Review: New 1080p Roku TV Streaming Stick
Major TV manufacturers have been trying to solve the puzzle to building a successful and satisfying smart TV system for the better part of a decade now, but the truth is that Roku has been one-step ahead of most of them since before they started integrating complex operating systems and IP functionality into dumb displays.
Roku, too, has teamed up with TV makers like TCL, Insignia and Hisense to build its platform into all-in-one sets, which are more basic on picture quality enhancements but long on streaming pleasure. But it’s the company’s simple and efficient media adapters and “Streaming Sticks” that continue to capture the most attention for their value, simplicity and huge selection of over-the-top streaming apps and services.
In fact, if getting the best smart TV experience is really all that you’re after, it’s hard to argue against having a Roku Streaming Stick, even if you already have a smart TV. A growing population of smart TV owners, who have purchased aftermarket Streaming Sticks and Roku set-top devices, has formed to get all of the functionality that Roku has to offer from its more than 3,000 service partners.
Roku’s latest $49.95 “Streaming Stick, (3600R)” which is available this week, might be the best argument yet to get one. It doesn’t make any huge leaps in feature advancement over the previous-generation Roku Streaming Stick, so there really isn’t much of a reason to upgrade if you have the older purple model, but the latest black version does shave a bit off of the size, without shaving any of the entertainment selection.
It also adds a quad-cord processor that significantly steps up the start-up and app-loading speeds (Roku said it’s up to eight times faster) and the extra power makes it less susceptible to freeze ups or stalls than the previous generation of the Streaming Stick introduced two years earlier.
Read more of our review of the new Roku Streaming Stick after the jump:
Where the more diminutive media streamer falls a little short is in staying a step behind the bleeding edge of video technology. The new Streaming Stick offers neither high dynamic range (HDR) nor 4K Ultra HD support, capping off at the same Full HD 1080p resolution level found in the earlier version.
Of course, if you are like most of the country and still don’t have a 4K Ultra HDTV, that’s not going to be an issue at all.
The new stick also continues to require a second connection to a USB power supply in addition to plugging into an available HDMI port. Roku said that it’s possible to plug the stick’s power cable into an open USB port on some TVs to get this power, but in our test 50-ich LG LCD TV the power level from the set’s USB input wasn’t enough.
Fortunately, Roku supplies both a mini USB cable and a wall adapter to plug into an external power source, but this can lead to cable management issues when trying to wall mount some TV models. Also, when the adapter is plugged directly into a supporting USB port on the TV, the Roku unit will reboot every time the TV is turned off and on.
Most people, however, will find the newest iteration of this diminutive over-the-top video streamer to be quick and responsive. The selection highlighter zips around the lineup of app icons and loads selections without hesitation. Even beefy apps, like the newest one from Netflix, goes from selection to ready-to-play mode in under 15 seconds. It can take more than twice that with the previous stick.
Like the media adapter itself, the new remote for the Roku Stick is scaled down in girth. Not that this was a problem with the previous version. That remote was one of the most comfortable to hold control devices on the market. Still, the new one isn’t quite as thick or heavy, but it continues to lack the headphone jack and mic input (for spoken program search commands), which are offered in Roku’s better performing Roku 3 and Roku 4 set-top boxes. The Roku 4 even has 4K Ultra HD support (but no HDR).
However, Roku has also developed a new Mobile App that is exclusive to the Roku Stick. The app, which works with both Android and iOS devices, will allow users to stream TV audio through a mobile device and listen to sound over a connected pair of headphones or earbuds.
Sound syncs very precisely with the video without lag or latency. This provides a solution for people with Bluetooth headphones but don’t have Bluetooth connectivity built into their televisions.
The mobile app controls the Roku Stick, as the dedicated handheld remote does, but accepts voice commands for program searches. The new remote continues to have a minimized button layout, and quick access buttons for “Netflix,” Amazon,” “Sling TV” and “Google Play” apps.
Another enhancement in the new Roku Streaming Stick is the inclusion of most of the latest search and discovery features that have been added to newer Roku set-top boxes. The most compelling of these is: “My Feed,” which very quickly finds, lists and updates information on available favorite movies and programs listed in order of most affordable price.
Also added is a “Movies and TV” section, which very quickly lets people find a program or movie, compare available prices, and see who’s got it and watch it.
Setting up the Roku Stick was as easy as ever. The stick plugs directly into an available HDMI port, and the mini USB power cable connects to the tip of the stick on one end and a power adapter connected to a wall outlet on the other. The unit booted up quickly and after inputting my home network password, the device paired with the Wi-Fi router without a hitch. The whole process took just a few minutes.
Voice search worked well on the new Roku mobile app, and typing in search selections and passwords was easier on a smartphone than using the hunt and peck process with an on-screen softkey.
Among the many options for media streaming available today, Roku’s media adapters are the easiest to use that I’ve found. Amazon’s Fire TV stick, which runs about $40 with basic remote and $50 with a voice control remote, is similar, but the company likes to push its own content services over others when making program recommendations and searches. The new Roku Streaming Stick is also more powerful and faster.
Where Roku excels over all others, including new TVs with built-in Smart TV IP platforms, is in offering a valuable selection of streaming services and apps. Nothing matches the selection available in Roku. Even apps for things like Sirius XM radio can be loaded for users who have an online service subscription to the satellite radio service. The same app is missing or has been removed from the smart TVs of some major brands, including our LG test LCD TV.
People who have a 4K Ultra HD TV may want to invest in the Roku 4 set-top to gain access to 4K Ultra HD streaming content from services like Amazon, Netflix, Fandango and others, but for others there’s very little extra you will get from a more expensive Roku 3 set-top box that you can’t get with the new Roku Streaming Stick and the accompanying mobile app.
Plus it’s a lot easier to carry a Roku Streaming Stick around in your pocket when you are headed out on vacation or a business trip.
We award the new Roku Streaming 3600R Stick 4 out of 5 hearts.
The Roku Streaming Stick used for this review was supplied by the company.
By Greg Tarr
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