If asked, most people could rattle off a list of technology gadgets that they’d like to have in their home. But another box to plug into the TV? No, thanks.
For the past week, I’ve tested a device that promises to deliver content to your living room without adding another box — big or small — to your TV stand. And it won’t break the bank.
Meet the $50 Roku Streaming Stick. This tiny gadget measures about the length of a pinky finger, and plugs into an HDMI port on the back of your TV, wirelessly connecting to your Wi-Fi network to stream TV shows and movies from Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus and M-Go, among others. The stick makes available the same content delivered via the Roku box, and it displays the same handsome interface. It also plays videos, photos and music from your smartphones or tablets. And it comes with a remote control.
I like the Streaming Stick’s price and its out-of-eyesight design. But I ran into sluggish performance in some of my testing, especially when I tried to watch my own iPhone’s videos and photos on my TV. Though delays like this aren’t unheard of on separate set-top boxes like Roku and Apple TV, this was worse than the run-of-the-mill slowness.
Roku tech support suggested that my own TV could be causing the interference: The Streaming Stick’s hidden position behind and flush against the TV could mean that the TV’s metal frame shields it from receiving Wi-Fi as easily as, say, a box that sits below or beside the TV.
Roku’s customer service department will send users a free dongle that aims to fix this problem, but they couldn’t get one to me in time for this review. I will post an update on the results of my Streaming Stick with this add-on dongle.
Roku isn’t alone in its attempts to deliver a box-free entertainment option. Google’s $35 Chromecast is a tiny gadget that also plugs into a TV’s HDMI port. But it doesn’t come with a remote control, and it’s limited to streaming content from tablets, smartphones and laptops. Amazon is expected to jump into the fray this week with its own solution for the living room, though it remains to be seen whether or not it will offer a box or an HDMI stick.
The $50 Streaming Stick doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of Roku’s top-of-the-line set-top box, the Roku 3, like a headphone jack in its remote control that saves your sleeping spouse from listening to your TV shows, or motion sensing in the remote for games like Angry Birds. Then again, the Streaming Stick is also half the price.
Keep in mind that you’ll still be paying for a lot of the content you’ll watch. For example, Netflix charges an $8 monthly membership fee; Amazon Instant Video works for free only if you have a Prime Membership, which costs close to $100 a year; Hulu Plus charges $8 a month, and so on.
Still, there are several channels that play through your Streaming Stick for free: PBS, History, Lifetime and others are free to pay TV subscribers, while others require an authentication step for viewing. I watched “Vikings” on History, and “Project Runway” on Lifetime.
I liked this Streaming Stick’s remote. It’s compact and simple, with four direct buttons that open Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, Blockbuster and M-Go. And using a remote means you won’t have to free up a smartphone, tablet or computer to act as a digital remote whenever you use your Roku.
I quickly set up an account on M-Go and watched two episodes of Showtime’s addictive TV drama, “Homeland.” I logged into my Netflix account to watch two movies: “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” (my husband’s pick) and “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.” I also binged on “Orange Is the New Black,” a Netflix series about a yuppie who goes to jail.
Throughout my TV show and movie watching, I noticed a few delays that were represented with “Loading …” or “Retrieving …” messages, depending on what I was watching. In some cases, this went away quickly, but in others, it lingered for two minutes or more, which was irritating.
But the worst delays came when I tried to play home videos and photos on the TV using the free Roku app for iOS and Android. They stuttered, and many times didn’t play at all. A Roku spokesperson said it made sense that I had better luck with channels, since they use adaptive streaming, adjusting to each person’s Internet connection.
It’s also worth noting that, though the Roku Streaming Stick is easily hidden behind a TV, you’ll need to run a wire from it to a nearby power outlet or powered USB port. Hiding this wire could require some clever camouflaging.
Roku’s interface is clear and user-friendly. Though its on-screen search function forces users to use a painful hunt-and-select process for entering titles, the Roku app bypasses that problem. Search results show where content can be found on a variety of services, letting people compare and pick what they prefer.
When Roku’s Streaming Stick works without blips or delays, it’s delightful, easy and affordable. But some people may run into the same challenges I did, thanks to Wi-Fi frustrations. And Roku’s free dongle may or may not solve the problem.