It would be easy to call Roku’s new $49 Streaming Stick a knee-jerk reaction to the $35 Google Chromecast. Both plug into a TV's HDMI port, are powered by a USB charger, and deliver streaming video, such as Netflix, to a TV. But the Roku Streaming Stick offers a lot more for the extra $15. In fact, this device is far closer to the $99 Roku 3.
Like its big brother, the Roku Streaming Stick (available in April in the U.S., UK and Canada) offers the company's full assortment of more than 1,200 Channels, vs. the 14 Chromecast apps currently available (though more are coming). Admittedly, many of them are niche – such as Cowboy Classics and Zombie TV. But Roku does have a better selection of mainstream channels than the $99 rival Apple TV. Beyond regulars like Netflix, Hulu Plus and HBO GO, Roku has Amazon Prime Instant Video, Vudu, Redbox Instant and others. (An upgraded Apple TV is rumored to come soon, however.)
The main difference between the Roku Streaming Stick and the Roku 3 is the RF remote control. The model bundled with the stick lacks a headphone port for private listening, as well as accelerometers that allow it to be a game controller for titles like "Angry Birds." Like the other Roku devices, the Streaming Stick can also be controlled from a mobile app. The Stick also lacks the Roku 3's USB port for playing videos from a USB drive.
Oddly, the product Roku is announcing today could have easily debuted two years ago. That's when Roku introduced its first Streaming Stick ($70, without remote). But that device worked only with TVs and devices such as Blu-ray players that had a port called MHL — essentially an HDMI port that also provides power. Roku says it has 14 partners making 60 products that it has certified to work with the old MHL stick, but they are less popular brands (at least in the U.S.), such as Hisense, Insignia and Hitachi. Roku's new stick, in comparison, should work on any device with a plain-old HDMI port, for $20 less, with a remote control. Roku is no longer selling the MHL model but is bundling it with devices made by its partner companies.
More video-casting options coming
Like the Roku 3, the Stick will also support a Chromecast-like feature called Send to TV, which allows you to sync the Roku device with Netflix or YouTube mobile apps to play the same streams as are playing on an iOS or Android device. (Since Netflix and YouTube are already on the Roku box, the utility is less exciting than it might be.)
Like the current Roku boxes and the old Streaming Stick, the new stick will also support what's called Play on Roku, which allows the Android and iOS mobile apps to stream music and photos stored on the mobile device, along with videos that they shot on the mobile device, to a Roku box and the TV it's connected to. That feature pales, however, in comparison to Apple's AirPlay, which casts the exact contents of an iOS device or Apple computer screen (as well as audio) to a television via Apple TV.
Roku told us that it plans to expand the video-casting abilities. "Adding more casting features is on the roadmap," Roku's chief marketing officer, Matthew Anderson, told Tom's Guide. First, the company plans an update sometime this year that brings Send to TV to its other set-top boxes. In addition, Anderson said that Roku is "looking at ways to cast from a laptop," as currently only iOS and Android devices have that capability.
In the future, Roku may allow slinging the exact contents of a device onto the TV, as AirPlay does, Anderson said, but he couldn't tell us much more about it. In the past, Roku has told us that it would enable an AirPlay-like technology standard called Miracast, but in our latest conversation, Anderson said only that Miracast would be one possible way of allowing streaming. The Miracast standard is rather poorly and spottily implemented in PCs and especially Android devices, which may explain Roku's hesitancy.
If Roku already appeals to you, the Streaming Stick should be a no-brainer. For a few dollars more than Chromecast, you get a much richer feature set - including probably more video and music channels than you could ever even try out, as well as a well-designed remote. And like Chromecast, the Roku Streaming Stick hides out of the way behind the TV. However, if you want a remote equipped with a headphone port or an accelerometer for playing games, look to the Roku 3 ($99.99) or Roku 2 ($79.99). A revamped Apple TV is almost certainly coming soon, but it's unlikely to expand its current lineup of about 30 apps to anything near Roku's 1200+ (and growing) channel lineup. (It's unlikely to add even popular services like Amazon that Apple sees as competitors.) If content selection, price or both are priorities, the Roku Streaming Stick is your best bet.