Roku‘s streaming media boxes have been around since 2008, arguably taking the #2 spot behind the Apple TV. This is an impressive achievement considering the absence of a major brand behind the product line. Here in the UK, set-top boxes like Apple TV, Roku, and Google TV have a relatively low-profile: the BBC’s iPlayer catchup service is massively popular, but as the app is widely available on satellite decoders, cable boxes, games consoles and laptops, there is little demand for an additional streaming device. The latest generation of low cost, plug-in streamers from Roku and Google may well change this. Let’s take a look.
What I have here is the UK edition of Roku’s Streaming Stick, a thumb-sized streaming device that plugs directly into a TV’s HDMI port, bringing Roku’s wide range of content and 450+ channels to a British audience. We’re used to a high quality TV service from the likes of the BBC, so the content has to be there, and we’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s get it out of the box first.
The Streaming Stick is presented in Roku’s trademark purple with neat packaging that promotes “This is going to be fun”. In the box is the Streaming Stick itself, a remote control (including decent batteries) and the power supply, which is actually a USB charger, connecting to the Streaming Stick via microUSB.
The remote control is slightly different to the previous generation – there are no game buttons, motion controller or headphone jack, and it uses WiFi Direct rather than Bluetooth to communicate with the Streaming Stick. Admittedly of little consequence unless you are an existing Roku owner expecting those features.
Getting started is easy – plug the Stick into the TV’s HDMI port, power it up with the microUSB cable and put the batteries into the remote control. Switching over to the HDMI channel, the Roku Streaming Stick initially asks for the password to a local wifi network. Once connected to the wider internet, existing Roku owners can can login with their credentials or new owners can sign up for a user name and password. Apart from having to use the remote control rather than a keyboard to do the finger work, it’s painless.
Roku uses the metaphor of channels to deliver media and content. For the smartphone generation, these are more easily thought of as apps which mostly deliver video content. In addition to programmes, there are games, weather forecasts and picture viewers. From the hundreds of channels available, you add favourites to your account to build up your collection. Some channels / apps cost a few pounds, but the vast majority are free.
From a UK perspective most of the major players are on-board with apps for BBC iPlayer, 4oD, Demand 5 and Sky Store. ITV player is noticeable in its absence. There are apps too for Netflix, Spotify, YouTube, Flickr and the Roku Media Player which does what it says, playing locally available pictures, music and video. There are lots of other apps and channels to choose from, categorised by type to help you find what you want.
Many of the channels are US-centric and there’s a ton of faith-based programming, mostly Christian with a smaller number of other faiths. Local US TV stations are also present, which can be fun if you are going to be visiting an area on holiday or business.
Of course, there are plenty of independent content producers as well. GNC is right at home on the Roku….
To complement the content, there’s also an app for smartphones, which lets your device replace the remote control, both at a simple button pushing level and for more advanced features such as choosing new channels.
But the real trick is the “Play on Roku” feature which pushes content from your smartphone to the Roku, including music, photos and videos. All you do is select the content on your phone and, bang, it’s up on the big screen in glorious HD. It’s a great feature and a fantastic way to review photos and short videos on a larger screen, especially after a holiday. If you take a lots of photos with your smartphone, it’s almost worth getting a Roku for this feature alone.
One final thing…as I mentioned, the Roku Streaming Stick is powered by microUSB via a provided USB charger. I found that the Streaming Stick wasn’t terribly fussy about the power source and that you can easily run the Stick from other sources, such as a USB battery pack or even the TV itself, if equipped with a USB port. Could be handy to know if you are travelling or simply want a tidier entertainment unit.
Overall, the Roku Streaming Stick is a great little gadget that provides loads of extra content for UK viewers. It might be a more expensive at £50 than the Google Chromecast at £30, but there’s more content and the Roku has a remote control, which I think is a plus point. It’s handy too for a second TV that perhaps doesn’t have a satellite or cable connection, and can now use iPlayer or Netflix. It’s a neat, plug’n’play solution that is about as simple as it can be.
Thanks to Roku for the review unit.