Televisions are getting alarmingly smart these days. Catch-up services, on-demand content and mobile device integration are now all standard features.
But what if you don’t have a Smart TV? Should you be left out in the cold if your older set is still working nicely and doesn’t yet need replacing? No, says Roku, whose Streaming Stick comes in very handy.
It makes your TV a lot smarter by giving it wireless connectivity and a wealth of apps.
Rather than being a Jack of all trades, the Roku does a specific job - and does it well
So about the name, the Roku Streaming Stick. It’s a stick, and it streams. Let’s start with the ‘stick’ part. It’s more like a dongle – at about 8cm long and 2cm wide, it’s not much bigger than a USB flash drive.
The build quality is good: it’s small, it’s not fragile. On one end is an HDMI plug for connecting to your TV. The other end features a microUSB port for power.
You’ll have to connect a USB cable – either into the TV or the bundled mains adaptor – because the HDMI port doesn’t provide power.
It’s not the neatest of set-ups, but then again it’s hidden behind the TV and you’re unlikely to see it.
One potential issue is the width of the device: it’s a little wider than the average HDMI plug, so if your TV is tight for space you might find it a squeeze.
The remote pairs wirelessly with its Stick partner so you don't have to worry about maintaining line of sight
The set-up process is simple. Once it starts up, you’re invited to connect to your wi-fi network.
As soon as you do this, the Streaming Stick downloads the latest firmware – a process that takes us about three minutes. Then you’re invited to go to the Roku website to open a free account.
This is a neat way of choosing the apps you want, although you can also do it on the Stick itself using the remote. Whatever you choose on the website will automatically be downloaded onto the stick.
The Roku's app offering is nothnig if not quirky. It includes Stop It Or You'll Go Blind - a cache of old public info films
The app offering – ‘channels’, as Roku insists on calling them – is generous. There are over 1000 in the Channel Store and more are being added all the time.
Admittedly, most are very niche (Ringtone Channel, anyone?) but there are also plenty of essentials: YouTube, Spotify, BBC iPlayer, 4oD, Demand 5, Netflix, NowTV. There's no sign of Amazon Instant Video yet, however.
Choose the ones you want and they’ll be stored in the ‘My Channels’ section for easy access. Operation is about as simple as it gets, with an interface that’s intuitive (and purple). Scrolling through menus is a fairly smooth experience, and button presses are obeyed swiftly.
Once you select an app, it takes about 10 seconds to load – about average for a TV app. The remote control is a joy to use. It’s a proper wand rather than the brittle ‘card’ type we so often see.
It’s ergonomic, responsive, and easy to navigate. It also pairs wirelessly with the Stick, so you don’t need to worry about line of sight.
If you don’t want to use that you can use the Roku app, free on Android and iOS.
This gives you all the controls of the physical remote, but adds a full QWERTY keyboard – useful for those pesky alphanumeric passwords with capital letters.
More after the break
The Streaming Stick’s secret weapon is the ability to ‘cast’. This means choosing content on a mobile app, tapping the cast button and playing it on your TV through the Stick.
It doesn’t actually play anything from your mobile; it goes off to fetch the content from the internet while your portable device acts as menu and remote control.
This feature is fairly new, and is the party trick of the Google Chromecast. Unfortunately for the Roku, it can only cast Netflix and youTube at the moment. The Google Chromecast, meanwhile, can handle the full roster of cast-enabled apps including BBC iPlayer, Google Play Movies and Music.
Still, it's encouraging to see Roku gunning directly for Google's turf.
This is a remote of substance, simple to understand and operate yet solidly made
The Streaming Stick performs very well. The 1080p picture could be a little sharper, but in general we are happy with the texture and colour reproduction.
It’s certainly as good as some of the built-in apps on smart TVs. As for audio, the Stick supports Dolby Digital – although if you use it with an AV receiver it can handle up to 7.1 surround sound passthrough.
Sound is solid, and there’s a good amount of detail. Much of this depends on your internet connection, but even on a 3mbps connection we find download speeds just fine. Once loaded, content rarely ever stuttered or skipped.
Performance could be slicker, but we wouldn't call the Streaming Stick a slow device.
The Roku Streaming Stick does a very specific job and does it very well. If you have a shiny new flagship TV, this isn’t for you.
But if you have an older set without internet connection, or if you just want more features and viewing options, you will find this an indispensable tool.