I recently grabbed the new streaming stick from Roku. While the old one is still sold in stores, it’s easy enough to differentiate between them. New 2016 model = black. Old model = blueish-purple berry. They’re retailing for about $60 CDN.
While I’ve owned every Apple TV model in existence, this was actually my first Roku device.
I’ll start with a few thumbnails you can click if you want to see some basic pics I took with a phone camera early on:
I’m approaching this write-up from the viewpoint of someone who’s never owned a Roku before – if you’ve owned a Roku before, you’ll probably find much of this to be repetitive.
Interface and Menu
The menu system is simple, clean, and sleek. In terms of simplicity translating to ease-of-use (think: parents or non-tech people), it’s pretty much on par with the Apple TV – slightly behind the aTV 2/3, and a good bit ahead of the aTV 4. It’s quite a ways ahead of Kodi/XMBC boxes that are out there, though to be fair, those interfaces are aimed at people who enjoy customizing like crazy.
One really nifty Roku feature is the search. Want to see where a certain movie or show is available? Use the search and it’ll list the “channels” (apps) it’s available in. For example, “Air Force One” will show Crackle, and of the many results that show up for “Star Trek”, selecting one of the series will come up with Netflix. Much easier than having to check each of your apps separately.
(this is a bit long, so skip ahead if you’re not interested in Canada-specific stuff)
Canadian providers are still moving more slowly than the rest of the world, to the point where most would be extinct if they didn’t have their monopolies to fall back on. “Why innovate when you can just overcharge?” seems to be the motto.
In any case, you won’t find Shomi or CraveTV on the Roku. Evidently, they believe spending their money on TV ads for those services makes more sense than ensuring those services are actually available for people to pay for across devices. Then again, maybe Bell noticed the Crave TV app’s 1 out of 5 star rating on iTunes and realized they don’t know how to make a solid app to begin with. So while not having Shomi or Crave TV apps on Roku is the bad news, the good news is that they probably wouldn’t have worked well anyway.
You do have Netflix though. And if you want to support innovative companies that have put downward pressure on content pricing in Canada, Netflix is the only real contender for your money there anyway.
You’ve also got Crackle, which has the advantage of being free (commercial-supported). Crackle is similar to turning on regular TV but being able to pick the show you want on demand. It’s set up to resemble the Netflix UI format to some degree, but it currently feels like a low-quality Netflix-clone interface that hasn’t been quite finished yet. Don’t assume that looks-like-a-high-school-project means it’s an illegitimate service though – it’s actually owned by Sony, so everything’s on the up-and-up. As for offerings, I found that a lot of videos it listed were on the older side – some “gems” here and there, but overall it paled to the Netflix offerings. A little searching around will show that some people run into constant issues where a video stops playing after a commercial, or find that the number of commercials in unbearable.
As for TV-style apps, since the biggest Canadian media companies can’t figure out how to make decent apps, it probably comes as no surprise that there isn’t much in regards to standard Canadian TV station “channels” either. One day, somebody at CTBell NewsMedia will realize they can simply dump a FTA stream to an app, leave it as-is (full of standard commercials), geo/region-restrict it, and charge more to advertisers. Or some day they might realize they could do something similar with their 24-hour news apps. But that day is not today.
So what options do you have for a terrestrial-TV style “channel”? ChannelPEAR seems to be the most common answer. The ChannelPEAR channel is a bit of a wild-west of links to video streams that people put up and vote on. Most seem to be to actual TV live broadcasts. It looks a little more grey-area though: some streams might be publicly available anyway (this just lets you watch it from within ChannelPEAR on the Roku), but others might be someone live-streaming a premium Pay-TV station or their own “custom” 24/7 stream of a specific show. Canadian stations tend to be few and far between, but there seem to be a number of US stations available. Biggest downsides to ChannelPEAR:
- Reliability. If the station/show/etc wasn’t legitimately sourced, the content provider might hunt it down and get it removed at some point.
- Quality. It’s all over the map. No stream selections either so if you’ve got a slow internet connection, it’ll just be choppy.
- Website configuration. You need to log into their website to add/remove and search for streams. You can’t do it all from your Roku. Which makes the “reliability” point more of an issue.
- Free Limits. ChannelPEAR itself is a service. You can have up to 5 media sources (streams) attached to your account at a time, and use it on up to 2 devices. If you want more, you’ll have to pony up $3/month (a bit less if you pay for 3/6/12-month terms).
Looking specifically at 24/7 newscasts that have their own Roku “channel”, RT (Russian 24/7 newscast but in English) is available, and it works quite well. Obviously it takes on more of a Russian point-of-view though which may or may not have a bearing on whether you’d enjoy it as a primary 24/7 news service.
Alright, enough on the content. Back to the Roku stick itself!
Navigating the interface with the remote is really fluid and speedy. A few other items are a bit slow though: firing up the device from power-off takes around 10-15 seconds. Same with firing up Netflix. Once Netflix is loaded up, things move along lickety-split though. Having come from the Apple TV 4 which pops open apps nearly instantly, the initial app (channel) load times actually feel a bit long. Not the fairest comparison to make with the aTV 4 being over 3x the price, but just something to be aware of.
The Physical Stick
The Roku stick basically looks like a long USB stick, except that it has an HDMI port at the end. I’ve heard of people running into width constraints, but unless the HDMI ports are really tightly packed against something on your TV, I can’t see it being an issue for most people.
For power, it includes a USB cable and AC adapter. However, in the image above, you’ll notice that I just plugged it into a USB port on the back of the TV. This is a pretty convenient way to power the device: turn off the TV, it kills power to the USB port, which kills power to the device. Turn the TV on and the device starts right up. A nice little power saving feature, although the flip side is that the Roku has to go through it’s little 10 second start up sequence before it’s ready to use each time.
Obviously, a tiny device like this doesn’t have a USB port where you can plug in an external hard drive or memory stick. This is common of all streaming “sticks” – not only would an external port add size, but the power system would have to be redesigned (they’d need a full-fledged AC power supply). So if you’re used to plugging an external hard drive into your media playing device, you’ll want to look at one of the larger devices that sit on the TV stand and have their own power supply.
One final note about the stick: It gets a little on the warm side… enough that I’d be a little concerned about longevity if you’ve got it the TV inside a cabinet where it doesn’t get a whole lot of airflow.
This is a fairly standard “Roku” remote – not overwhelmed with a zoo of buttons, a nice tactile feel, and precise. Once you’re comfortable with it, finger-feel-memory will let you use it in the dark.
The remote communicates with the device over it’s own private little WiFi network. As a result, you don’t have to aim the remote directly at the TV or worry about something blocking line-of-sight.
The only 2 downsides:
- Bottom 4 buttons appear to be hardcoded to Netflix, YouTube, Spotify, and Google Play. Allowing these to be customized would be *hugely* beneficial, because if you don’t use each of those frequently (or at all), you’ve got a few wasted buttons that could be doing something useful.
- No voice dictation/search. I’ll give this a pass because the remote is really responsive, so entering text for searches isn’t as painful as it could be. Also, at the $60 CDN price point, I’d rather not have voice dictation if it meant something else may have had to be cut.
Really, a solid remote all in all. I’m fairly picky about remotes when it comes to usability, and this is one I enjoy.
Since this is a bit long already, I won’t go in-depth into the other little bits, and will leave you with this:
Top 7 things I like about the 2016 Roku Streaming Stick:
- No “ecosystem” push or lock-in. They’re not trying to sell their own video streaming service.
- Interface. Simple, clean, and focused on usability.
- Price. Extremely reasonable.
- Compact, portable, low power, can power from TV’s USB.
- Sensible remote.
- Channels. A healthy chunk of options, and you can install only-what-you-want.
- Performance. It’s snappy.
- Search feature that extends across multiple channels.
Top 3 things I don’t like about the 2016 Roku Streaming Stick:
- Bottom 4 remote buttons are fixed to specific channels (not reprogrammable)
- Temperate gets a little too warm (longevity concerns).
- Device and channels can take a little while to load the first time they’re started.