There are a burgeoning number of ways to receive content streamed from the internet to your living room TV, and no single provider is proving significantly dominant. One service that is certainly popular, though, is Roku. Here's our hands-on look at the recently-launched Roku Streaming Stick.
Two questions are immediately worth addressing regarding the device: what is it, and how does it compare to Google's Chromecast?
In short, the Streaming Stick (which was announced in March) is a small dongle that plugs into an HDMI port in the back of a TV to provide the user with a host of "channels" streamed from the internet. Netflix, Now TV and BBC iPlayer are some examples of the channels available.
The basic premise is that serving such internet-based content to a living room TV provides a better viewing experience to users, than having to watch content on a laptop. Roku provides a remote control with the Streaming Stick, to make the experience as similar as possible to normal couch-based viewing.
Readers who are familiar with Google's Chromecast device, one of the other big players in the over-the-top (OTT) content market, may be wondering how the devices differ. The main difference is that Roku users browse and select content to watch via the Roku interface on their TV using the remote control provided, whereas Chromecast users browse and select content on their computer or mobile device, sending content directly from compatible websites or mobile apps.
In the case of Chromecast, the computer or mobile device is essentially the remote control, and Chromecast is built into the services rather than the services being channels or apps on an interface. Chromecast is a little cheaper and Roku offers more content at present, amongst other differences, but we'll leave an in-depth comparison between the two for another time.
Getting set up
I'm not sure if it's possible to tire of unboxing a new toy. It's perennially exciting and is something obviously not lost on Roku. In addition to the major content provider logos emblazoned on the box and a clear, simple explanation of the service, a bold white line of text on Roku's signature purple background declares, "This is gonna be fun."
Unpacking the box reveals the Streaming Stick itself, the remote control and a cable to power the device via a USB port on the TV or a plug socket. A plug adapter is also provided. A short set of instructions explains how to get going, but it will be pretty straightforward stuff for anyone who's ever set up a new TV or similar. Language, network and timezone settings are requested, before the device is activated by inputting a code that is sent to the user's email address. The Streaming Stick connects to the user's home Wi-Fi network and is dual-band wireless N. compatible, so it will work with most home routers.
Users need to set up a Roku account if they don't already have one, and input payment card or PayPal details for any purchases. Restrictions are set at this point to determine when a PIN should be used for authorizing payments, if at all. Users are then taken through a process of choosing what initial channels to install. The usual suspects are there, such as Netflix and YouTube, as well as regional options. Being based in the UK, I was offered UK-based TV channel catch-up services like 4OD and Demand 5.
Experience and content
The UK version of the streaming stick that I tested offers over 500 channels, with more offered in other countries. There are over 1,000 in the US, for example. The device is compatible with HDTVs only and plays up to 1080p HD video. Users can also play games and view their own photos and videos via a number of different apps.
The first thing to note when navigating around the Roku interface is just how unresponsive the remote can feel at times, and how slow loading the channels can be. There were times I thought the device hadn't registered my pressing a button on the remote, only to press it again and end up in the wrong place. As for the channels, It took almost a full minute to load the Netflix app on my device. The Sky Store and iPlayer channels both took around 20 seconds, too. It's a minor quibble and one that is presumably affected by broadband internet speed, but for heavy users such a lag in loading channels could easily become a real frustration. Loading time is surely something that Roku will be looking to improve where possible.
It may be stating the obvious, but it's worth mentioning just in case: channels for services that you would ordinarily pay for, such as Netflix and Now TV, still require separate subscriptions in addition to the cost of the Streaming Stick. Don't go out and buy the Streaming Stick with the expectation that subscriptions to such services are bundled. If you don't use many or any of the subscription channels included, then it's worth considering whether or not the Streaming Stick is right for you. There are plenty of free channels included, but there is plenty more free content outside of the Roku walled garden and plenty of other (cheaper) ways to stream it to your TV.
Having said that, there is still a huge amount of free content available on Roku, although it will take some trial and error to find something you're interested in. Channels are broken down into categories such as news, weather and sport, film and TV, music, and food. Working out which channels are worthwhile, however, really is a case of taking a look.
Beyond the crudely designed logos and generic, hyperbolic descriptions, there's little to suggest what the content quality of a channel will be. Star ratings provided by other users give some indication, but there's likely to be a lot of wading through channels to find a selection that you're happy with. Don't be fooled by the slick interface design and major partner channels. There's some excellent content on Roku, but there's also a lot that is not so good (as is the nature of the internet).
Obviously the video quality depends to some extent on the third-party providers, but the streaming quality overall is very good. In fact watching HD movie trailers on the YouTube app was pretty mesmerizing. I've not experienced any lag or buffering and the audio has been fine. In terms of delivering HD content to your living room TV, the streaming stick certainly seems more than capable. HD quality and audio type (stereo or surround sound) can be adjusted in the settings. There's no way of adjusting audio quality, but I've not found it to be a problem.
The Streaming Stick is great for watching films via Netflix or the Sky Store (depending on regional availability), catching up on TV shows and grazing on niche content. It will, as the packaging proclaims, "be fun," but it will not blow your socks off. If you're a discerning consumer of content, then consider what Roku is offering carefully in relation to what you like watching before making a decision.
The device retails for US$49.99 (or £49.99 in the UK).
Product page: Roku