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Month-Long Test Drive: The Roku Streaming Stick

**The Roku Streaming Stick allows service for the on-the-go couch potato, while their app turns your smartphone into a portable remote control.** Roku, Inc.

The Roku Streaming Stick allows service for the on-the-go couch potato, while their app turns your smartphone into a portable remote control. Roku, Inc.

As more and more guys “cut the cord” tethering them to traditional cable companies, the marketplace for streaming video devices has become increasingly crowded. It’s difficult to differentiate among the many Chromecasts, Apple TVs and Rokus of the world.

We deemed the new Roku Streaming Stick worthy of testing for two reasons: its portability, and its price. At $50, you can’t find a less-expensive streaming device with so much processing power. (The Roku Stick comes with a quad-core processor.) And thanks to its compact form factor and ability to stay powered via USB port—as well as via old-school AC jack, if you prefer—you can hide a Roku stick behind a wall-mounted TV without any extra boxes or cords cluttering your room.

Of course, you need a TV with a USB port to make this setup work—not an issue if your TV was made in the last few years. The only other caveat is that, unlike an AC-powered device, a Roku Stick plugged into your TV’s USB port will power down every time you turn off your set. That means the Roku has to power back up when you turn on your TV—a process that, for me, never took more than 10 seconds. I didn’t mind the wait, but it was an adjustment from older never-off devices that were ready to stream the second I turned on my television.

USB-powered delays aside, I found the Roku Stick pretty damn impressive. That quad-core processor allowed me to open Netflix and other streaming apps just as quickly as with my Apple TV or Chromecast, if not more quickly. The picture quality was very good—on par with other streaming devices and my cable service. And after five weeks of use, I didn’t experience a single loading issue or problem connecting to my home’s Wi-Fi network.

What I did experience was easy access to my favorite streaming apps and channels, several of which my Roku remote helped me access quickly via one-click buttons for launching Netflix, Amazon, Sling and Google Play. In all the ways that mattered, the act of calling up and viewing video was a breeze. Even though the device was tucked behind my television, it responded to its remote instantly even from 20 feet away and at an angle that put the bulk of the TV between the me and the device’s sensors.

At first I was a little bummed that the Roku Stick’s remote didn’t have a headphone jack. Whether you have noise-sensitive roommates or, like me, two young kids you’d like to spare from errant F-bombs, the ability to confine your TVs audio to headphones is a big plus. But then I figured out I could download the Roku app and use my phone’s jack to listen in with headphones. Problem mostly solved; there was a slight delay on some programs when I used Bluetooth ear buds, but wired headphones provided seamless audio.

A few more small knocks: The Roku Stick supports 1080p video resolution, but not 4k. There’s still not a ton of 4k content out there, but it’s still a ding. Also, if you were a fan of gaming using a Roku 3 or 4—not my bag, and from gamers I know not a huge draw anyway—the Stick’s remote lacks the motion controller capabilities that allow for advanced gaming.

In researching the Roku Stick, I also found some reviews mentioning remote control freezing issues. I didn’t experience a problem like the stuff I saw described. But there’s enough online smoke to suggest remotes failures are a legit risk with the stick, albeit one a call to Roku support will resolve. I could also nitpick the search interface, particularly the lack of voice search. That’s a major time-saver compared to on-screen typing using the remote.

But the speed, image quality, price, size, and interface were all good to excellent.

VERDICT: Buy. No device is perfect. But if you’re looking for a fast, functional, inconspicuous video streaming device with a friendly price tag, the Roku Stick is better than solid. It’s a steal.


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