Roku Streaming Stick takes on Google Chromecast (+video)

The battle of the dongles is here: Roku, maker of popular set-top box streaming devices, announced it is releasing a HDMI stick with its signature TV-streaming technology.

By , Staff Writer

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    This undated image provided by Roku, shows the Roku Streaming stick. Roku is getting into an Internet video-streaming stick fight with Google's Chromecast.Like the similarly shaped Chromecast, Roku's thumb-sized device plugs into a TV's HDMI port and feeds Internet video through a Wi-Fi connection.
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TV innovators are looking beyond the super-sizing screens and fine-tuning resolution.

In fact, the next wave of TV viewing may be a relatively inconspicuous upgrade: a HDMI dongle plugged into the side of the screen.

This is the direction of Roku. Building on the success of its popular set-top box, Roku released the Roku Streaming Stick, which plugs into a TV's HDMI port. Users then have access to more than 1,000 "channels" and apps such as Netflix, YouTube, and various social media. However, Roku is second to the HDMI TV dongle game, following the release of Google’s popular Chromecast device. Does this Roku’s HDMI stick have what it takes to rival the tech giant’s offering and surpass Roku’s previous devices?

Recommended: Cable TV alternatives: Chromecast vs. Apple TV vs. Roku vs. Xbox 360 vs. PS3

The first notable difference between Roku’s set-top streaming box and the HDMI device is the size. The Streaming Stick is a mere three inches and fits snugly behind a TV in the HDMI port. Just like the set-top box, however, it comes with a remote but can also be controlled via smart phone.

Capability-wise, it serves essentially the same function as Roku’s previous devices. It has Wi-Fi, can support HD video, and gives users access to its unparalleled library of more than 1,000 channel apps, including HBO Go, Hulu Plus, PBS, and Showtime Anytime. This dwarfs Google Chromecast’s offering, though Chromecast does host many of the basic streaming apps, such as Netflix and HBO Go.

So when would one choose Roku’s streaming stick over the set-top box or Google’s Chromecast?

The set-top Roku advantage isn’t overwhelming. The remote for the set-top box has motion-control capabilities, which is helpful with gaming, and a headphone jack in case you want to watch TV while someone else in the room studies or needs quiet time. The Streaming Stick’s remote has neither of these features. However, at $50, the stick is also half the price of the set-top box, so if you can live without motion-controlled gaming and parceling out TV and study time with your roommate, the Stick may be your best option.

For Google Chromecast, the deciding factor depends on what you watch on TV. Though Roku has the obvious advantage when it comes to breadth of channels, Chromecast pretty much has a monopoly on Google Play movies and music. If you tend toward the Android media ecosystem, Chromecast will work better. Roku also has a leg up when it comes to search – it can dig through multiple platforms to find what you’re looking for, while when using Chromecast you can only search in one platform at a time. Yes, that’s right – Google loses in the search-engine category.

Chromecast is also a bit cheaper ($35). Roku’s Streaming Stick comes with a USB charging cord that can be plugged into the wall to recharge or into a TV's USB port. However, by offering a physical remote, Roku’s stick offers a bit more flexibility in terms of controlling the device – you won’t have to rely on the battery charge of your phone and won’t have to break the remote-using habit. 

At $50, Roku’s Streaming Stick offers a price cut from its set-top box, and an upgrade from Chromecast’s features. However, when it officially comes out in April (pre-orders are happening now) the victor in the battle for your living room will no doubt grow apparent.

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