media player that has been scaled down to fit inside a simple dongle which plugs directly into your TV's HDMI slot and draws power from a USB. Essentially this means there are fewer wires 'round the back of your telly, and the Roku's presence is almost undetectable. But how does it fare when compared to it's older brothers (and it's Google enemy)?

First things first, the Roku Streaming Stick is a tad more expensive than a Chromecast, weighing in at around £50 in the UK, compared to £30 for Google's device. That said, the Roku is a different animal, designed to perform very different tasks. We found set up to be a breeze: simply take it out of the box, plug it into a HDMI slot on the back of your telly (more on that later) then connect the USB cable. Depending on the type of TV you have, you'll either be able to plug it into the USB port on the TV itself (most have a 'Service Only' port), or into the included power adaptor and into a wall socket. Ours went straight into the TV thankfully, eliminating further wires dangling down from the screen (it's wall-mounted... again, more on that later).

Batteries in the remote, the Roku will ask you to sign in to your account. We already had one, but setting one up just requires you to use your laptop or phone for a minute or two, then you're away. Several channels are already loaded onto the stick, including Netflix, YouTude, the Sky Movie Store, and others such as Now TV. To be honest we never bother much with anything other than Netflix and YouTube, but there are hundreds of channels out there, many of which offer free content.

So far, so expected, and everything worked just as it has done in the past with the other players. We decided to test loading speeds and fired up Netflix. Here we started to notice slight differences to the Roku we had previously been using, the Roku 2. Netflix took a good thirty seconds to load, compared with the 2's ten seconds. As we started to stream content we also noticed the occasional lag in the show starting - never while the programme was actually playing, mind - just when it began. We don't know if this means the Streaming Stick's internals aren't as high spec as the Roku 2's (although we suspect so) but there was a noticeable difference. Please do bear in mind however, that this was only noticeable because we were looking to notice; an everyday user probably wouldn't have noticed a thing.

Navigating the many menus of the various channels on the Roku is achieved via the included remote. We've said it before, but the Roku remote is a lovely thing; small enough to be held easily, yet chunky enough not to be lost or easily damaged. We do love a remote that can do everything you need with just a few buttons, and that's what Roku have designed. One thing to note is that the Streaming Stick's remote does not feature a headphone jack, which we so loved on the previous models.

Other than that, it was business as usual with the exciting exception of casting. Just like a Chromecast, the Roku Streaming Stick lets you cast media content directly from your phone. We found this most useful with YouTube, as the Roku YouTube channel is a bit clunky and slow - unlike your Android phone's app. Casts were quick and direct and we never suffered any lags or pauses. There are also a tonne of Android apps out there that let you cast photos, videos and music from your phone straight to the stick, as well media servers that allow you to play content on your telly that is stored on your home computer. Other than Netflix, we think this is main reason to buy this little beauty.

Anyway, the wall-mounted thing. Depending on the make of your TV, your HDMI ports will either be facing out the way (so your Streaming Stick will be poking directly out of the back) or side-facing (so the stick will poke out the side), like ours. Because of this the stick itself is constantly visible poking out the side of the screen, a view further muddled by the addition of the USB cable that attaches at the end. Had the USB port on the stick been located somewhere else, it would look much neater for side-facing HDMI TVs. Just a little niggle, but it is one that Chromecast solves by including a short HDMI extending wire.

So apart from the slight delays on loading times, and the fact that your almost invisible solution to media streaming might actually be visible, we've really enjoyed the Roku Streaming Stick and look forward to taking the tiny thing on trips. At last - some decent TV in hotel rooms, maybe?


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