Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, iTunes… movies on demand, TV shows on demand, TV series produced by Amazon and Netflix…
With every passing day, more of the best video is coming to us from the Internet.
Which is fine if you want to gather the family together on movie night and nestle together in front of your laptop. But wouldn’t it be better if you could watch Internet video on your TV?
That, of course, is the burning question that’s heating up the marketplace for set-top boxes: inexpensive add-ons that bring Internet video sources to your TV. Apple makes one, Google makes one, and, as of yesterday, Amazon makes one. (I’m testing that latest entry, the Amazon Fire TV, even now; I’ll review it shortly. You can also read Dan Tynan’s comparison here, or Alyssa Bereznak’s first hands-on impressions here.)
“Set-top box,” of course, is a goofily obsolete term. Our TV sets are now half an inch thick. There’s no way to balance one of these “set-top boxes” on top of the set, at least not without a lot of duct tape.
Maybe that’s why, last year, Roku — another maker of popular Internet-video boxes — tried a radical new shape: the stick. Its 2013 Roku Streaming Stick looked a lot like a USB flash drive. It plugged directly into the back of the TV, adding no clutter and neatly solving the set-top problem. Unfortunately, it required a new, special kind of jack that Roku hoped TV manufacturers would start adding to their TVs.
They didn’t. No surprise, really.
Then Google came along with its Chromecast stick, which is exactly the same idea except that it plugs into your TV’s HDMI jack — a standard connector that every HDTV has. At only $35, it’s become a hit.
Getting it mostly right
That’s the long, winding background you need to appreciate Roku’s new effort, the Roku Streaming Stick, Take II (that’s what I call it). It no longer requires a special TV with a special jack. It plugs into any HDMI jack and brings the world of Internet video to your TV. And it costs only $50.
That’s $15 more than the Google Chromecast, but the Roku comes with a lightweight, responsive remote control. The Chromecast requires you to use your phone or tablet as the remote, which isn’t as handy.
(My one beef with the Roku remote: Roku has fitted it with dedicated buttons to four services. Two of them are Netflix and Amazon Video. Good! The other two are streaming sites you’ve probably never heard of: Blockbuster (it’s back!) and M-GO (a newer service that Roku is heavily promoting).
Oh, and the Streaming Stick remote doesn’t have a headphone jack. Some of the other boxes in Roku’s catalog offer that feature, which is handy when you want to watch without disturbing sleeping people nearby.
As delicious as the stick shape is, the Roku, like the Chromecast, also requires electricity. In other words, there’s another wire to contend with, even once the stick is jacked into your TV. If you’re lucky, your TV comes with USB jacks on the back; you can plug the stick in there so that the whole thing remains invisible from the front.
If you’re unlucky, you’ll have to plug the Roku stick into a regular wall power outlet, which can be a pain.
In any case, once it’s plugged in properly, the Roku Stick is a delight. You might think that a product from a big name like Google, Apple, or Amazon, would automatically be a better product than something from a small company like Roku — but it’s not that simple.
The Roku’s ace in the hole is quantity. The Chromecast lets you tune into 14 video and music services: Netflix, YouTube, and so on. The Apple TV can bring in 31 of them. The Amazon Fire TV offers 36.
But the Roku box can bring you 1,200 channels. Not 14, not 36 — 1,200 of them.
Now, there are, to be sure, some Sasquatch-sized footnotes to that statistic. 350 of those 1,200 channels are brought to you by churches. Hundreds more are crude, no-name, amateur efforts, like one-person YouTube video podcasts. Some are hilariously nichey. You gotta wonder, for example, how many viewers cuddle up each night to watch the Vietnamese-American Real Estate channel.
But only the Roku can show all the ones you’d care about. We’re talking YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, HBO GO, Hulu Plus, VUDU, Disney, PBS, ESPN, MLB.TV, NBA, TED Talks. And all the major music services: Pandora, Spotify, Rdio, Amazon Cloud Player, Slacker.
With the Google Chromecast, by contrast, you can’t yet get Amazon Video, VUDU, PBS, Disney, Spotify, or the premium sports channels. The Apple TV can’t handle Amazon Instant Video, Spotify, or Rdio. The Amazon Fire can’t tune into HBO GO, Spotify, Rdio, MLB.TV, or NHL GameCenter.
(Clearly one factor at play here: corporate interests. The only box that can bring you Apple’s iTunes movie service is Apple’s own box. The only box that can bring you Google’s movie service is Google’s stick. You get the idea.)
Many of these services cost money, by the way. Netflix streaming is $8 a month. So is Hulu Plus. Amazon and VUDU movies cost a few bucks each.
Roku on the road
But your Roku stick remembers your credentials once you’ve set up these accounts; at that point, you’re free to slip it into your pocket, or even behind your ear, and take it to a friend’s house, or a hotel room, or on vacation. Your whole Internet video world is now available on any TV you run across (provided there’s fast WiFi service nearby).
By the way, you don’t have to use Roku’s remote control. You can also use your phone or tablet, thanks to the Roku app. In particular, the app makes typing much easier; entering your account names and passwords on the TV screen using a grid of letters and numbers, pressing arrow keys to move around the cursor, is like Chinese water torture.
(The app transmits the text you’re typing to the TV, but unfortunately, it’s simply pouring text. It doesn’t actually know what’s on the TV screen itself. More than once, I found myself typing a password into the app — say, “PASSWORD” — unaware that the TV screen’s password box still contained my aborted previous attempts, like “passwPASSWORD.” And hitting Enter on the phone app doesn’t click the OK button on the TV screen, as it should.)
Where the app really shines is search. When you search for a movie or a show, the Roku app instantly shows you which services offer it, which is fantastic. You can just tap the one you want (or the one you subscribe to).
The other great Roku feature is its software design. Navigating it on the screen is incredibly easy, clean, and visual. Don’t worry about wading through 1,200 icons for channel junk; the Roku shows you only the channels you’ve actually signed up for. You can do that on your device or on Roku’s website — in its “channel store.” One click on a channel installs it onto your Roku.
The one big bummer is the time it takes to open the Netflix app: about 45 seconds. You could walk to the mailbox to retrieve a Netflix DVD in that time.
Overall, though, the Roku experience feels scrappy and fun. The whole thing has a culty vibe: “We’ve got a great little funky product that makes people happy. Sure, the Big Boys are entering the game — but we’re years ahead of them in building up a library, and we have no complicated corporate interests that stop us from adding this channel or that.”
How long can Roku stay on top?
Here’s the thing, though: Some of the Big Boys have Bigger Ambitions than just playing videos.
The Apple TV, Google Chromecast, and Amazon Fire TV, for example, can display what you’re viewing on your laptop, phone, or tablet screen to your TV. Wirelessly and gorgeously. (Apple TV displays anything on your iPhone, iPad, or Mac screen. Chromecast and Amazon Fire TV display only websites.)
That’s a brilliant, unsung feature for slideshows, presentations, and training classes — and it’s also a terrific loophole that gets around some of those missing services. For example, you can’t rent Amazon movies on an Apple TV. But there’s nothing to stop you from renting one on your Mac or iPhone and sending the audio and video to your Apple TV from there.
Furthermore, you may not need a box at all. More and more of these services are coming built into new TVs right from the store. Most modern Samsung, Panasonic, LG, and Sony sets come with at least the basics (Netflix, Hulu, YouTube) built right in.
So where does that leave the Streaming Stick? It’s being assailed by competitors on all sides — some cheaper, some more flexible. And those rivals mean fewer reasons to buy a Roku stick.
On the other hand, the Roku still offers the stick shape that’s completely hidden behind the TV, a low price, easy-to-navigate software, universal search, and a remote control. And that vast, unmatched catalog of video sources.
If nothing else, Roku means never having to say there’s nothing on.