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).