Roku Stick review

The tiny Roku Stick can turn your HDTV into a connected media hub without taking up any shelf space, but its finicky requirements keep it from being useful to all but a handful of users. You're better off with a Roku box.
Photo of Roku Stick

If your HDTV doesn’t already have integrated Wi-Fi and online services, you need to get a media hub or a Blu-ray player for access to services like Netflix and Hulu Plus. Roku has been one of the biggest brands for watching streaming content on your HDTV for years, and it’s always needed a bit of room on the shelf for its small box. The Roku Stick changes that. Instead of a box you have to plug into the wall and the HDTV, the tiny USB-drive-like Roku Stick ($99.99 direct) plugs directly into an MHL-equipped HDMI port, and offers the same features as the Roku 2 XS  box including support for 1080p video. It’s a smart idea, but the MHL port requirement and spotty compatibility makes it a tough sell for most.

Design
The purple Roku Stick is the size of a large USB flash drive, measuring just 2.7 by 1 by 0.4 inches (HWD). It has a single HDMI plug and a power light, with no buttons or other indicators on the device. Functionality is controlled through the included remote, which is larger than the stick and is nearly identical to the motion-sensing game controller remote that comes with the Roku 2 XS.

The bundled remote is rounded and simple, with a four-way direction pad, basic playback controls, Back and Home buttons, and multi-use A and B buttons that let the remote double as a game controller when turned sideways. There are Volume buttons on the right side of the remote, and can adjust your HDTV’s volume directly through HDMI-CEC if yout TV supports it. The remote is motion-sensing, and can play games like Angry Birds through the Roku Stick. You can also control the Roku Stick with your HDTV’s remote via HDMI-CEC, and free iOS and Android apps let you use your smartphone or tablet to navigate the menus and control playback.

To set up the Roku Stick, just plug it into an MHL-equipped HDMI port and it will start up, registering as a Roku device you can select like any other video source. MHL is commonly used to connect smartphones and other devices to HDTVs and keep them powered, and is relatively uncommon in today’s TVs. Roku recommends using the device with “Roku Ready” devices that are confirmed as compatible, including a few Hitachi and Insignia HDTV models and a single projector from 3M. A standard HDMI port won’t work, but the Roku Stick worked fairly well with the MHL-equipped HDMI input on the Oppo BDP-103 Blu-ray player, but I noticed some input lag and freezing when the Roku Stick was connected to the Oppo that didn’t appear when it was connected to a Roku Ready Hitachi HDTV.

Channels and Conclusions
Once plugged in and booted (a process that can take a few minutes), the Roku Stick acts just like a Roku box. For a more detailed look at Roku services, check out our Roku 2 XS review. The stick wirelessly connects to the Internet with its dual-band 802.11 b/g/n radio and can access the several hundred “channels” offered through Roku’s services. The typical online services are all here, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, and Vudu, along with niche and cult movie services like Kung-Fu Theater, Midnight Pulp, and FrightPIX. There are also news and weather channels like NBC News and Weather Underground, sports channels, including NBA Game Time and MLB.TV, photo and video services like Picasa and Flickr, and games like Angry Birds and video poker.  These channels can vary from free to premium, with some services like HBO Go requiring separate subscriptions. If you don’t want to spend any additional money, though, there are still plenty of channels to watch.

The Roku Stick is a unique and very compact way to equip your HDTV with Web services and apps, but its dependence on an MHL HDMI port and emphasis on “Roku Ready” devices makes it useful for only a handful of people. A stick that gets power from a USB port would be much more versatile and better justify a $100 price. You’re better off with another Roku product. The Editors’ Choice Roku LToffers very similar features, albeit with 720p video output, for $50. And the same-price Roku 2 XS outputs in 1080p and offers identical features. And the Roku boxes aren’t much larger than hockey pucks. The space savings aren’t worth the limitations that come with the Roku Stick.

More Media Hub Reviews:

Specifications
Wi-Fi Compatibility Yes
DLNA No
Blu-ray No

Verdict
The tiny Roku Stick can turn your HDTV into a connected media hub without taking up any shelf space, but its finicky requirements keep it from being useful to all but a handful of users. You're better off with a Roku box.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc