Review: Roku Streaming Stick+ Delivers Speedy 4K, HDR10 Streaming
Roku recently announced its 2017 five-model streaming adapter line with its new Roku 8.0 operating system, which brings improved power, speed and enhanced voice control features to the Roku streaming video equation.
We were able to get the newly announced Roku Streaming Stick+ ($69.99) with 4K Ultra HD resolution and HDR10 high dynamic range to see what all of the fuss was about, and we are pleased to report Roku has hit another homerun in the media stick category it helped to pioneer.
Read more of our review of the Roku Streaming Stick+ after the jump:
As a reminder, the new Roku streaming adapter line includes two very compact entry adapters in the basic HD-only Roku Express ($29.99 retail price) and Roku Express+ ($39.99), the latter adds analog composite video inputs for legacy TVs; two Roku Streaming Sticks, including the new Roku Streaming Stick ($49.99) and the Roku Stick+ ($69.99), the latter reviewed here adds 4K Ultra HD and HDR10 support; and the new flagship Roku Ultra 4K Ultra ($99.99) HD/HDR10 set-top streamer, with private listening capability via a headphone jack in the remote control and a micro SD card slot to store additional apps and speed up performance.
Roku’s latest streaming player family competes with recently released updated streaming adapter models from rivals Apple, with the Apple TV 4K ($179); Nvidia’s 2017 Shield TV (starting at $179) and Google’s $70 ChromeCast Ultra.
Amazon also has a new Fire TV streamer with 4K and HDR10 support, which sells for $70, and will stand as the most direct challenger to Roku’s Streaming Stick+.
Roku, which recently initiated an initial public offering to take its operations wider, remains one of the most popular streaming media adapters on the market. That is for good reason: Roku has an expansive library of apps and content, simple yet attractive on-screen app layout and intuitively easy, yet highly responsive, user interaction.
The Roku units are also among the most affordable streaming player options available and can be easily replaced with a lot less cost and pain than replacing a whole television as new technologies and streaming apps become available.
The typical customer for a Roku Streaming Stick or set-top media streamer is anyone with a non-smart TV looking to get access to all of the latest and greatest streaming services. Roku players also appeal to many owners of smart TVs who are dissatisfied with the performance built into their sets or their limited selection of streaming apps, which often omit a primary service or two, like Amazon, Hulu or Google Movies. In fact, Roku players have virtually any streaming app you’ve likely heard of and typically gets new ones added soon after they hit the Internet.
Roku even recently added its own app channel, called “The Roku Channel,” which aggregates a large assortment of free-to-view ad-supported movies and videos. This is a nice extra for those tired of paying to view too frequently.
Where Roku has lagged behind some of its competition is in the area of voice interaction. Many step-up Roku adapters and Roku all-in-one streaming TVs accept voice commands through the remote (Voice input can also be added through the Roku mobile device app on Andriod and iOS products). The capability is basic yet effective, serving simplify searching for movies and television programs by title, actor, director, etc.
This year voice searches and commands have become a little more reliable with the inclusion of natural speech input, that quickly recognizes and engages spoken names and phrases.
Through an update to the new Roku 8.0 OS, users can control basic commands of the television through buttons on the remote, as well. Three of the five players can now turn on and off a compatible connected TV and control volume and input switching through one simple and comfortable to hold remote.
The new players also bring more powerful processors to help speed up operation, making scrolling through app selections and calling up movies a few seconds snappier.
The most significant enhancement of the new Roku Streaming Stick+ is the addition of 4K HDR playback in a compact device priced to compete with the Chromecast Ultra and Apple TV 4K. Neither the Streaming Stick+ nor the new Roku Ultra offers support for Dolby Vision HDR, however. Roku is only supporting Dolby Vision through select series of TCL 4K Roku TVs and a similar TV series coming from Hisense in early 2018.
As mentioned, the Stream Stick+ remote now controls TV power and volume, and like last year’s Stick has a built-in mic to accept voice commands. For the first time, the Roku Streaming Stick+ also includes an antenna attachment in the USB power cable that improves connection to a Wi-Fi network for smoother and more reliable streaming speeds over a more extended range in the home, which is critical for streaming large files, like 4K Ultra HD movies.
The remote packaged with the Roku Streaming Stick+ is comparable in size and weight to the one that shipped with last year’s Roku Streaming Stick. The remote omits the built-in private listening headphone jack found in the Roku Ultra.
The Streaming Stick+ remote also includes an IR linking system that makes it more reliable to operate the TV and Stick through one control than typical HDMI-CEC integrated systems.
Set-up and Use
We found the Streaming Stick+ was easier and faster than ever to setup and begin operation. The USB power cord mentioned above plugged into the side of the Streaming Stick+ and was easily within reach of a powered USB port on a pair of LG and a couple of Samsung TVs we used as test displays.
The design of the Wi-Fi antenna in the USB power cable was made to help improve reception (up to 4x the distance range of previous models) at weak points, which appeared to help connectivity in the tests we conducted. The connection was rock solid no matter where we moved the Roku Streaming Stick+ in our testing residence.
Similarly effective was the new integrated TV control in the Roku remote. The Streaming Stick+ quickly identified a connected television and began controlling television power and volume. Also, because one press of the power button now turns off and on many brands and models of TVs along with the Roku Streaming Stick+, a fresh system reboot is applied at startup. This helps to clear the buffer and ensures the stick remains crisp and speedy, while eliminating freezes due to system updates and overloaded device memory.
The voice interaction continues to accept spoken input of programming titles effectively and now adds the ability to control input switching and natural language. Our tests found the system quickly recognized our spoken commands and picked up available movies and TV show titles like “Night of the Hunter” and “Ray Donovan” with only one hiccup when the system asked us to speak louder.
Aside from the searches, the voice functionality in the external adapter Stick was more limited than it is in the all-in-one 2017 integrated Roku TVs. Roku TVs now will be able to use spoken commands for basic TV control functions like turning on TV power, controlling volume, switching inputs and calling up a built-in programming grid guide of available over-the-air channels when an antenna is connected to the television.
The OTA guide and tuning is not supported in the external Roku adapters.
Although more effective at picking up spoken cues than last year, the improved voice command utility is still a far cry from Amazon’s Alexa system, Apple’s Siri or spoken commands on Android TVs or LG or Samsung smart TV platforms. We anticipate Roku will use its new IPO to help develop such functionality further.
We found connecting to a Wi-Fi network to be fast and simple. The new built-in antenna in the USB power cord seemed to keep Wi-Fi reception stable and speedy with fewer lags even when viewing 4K UHD with HDR10 and Dolby Vision HDR.
Like last year’s Roku Ultra, the Roku Streaming Stick+ now supports streaming HDR10 HDR metadata, which makes supported 4K images much more colorful and bright, along with rich deep blacks and fine shadow detail.
Several streaming channels including Amazon, Netflix, UltraFlix and Vudu have been offering 4K Ultra HD streaming with HDR for more than a year now, and the libraries are expanding significantly.
Roku has attempted to make the 4K and HDR search a little easier by providing a 4K Spotlight App that aggregates all of the 4K Ultra HD and HDR selections available through the dongle. It even improved that app this year to break out 4K movies and 4K television programs, as well as 4K movies available with HDR10. However, it only listed selections available via Amazon or Fandango. None of the selections from Netflix and other major apps appeared. Roku executives told us this is because the app providers have to approve of their content being listed in the app, which Netflix apparently has not agreed to as yet.
Meanwhile, we found some programs available in 4K HDR didn’t always appear listed with that capability in their program descriptors.
Among the reasons for that include:
- Not having the Roku Streaming Stick+ connected to a compatible HDMI 2.0a/HDCP port on the TV (some sets only have one or two HDMI inputs that are HDR compatible);
- Not having the HDMI UHD Color capability switched on for the HDMI input carrying the Streaming Stick+ (or similar name depending on the brand of television used)
- Possible EDID issues where we had to go into the picture mode settings on the TV and change the option selections back and forth to force HDR mode to kick in. This is a failure between the source device and the display to properly engage and communicate.
Despite the handshake issues, we got the Roku Streaming Stick+ to successfully play 4K Ultra HD content with HDR on four different televisions.
Once operating, we found streaming 4K Ultra HD content with HDR10 through the Streaming Stick+ to be engaging and compelling. Colors were almost as sharp and vibrant as they were from the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disc versions of the same content and peak luminance was similarly close to the disc-based levels, though they didn’t appear quite as bright.
One of the biggest advantages of getting 4K/HDR streaming through a Roku Streaming Stick is the tiny form factor it provides. Using a stick — as opposed to a slightly- larger than a hockey puck sized set-top-box in the Roku Ultra — allows you to eliminate cables and hide the adapter cleanly behind the screen. Also, the adapter is easily moved from television to television around the house or taken on vacations and business trips.
Roku facilitates easily connecting with a Wi-Fi network in a hotel or dormitory where browser-based authentication and activations is required.
A reminder: Another benefit of Roku is that its devices support pass-through of Dolby Atmos 3D object-based audio streaming, where available in content. However, the HDMI Audio Return Channel on most TVs doesn’t have sufficient bandwidth to pass the Atmos data back to a connected AV receiver or soundbar. If Dolby Atmos or similarly large lossless audio surround sound format is desired, it’s important to connect the Roku Streaming Stick+ to the HDMI 2.0a or later input on a fairly recent and compatible AV receiver or soundbar with Dolby Atmos decoding and then pass the 4K video with HDR10 on to the TV through the receiver’s HDMI 2.0a/b output.
The Roku Streaming Stick+ is this year’s most practical solution for adding streaming 4K Ultra HD capability with HDR10 support. The Roku Ultra is a nice step-up that adds a remote with built-in headphone jack for private listening and video game control, and the box includes a micr0-SD card expansion slot for additional memory and speedier operation. But it removes last year’s optical audio output and has a higher price than the Streaming Stick+.
This year, purchasers also will have to decide if they would rather have the Roku Streaming Stick+ or one of the previously mentioned competitive models. Of them all, the most substantial upgrade is the Apple TV 4K with both HDR10 and Dolby Vision, at a $110 premium. So if you have a new LG, Philips, Sony or Vizio TV with Dolby Vision support and appreciate the advantages Dolby Vision offers, you might want to go the Apple TV route.
But from this vantage point, the Roku Streaming Stick+ still offers the best app selection, cleanest and easiest interface, and an unbiased program search and recommendation system. It is a recommended buy.
The Roku Streaming Stick+ used for this review was a company loan.
By Greg Tarr
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