So you’ve decided that a cable subscription just isn’t worth it, and you’re confident you can get by with a life of streaming services.
You still have that TV in the living room, though. And since watching shows on a 10-inch iPad isn’t exactly luxurious, you now have to figure how to get things back onto that bigger display.
The best way to do that is to pick up a media streamer. These little boxes are explicitly designed to feed dozens of streaming apps onto your TV, and they’re much more convenient to use than simply running an HDMI cable to your laptop.
Now, this might not be totally necessary if you have a gaming console or “smart TV,” as most of those already support big services like Netflix and YouTube. If you don’t, though, a media streamer is cheaper than the former, faster than the latter, and has a deeper catalogue than both. It’s also easier to take on the road.
So, which one should I get?
Well, it depends on what services you need, and how often you want to use the streamer. If I had to pick one catch-all, though, the latest Roku Streaming Stick is the best value of the major players right now.
1. It’s strong. When I reviewed the Roku Streaming Stick earlier this year, I found it more than held its own against bigger, pricier boxes like the Roku 4 and Amazon Fire TV. It wasn’t the same, but it was close. Apps load quickly, and perusing through Roku’s interface is consistently smooth. It doesn’t support the fastest 802.11ac WiFi standard, a la the Google Chromecast, but it’s never felt slow in day-to-day use. It’s noticeably faster than Amazon’s Fire TV Stick.
2. It’s never difficult to find what you want. Roku organizes your stuff by app, instead of by show. I find that to be much more straightforward. It doesn’t guess recommendations for me or promote its creator’s shows (like Amazon), nor does it require my phone to work (like Google) — it just puts my favourite channels front and center, in a simple grid, and lets me choose from there. You can order that grid how you see fit, too, so your most used apps are always at the top.
3. Nearly every major app is onboard. Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Amazon Video, HBO Now, HBO Go, WatchESPN, Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, Google Play Movies, Showtime, Twitch, CBS, FX Now, Fox Now, NBC, WWE, NBC Sports, every big sports league, Spotify, Pandora, Plex — not all of these apps look as slick as they might elsewhere, but you shouldn’t have a problem finding something to watch.
The only major omissions are iTunes and Apple Music (which Apple locks to the Apple TV), Google Play Music, Fox Sports Go, Starz, and Kodi. Every streamer has its blind spots, but for most people, those aren’t hard to swallow. And even if you do find something amiss, there’s a big catalogue of user-created channels that often provide a way around it.
4. Its search is excellent. It takes the widest array of services into account, organizes results by price, and lets you search by show, app, actor, or director. It could still include more services, but it’s as flexible as these things get. Its remote — which is great, by the way — doesn’t do voice search like the Fire TV Stick, but it’s still fast and accurate through Roku’s mobile app.
5. It doesn’t have (as much of) an agenda. Roku doesn’t own a content service the way Amazon, Apple, and Google do, so it doesn’t have as much incentive to promote one platform over the others. With the Fire TV, you’re pushed toward Prime Video. With the Apple TV, you’re pushed toward iTunes when you want to buy things, and you have to rely on AirPlay (and thus Apple devices) to get around some missing apps. It’s a similar deal with Android TV devices like the Nvidia Shield.
Unless you’ve totally given yourself to those ecosystems, this is annoying. The Streaming Stick does preload movie and TV stores from Fandango Go, but you can disable those without much trouble. Otherwise, it’s more platform-agnostic.
6. Private listening. The Streaming Stick’s remote doesn’t have a built-in headphone jack — as the Rokus 3 and 4 do — but you can still listen in privately through the Roku app on your phone. This works well — though it’s a little spottier over Bluetooth — and it’s a godsend if you don’t want to wake anyone around you.
7. It’s affordable. Most of the above applies to all Roku streamers. What makes the Streaming Stick so worth it is that it’s not significantly handicapped compared to those devices, yet it only costs $50. It’s competing more with the Roku 4, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire TV in terms of performance, even though it’s priced closer to a Chromecast or Fire TV Stick.
The most for most people
No streamer is flawless, and there are still a few situations where the Roku Streaming Stick doesn’t work.
There’s no Ethernet jack, for instance, so if you’re not confident in your WiFi, you’ll want a bigger set-top box. There’s also no 4K support — that’s not a huge loss for most TV sets right now, but it’s clearly a thing now, so the Roku 4 is a bit more futureproof. And the lack of Kodi is a problem for some hardcore users.
Again, much of this depends on your circumstances. If you’re all in on Amazon Prime, the Fire TV works. If you’ve invested in iTunes, the Apple TV is your only real choice (it’s also getting better). If you stream casually, you might not mind the Chromecast running everything through phone apps. And if you need pure power, the Nvidia Shield isn’t bad at all. But t
he Roku Streaming Stick just casts the widest net, and does it for cheap. That should put it first on your shortlist.
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