Streaming sticks are ingenious, simple devices that let you stream video directly to a TV. And while smart-TVs with built-in WiFi connectivity are quickly becoming the default choice, it could take years for dedicated streamers to become obsolete. In the meantime, the cheapest way to get your Netflix fix — assuming your current TV doesn't have sufficient streaming capabilities already — is still with a streaming stick. The current crop of models can appear almost identical, with only price differentiating them. Here's why the newly updated Roku Streaming Stick is worth its $50 price tag.
Its hardware is faster.
Roku says its new stick is eight times faster than its previous version, and some unspecified amount faster than competing sticks. It's a difficult claim to benchmark at home, but in a comparison with the Chromecast and Fire TV Stick, there's a noticeable difference in speed. Navigating to and through different services was snappier, and the amount of time it took newly loading video to transition from hazy and pixelated to appropriately sharp was shorter. One of the only reasons for buying a full-size streaming box used to be the additional hardware, including better processors. Despite measuring just 3.3 inches, the 2016 version of Roku's stick closes that hardware gap almost entirely, and makes those boxes (including Roku's own) all but pointless.
You can listen to TV with your phone.
This is a trick that Roku didn't quite invent, but that, for now, it has perfected — private listening, or watching TV with headphones. Run the Roku app on your Android or iOS phone, plug in headphones, and you can start listening to action scenes at full blast without waking the kids or bugging your significant other. What's great about this is that the Roku app also turns your phone into a remote, so there's already a good reason to keep it close at hand. You can use Bluetooth headphones (paired to the phone), but that brings audio syncing problems into the mix. As niche as this feature might seem, don't be surprised if private listening changes how — and what — you watch.
Roku's interface — and remote — cuts to the chase.
On startup, you generally don't have to dive through a single menu to get to Netflix, HBO Now, Amazon, and other services. And searching brings up results that include multiple options for watching free (usually with an existing subscription) or renting or buying through various services. Roku doesn't have its own paid content to push, so there's nothing in the interface that prioritizes one option over another. And though Google's Chromecast doesn't tend to jam Google Play content in your face, the difference in ease-of-use between the Chromecast and Roku stick is stark. Chromecast is mirroring what's on a phone, tablet, or computer on the TV. Roku has a screen-mirroring mode, but its default state is to simply work, booting up automatically when the TV is powered on, or else staying on basically all the time (depending on whether you plug it into the set's USB, or a power outlet). Roku is as easy as streaming gets.
Who shouldn't get a Roku stick?
Roku's stick might not be right for you if you're determined to watch 4K content or have a sizable library of iTunes movies and shows. Streaming in 4K currently requires a full-size box, like the Roku 4, or else a 4K smart TV like LG and Samsung's ultra HD sets, which have built-in streaming. And because content purchased through iTunes can't be watched on a flatscreen without an Apple TV, frequent iTunes users have no TV-compatible option other than that box.