Letter from America: April, 2014 ‒œ Roku Streaming Stick Battles Back Against Chromecast!

By Michael Heiss, HiddenWires. I really hate it when this happens, but it did, indeed, happen again. Just as I finished working on some final edits to the March Letter, a press release popped up in my inbox with news about Roku's new Streaming Stick, a product that will, in many respects, compete directly with the topic for my last Letter, Google's Chromecast. Recalling scenes from old movies where a reporter storms into the Editor’s office yelling 'STOP THE PRESS!' I was tempted to do that, save for the small problem that in the digital age we don’t have any presses at HiddenWires and in any case, it was not yet morning in London for our Editor, who is some 5500 or so miles to the east of us here in Los Angeles. What to do? [caption id="attachment_4951" align="aligncenter" width="213"] STOP THE PRESS! Roku has a new Streaming Stick.[/caption] The answer, as you hopefully saw, was a note at the bottom of my March Letter alerting you to the fact that new things were in the offing. Since I missed the post for a 'Special Delivery' in March, we'll do a bit of catching up now and see where things stand with regard to both the new Roku Streaming Stick and the latest on Chromecast for those outside of the US. The Streaming Stick Backstory The Streaming Stick, or at least the streaming stick concept itself is not 100% new. Introduced over a year ago in a slightly different configuration, the best way to describe this product is as the guts of a Roku set top box in the form factor of a slightly oversized USB stick. Yes, that’s very similar to Chromecast, but remember that Roku did this first. [caption id="attachment_4991" align="aligncenter" width="600"] The new Roku Streaming Stick (bottom) and accompanying remote (top).[/caption] The original Roku Streaming Stick started at a price twice that of the new model, was a tad smaller and had a few extra features. The idea was simple: plug the Stick into an HDMI outlet. Then, use the supplied remote, or when used with a 'Roku Ready' product, use that device’s native remote with CEC doing the communication to control things, to turn a 'dumb TV' into a 'smart' one capable of receiving the same 'channels' as a standard Roku box. There was, however, one significant catch: The HDMI jack had to be MHL capable, since the original Streaming Stick was designed to get its power via the 5VDC that MHL delivers, just as you get power on a USB port. The inability to use the original Stick with standard HDMI ports was clearly a limiting factor that made it easier, and in some cases less expensive, to just purchase a standard Roku set top box. The idea itself was sound; the requirement for MHL was the barrier. Fault Chromecast if you will for its limited range of content, but it is fairly easy to connect with the power coming from either a connection to a USB port on the TV or from a mains connection through the supplied 'wall wart' power supply. Power to the Stick One can only presume that seeing all the publicity accompanying the incredibly successful takeup of Chromecast, the folks at Roku must have realised that they were close, but not there yet. With the new 'HDMI Streaming Stick', they are, for the most part, there. The HDMI Streaming Stick is a bit fatter and longer than its MHL-only predecessor and is now all 'Roku Purple' on the top, rather than purple and black. The most obvious change, however, other than a significantly lower retail price, is that the new model sports a mini USB jack for connection to 5VDC power. As with the Chromecast, connect it to a powered USB port that may be right on the TV or use the included mains power adapter. Then, simply plug it in to ANY available HDMI port on a TV, AVR or surround processor, configure the Wi-Fi settings, enter the necessary account information using the browser in a computer or phone/tablet, and you’re good to go. No more MHL required. [caption id="attachment_4952" align="aligncenter" width="300"] The new Roku Streaming Stick is all 'Roku Purple' on both sides and is a bit fatter than the original model shown here.[/caption] Once connected and configured, you will find that the user experience with the HDMI Streaming Stick is virtually identical to what you would get with a conventional form factor Roku: the same content 'channels', the same Wi-Fi Direct remote so that no line-of-site via IR is needed, the ability to use the recently-updated Roku control app on a smartphone or tablet, HD video and 5.1 or 7.1 audio pass-through. Other than that, the price is half that of a comparable Roku unit with the same power and features, and the fact that you hang it off the back of the set rather than connect it via a standard cable, you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the 'dongle' and the 'hockey puck' Roku units. Note, however, that the Streaming Stick is most similar to the current Roku 2 and does not have the faster processor of the Roku 3. [caption id="attachment_4953" align="aligncenter" width="400"] The hockey-puck-style Roku 2 and remote.[/caption] Roku Versus Chromecast With those basics established, the first thing to compare between the two products is the price. Lest one forget that there is some price sensitivity at the lower end of the marketplace, it gets interesting now that we have the pricing for Chromecast outside the US. The Roku Streaming Stick will set you back GB£49 while the Chromecast comes to your door at a very modest GB£30. With that, the 'dongle-to-dongle' comparison between Chromecast and Roku's HDMI Streaming Stick then begins to get rather interesting. Both offer HD video and multi-channel audio, both have the ability to easily connect to popular streaming content services such as Netflix and YouTube (the latter was added here for Roku and is still not available in some earlier Roku models). Here in the US, both products offer HuluPlus and a few other services that are not available elsewhere in the world. While in the UK, both allow you to view the BBC iPlayer. On the flip side, neither yet allows true and full mirroring from a phone or tablet the way an AppleTV does for iOS products, although with Chromecast there is the native ability to mirror content using the Chrome browser from a PC or laptop. [caption id="attachment_4955" align="aligncenter" width="564"] The 'Channel Store' for the UK version of the Roku Streaming Stick duplicates the services and interface of the set-top 'hockey puck' sized units. If the client didn’t know it was the Streaming Stick there is no on-screen indication.[/caption] Yes, both allow some ability to send stills and music from home servers and portable devices to the connected TV. You can also Plex and Allcast, but remember that even then you cannot go to the browser on a mobile or tablet for direct browser mirroring. For that it’s a laptop, AppleTV or a direct connection at this time. While Chromecast does offer the basics of some services (including Google Play) for movies, music and stills, and the BBC iPlayer, at least for now if the user is looking for anything resembling the wide range of content channels of a standard Roku or many 'Smart TV' sets, the Roku has the advantage. The other main benefit of the Roku, at least in my mind, is the inclusion of a remote or the ability to control content with an app. If the phone or tablet used to initiate a Netflix movie playing via a Chromecast has left the room, you have no way to stop, pause or fast forward. Even if it is still in your hands but you use the portable device for 'second screen' or something else while viewing the movie, you have to switch back to the original app to effect 'transport control'. Yes, the last thing that the coffee table needs is another remote that can’t easily be integrated into a master control system, but at least it is there with the Roku. It is also worth noting that since last month’s letter, we’ve not only had the news about the Roku Stick, we have full information on the ex-US launch of Chromecast. While the initial launch of the Roku Stick is in the UK and Eire only, Chromecast will be available in France, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden for €35 in Eurozone countries, and presumably a reasonably equivalent price in non-Euro countries. As the iPlayer is country-specific content for the UK, TV Pluzz and SFR TV will be available in France, with CanalPlay to come soon. Watchever will be available at launch in Germany with Maxdome to follow. Outside of the UK and Eire there is no decision to make: it’s Chromecast or nothing for this type of product. Conclusion Where does this leave you? Some might ask 'Why even bother with either?' But that ignores the value of a fully-featured mega-channel access device such as the Roku Streaming Stick to bring a wide array of content to 'non-smart' TVs in a way that is simple enough for the most technophobic grandfather to operate. For the room without a connected TV, and here the kitchen again comes to mind, for the savvy client who always has their mobile handy, Chromecast is a value-priced product to consider. At the end of the day, both will continue to improve and, particularly with Chromecast, add further content, enabled sites and apps and 'channels'. Indeed, as mentioned in my March Letter, dongles are the wave of the future, perhaps someday replacing the familiar set top box. They are coming, and these two products are just the vanguard of more to come. Who knows, along with IP service providers you never know what is next from Apple, and Amazon is rumoured to be working on some sort of set top delivery product. Why not be a sport? Splurge and get one of each to fool around with so that you’ll know for yourself whether they fit the bill. After two months stuck in the house for Letter fodder based on delivery of program content , I will be making my annual journey to the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) convention in Las Vegas during the month. I know, we’re not broadcasters, but what we’ll see there will provide a great progress report on the status of 4K. Presuming the slots and tables leave me with a few cents for the stamp, I'll mail that Letter and have it for you next month. Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires. You can contact Michael by leaving a message below or via the HiddenWires LinkedIn group, and follow him on Twitter @captnvid. Comments on this article are welcome. See below.

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