Roku Streaming HDMI Stick


Performance
Features
Ergonomics
PRICE $50

AT A GLANCE
Plus
Direct HDMI connection to most TVs
Extensive content options
Suggested videos and apps on home screen
Remote with direct access to Netflix, M-Go, Amazon Instant Video, and Blockbuster

Minus
Music stops when navigating away from channel
Long start-up time
No option to group channels by category

THE VERDICT
The great features of a Roku box in a stick for half the price.

The second Roku Streaming Stick (HDMI version) is a fit-in-your-pocket HDMI dongle that is basically a Roku box on a stick. Where the previous Roku Streaming stick worked only with TVs that have an MHL (Mobile High Definition Link) HDMI port, the new Roku is compatible with most TVs’ standard HDMI connections. As with its predecessors, the Roku HDMI is easy to use and offers more than 1,700 channels (that is, apps). Notably, these now include apps that stream from pretty much any video source you can think of—the usual online streaming services, plus your home network media libraries, or live TV and recorded DVR recorded content using Simple.tv or a Slingplayer channel.

Unlike with the Roku MHL streaming stick, the new HDMI stick cannot be controlled using the TV’s remote. A basic Roku remote with direct buttons to launch Netflix, Blockbuster, Amazon and M-Go is included in the box. The remote is needed for the initial network setup. After the stick is connected to your home network, however, you can stash the remote if you like, as the streaming stick can be controlled using the robust Roku smartphone remote-control app that includes access to the phone’s keyboard for search and logins.

Where the MHL version can draw power directly from the MHL HDMI port on a TV, the new HDMI streaming stick requires power. It comes with a USB wall power adapter and micro-USB cable. The Roku stick can also be connected to a TV’s USB port that supplies power, but I wouldn’t recommend it. When the Roku is powered by the TV, it turns on and off when the TV is switched on/off. The Roku stick takes well over a minute or more to start up, so that setup will result in a long wait time whenever the TV is turned on. If the stick USB power adapter is plugged into the wall, the home screen is immediately visible when the TV is turned on. The Roku’s HDMI CEC device control insures that pressing the Roku Home button will automatically switch the TV to the Roku stick’s input.

The home menu looks like that of many other streaming players, but it is actually a bit different. In a typical media player menu, category lists usually bring up a sub menu of apps (or channels). But recent integration with the M-Go movie service and AOL news has altered the way the Roku menu works. Prior, selecting the Movies or TV Shows category from the left sidebar menu would call up your related channel apps, such as Vudu or Netflix. Now, selecting the Movies and TV Shows categories brings up a selection of content from M-Go. Selecting the News category displays AOL On news videos. If you want to watch movies from Vudu, Netflix, or Amazon Instant Video; TV shows from Hulu, or news from the Wall Street Journal, those channels can be found under the “My Channels” heading, along with all of the other channels you’ve downloaded to the Roku. In other words, if you want to rent movies and TV shows from M-Go, it’s conveniently reached. If you want to watch anything else, however, you’ll have to go scroll through all of your channels to find the app and open it.

The categories on the left sidebar are not categories of channels. Because of Roku’s integration with the M-Go movie streaming service, the Movie category will bring up a grid of movies available instead of a choice of movie channels. Likewise, the News menu item only brings up AOL On’s news videos.

Content
Roku has come a long way from its initial channel offerings that included just Netflix and several religious and foreign-country channels. While still offering the big five streaming apps&mdashl;Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu and M-Go—it has thousands of other channels for most anything that you feel like watching.

New channels and highlighted videos are prominently displayed to the right of the home menu grid. Clicking on the ad takes you directly to advertised video within the app.

Among the new channels, I especially enjoyed AnyClip. The channel offers a choice of classic movie moments—everything from Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry saying, “You need to ask yourself a question…Do I feel lucky?” to the “world of pain” clip in The Big Lebowski. Clips are organized by famous movie quotes, fight scenes, creepy horror scenes, romance scenes, funniest scenes, and more.

Another great find was a Pharrell Williams live concert directed by Spike Lee, part of a series of live concerts available on American Express Now. This also streams videos on style, travel and dining, and indie films. Another channel, a new favorite of mine called PTA (Planes, Trains and Automobiles), features short travel videos of high production value, either 10 or 20 minutes in length. An unusual take on travel videos, its categories include locals showing off their city in “Staycation,” video postcards from exotic places, and travel-related tech. This channel is worth a look even if you don’t care about travel videos just for its clever design—from navigation help to playing random videos.

Along with the mass of online streaming opportunities, Roku offers many ways to stream media from your home network media libraries to the connected TV set. PLEX, PlayOn Media and Roku’s own My Media are three channel options that can access and play most of the media you own.

There are also a number of ways to watch news videos. The Roku Newscaster channel offers a random smattering of stories from all the major networks, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), and more. My preference was to watch the dedicated NBC News channel that had an assortment of most of the top stories from all of their news programs. Finally, I can get my news without having to sit through stories I don’t want to see.

Performance
Along with the development of its content offerings, Roku has gone from being a poor performer in sound and picture quality to being one of the best. Its 1080p high-definition resolution may not be 4K, but it has eye-popping clarity compared to its media player competitors. In particular, I see a noticeable quality boost when I switch from other players to the Roku Streaming Stick. It’s also capable of 7.1 and 5.1 surround pass-through to accommodate Vudu HDX movies and other content carrying these soundtracks, though in most cases you’ll be relying on your HDTVs optical audio output to port the sound to a soundbar. Relatively few HDTVs pass more than a two-channel stereo signal from their digital audio output.

If I have one major complaint, it is that the music channels don’t continue to play when you navigate away from them. This means it’s not possible to view a slideshow with accompanying music, or to continue to enjoy music while browsing the other channels on the Roku to make another selection.

The Roku persists as one of the most content-rich, high-performing media players available, and the new Roku HDMI stick continues in that tradition. It offers both feature-length videos and TV shows, and tons of short-form videos. No matter what mood I’m in, I can turn it on and find something I want to watch. And thanks to its compact form factor I can also put it in my jeans pocket to take with me when I’m away from home. Sweet!

COMPANY INFO
Roku
(888) 600-7658
ARTICLE CONTENTS
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COMMENTS
mwelters's picture

This would be a great device, if only it were compatible with my Harmony Ultimate.

etrochez's picture

If you have a 5.1 sound system, can you just plug the stick in the receiver HDMI input to get full 5.1?

Rob Sabin's picture
As originally commented on, this line read: "It’s also capable of 7.1 and 5.1 surround pass-through to accommodate Vudu HDX movies and other content carrying these soundtracks, though you’ll be relying on your HDTV's optical audio output to port the sound to your AV receiver or soundbar. Relatively few HDTVs pass more than a two-channel stereo signal from their digital audio output."

I added the last part of this sentence in the role of Barb's editor to provide a reminder to readers of this limitation on the audio outputs of most HDTV's. However, it does seem logical that you could plug this into any AVR's HDMI input the way you would a standalone Roku streaming box and pick up the multichannel feed that way via HDMI. I've asked for confirmation on this just to be sure, but in the meantime, the comment still applies for routing signals from the Stick to any powered soundbar that lacks HDMI inputs, probably a large number of them in the field to date. I've altered the text accordingly. Thanks for the catch.

mailiang's picture

My Panasonic S60 streams 5.1 audio via the optical out from both it's built in streaming player and USB media player app. Should I assume it would do the same when using the Roku stick? Also, I read a review on this device on Tom's guide and they mention that you can plug it into your AVR's HDMI input.

Ian

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