Superior streaming stick, slightly slow

It’s tough to beat $35. That’s the challenge facing Roku’s new Streaming Stick ($50), as it goes head-to-head with Google’s Chromecast, jockeying to be the best low-cost media streaming stick for the living room. And Roku has a good case, as the $15 premium for the Streaming Stick buys you a lot: a remote control, a polished onscreen interface that includes cross-platform search, and a rich ecosystem of over 1,200 apps. Chromecast has made significant strides since its initial launch, especially on the content side, but Roku remains a much more mature platform.

It’s all enough to make the Streaming Stick look like a slam dunk from its spec sheet, but one major issue cropped up during testing that I didn’t expect: speed. While the Streaming Stick feels swift when navigating menus, it’s surprising slow to boot up a handful of crucial apps: Netflix and YouTube take over 30 seconds to initially load. It’s not a problem with every app, but some apps are more important than others, which is what raises the pokey Netflix boot times from a nitpick to a notable frustration.

The speed doesn’t totally sink the Stick. Once you load one of the sluggish apps, performance is as quick as you’d expect, so it’s more of momentary frustration than one you keep dealing with. But the sometimes sluggish performance does keep it from being the best overall media streamer, which remains the Roku 3, even at twice the price.

In the $50-or-less category, though, the new Roku Streaming Stick is a better buy than the Chromecast for those who want to take advantage of the expanded content offerings or prefer a regular remote (like I do). You may, however, want to wait to see what Amazon has in store on April 2 before making a purchase.

Design: Roku box in a stick

Roku’s boxes have continued to shrink over the years, and the Streaming Stick is the culmination of that process. It’s essentially all the hardware of a full-size Roku box packed into a device not much bigger than a USB flash drive. The plastic casing sports Roku’s signature purple color, which won’t be on display since it’s designed to live behind your TV in a spare HDMI port. (And it works with any HDMI port, unlike Roku’s original Streaming Stick, which required a newer TV with an MHL port.)

Roku Streaming Stick

Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

The back-of-the-TV placement would leave the Stick almost entirely concealed, except it needs power, which it can get from a USB port on your TV or via the included power adapter. That means you’ll have a bit of cable clutter behind your set, and the once-coiled USB cable can be a little unruly.

There’s not much else to the device, save for a Micro-USB port, a small indicator light, and a tiny button that you can use to reset the stick if it freezes up. At just a little over 3 inches long, it’s easy to throw in a bag for traveling, although be forewarned that hotel Wi-Fi doesn’t always play nice with media streamers, regardless of the brand.

In terms of internal hardware, the Streaming Stick has 1080p output and dual-band Wi-Fi support, and Roku says the internal chip is similar to the one in the Roku 1 — more on that later.

Roku Streaming Stick

Lori Grunin/CNET

If you’re familiar with the Chromecast, everything should sound familiar so far, as it’s very similar to Google’s streamer. But while the hardware is largely the same, the two streamers have different approaches when it comes to navigation and finding content.

A real remote and user interface

Unlike the Chromecast, Roku’s Streaming Stick includes a remote in the box. It’s essentially the same remote you’d get with Roku’s other budget streaming boxes, although it works via Wi-Fi Direct, so it can communicate with the Stick when it’s hidden behind your TV. If you were hoping the remote would include Roku’s neat headphone-jack feature, you’re out of luck, as that functionality is still available only on the Roku 2 and Roku 3.

Roku Streaming Stick
Note that the remote doesn’t have the neat headphone jack for private listening; you’ll still need to get a Roku 2 or Roku 3 if you want that feature.
Lori Grunin/CNET

The Streaming Stick also includes Roku’s standard user interface, which is best-in-class at this point. While an onscreen display and a remote may seem old-fashioned compared with the Chromecast’s “your smartphone is your remote” approach, I personally find it to provide a better experience in the living room, as it means I can keep my eyes on the TV, instead of shuttling my attention between two screens. Especially when one of those screens may be reminding me about notifications and emails that I’m typically trying to unplug from when watching TV.

Roku Streaming Stick

Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

In addition to the remote and onscreen interface experience, you can also control the Streaming Stick with Roku’s mobile app, which is available on Android and iOS. And for Netflix and YouTube, you can also “cast” content straight to the Roku box from those respective Android and iOS apps, just as you can with a Chromecast. (And Roku says it’s working on adding casting functionality for more apps.) In other words, if you’re a “smartphone-as-remote” fan, you can throw the Roku remote into a drawer and never touch it again.

Ultimately, the Streaming Stick gives the best of both worlds, letting you control via smartphone — including “casting” from major apps — but also providing the traditional remote experience.

Ecosystem: Biggest library of apps there is

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