Roku Streaming Stick Review (HDMI Version): Size Matters Not
- -Inexpensive and amazingly compact
- -Same great Roku UI and channel selection
- -Remote included
- -Netflix speed will be addressed with update
- -Still slower and buggier than Roku 3
- -No headphone port on remote
At $50, the new Roku 3500R Streaming Stick (HDMI version) is priced between the best-in-class Roku 3 ($99) and the Google Chromecast ($35), both of which we’ve reviewed on The CheckOut (9/10 and 7/10, respectively). You might think of the Streaming Stick as Roku’s answer to the latter, as they have similar form factors, but it’s really more or less the former, crammed into a thumb drive-sized dongle.
Whereas the Chromecast is becoming a full-fledged mirroring device for your PC, phone and tablet (Android as a start) with limited streaming capabilities, the Roku Streaming Stick is a full-fledged streaming media player with limited mirroring capabilities. You can mirror (or cast) Netflix and YouTube from their respective mobile apps to the Roku stick—which is pretty cool the first time—but that’s all you can mirror (see screenshot at right). At least for now, because this functionality is expected to appear on more apps for Roku.
The Roku Streaming Stick is itself not entirely new. The 2012 MHL version (aka “Roku Ready”) is actually slightly smaller and sells for $20 more. The MHL (Mobile High Definition Link) port, which functions like HDMI, is found on newer TVs and powers the older streaming stick. The 2014 iteration drops the MHL requirement for the more-universal HDMI connectivity but now needs to be powered via USB or outlet.
The Roku Streaming Stick is fairly straightforward to set up. Inside the fancy packaging, you’ll find a 6-ft. microUSB to USB cable that you can plug into the included power adapter or a powered USB port on your TV. The cable could stand to be longer but since it’s universal, that’s easy enough to change.
There’s no on/off switch, so it potentially never powers down, which can be problematic (more about that later). If you do plug the Roku stick into a powered USB port, the unit will power down with the TV, but that also means it has to boot up every time you turn on the TV, and that process can take a couple minutes.
Pairing the RF remote (which comes with “AA” Duracell Coppertops) is automatic and takes a few seconds. From the top, you select language and wireless network, enter network password, then update software and restart the Roku stick. If you don’t have one, you’ll have to create a new Roku account on your computer, then link or update the Roku stick with that account and start adding channels.
The whole process takes about 10 to 15 minutes depending on how many services you have accounts with. Entering all the usernames and passwords for your different channels using the remote and on-screen keyboard can be tedious. The good news is Roku’s on-screen keyboard is better and faster than other streaming players, including the Apple TV.
Alternatively, you can download the free Roku app for your mobile device (iOS and Android) and control the stick from there. It’s fast, maybe even faster than the actual remote. And the built-in keyboard is definitely faster.
What does the Roku Streaming Stick offer that makes it an appealing choice for streaming aficionados? For starters, the price. As a bonus, you can get an $8 credit at M-GO—Roku’s streaming partner— with purchase through August 2014, which makes it an even better deal. And if you’re new to the M-GO service, you also get a complimentary rental.
Secondly, the convenient and attractive compactness. About the size of an old-school USB drive, it measures 3.1 x 1.1 x 0.5 inches. The Roku stick easily hides behind the back of a TV, and you can always pick up a cheap right-angle HDMI adapter so a wall-mounted TV with rear-only HDMI ports can remain flush up against the wall.
Thirdly, it’s still Roku. It still streams 1080p full HD video, has built-in dual-band Wi-Fi and boasts the same intuitive UI that Roku is well-known for. Scrolling through the channel menu is convenient because it repeats from the beginning and you can easily add channels from the player or your computer.
Roku’s excellent cross-platform search is on the Streaming Stick, so you can see which channel has the movie or show you’re looking for.
Speaking of channels, Roku’s got a ton of them (like over 1,000). Except for iTunes (see Apple TV), you’ll find just about everything good, bad and in-between: Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Video, Amazon Music (aka Cloud Player), YouTube (missing in older Rokus), Pandora, Spotify, M-GO, WatchESPN, Vudu, Redbox Instant and Plex among many, many others.
Plex is one of those lesser-known apps that’s not available on every streaming player (see Apple TV). Plex lets you stream content from your computer or networked drive. It’s a kick to watch your content via Plex complete with poster art. Plex now costs $5 after a 30-day free trial. It’s also great to watch free sports on WatchESPN (World Cup, Wimbledon), although some content is locked to your cable provider.
The remote looks basically the same as the 3rd gen Roku remotes, but lacks IR, motion control for games, and the headphone port, which some may see as a big drawback. It’s also missing ethernet and a microSD slot. However, these seem like acceptable omissions and compromises for the price point and size.
As you may have seen from customer reviews on the web, the Netflix loading time is cited as one of the biggest issues of the Roku Streaming Stick. Starting up Netflix for the first time took over a minute (70 seconds). After I signed in, it took another 30 seconds to load, then it crashed after a couple minutes. The new Netflix app is beautiful, but it’s apparently too processor-intensive for this little Roku compared to the more robust dual-core CPU in the Roku 3.
In general, it takes Netflix about 25 to 28 seconds to load, while YouTube and WatchESPN are in the 10-second range. Most other apps—such as Amazon, Spotify and Plex—are in the 1- to 5-second range. In regular daily use, this wasn’t as big as an issue for me as it sounds, but it could be if all you use is Netflix.
I had some other problems with the Roku stick. It can run pretty hot, which may explain why the home screen once locked up after a week of being on and would not respond to the remote. I tried re-pairing the remote to no avail, so I had to unplug and replug the stick. That solution got it working again, but not after a couple minutes of holding my breath and waiting for the remote to automatically pair again.
Despite its limitations, I still recommend the Roku Streaming Stick, but as a second or third streaming device for a bedroom TV or guest room TV. The slow Netflix loading is currently being addressed by Roku, and the overall experience is still worthy of the Roku brand. But if you’re looking for a primary streaming player, go pick up a Roku 3 on sale. It’s still the best out there.