Roku announced yesterday a new dongle-sized Streaming Stick, which looks designed to compete directly with Google’s Chromecast in the streaming media marketplace. At $49.99, it’s reasonably close to the price of the $35 Chromecast, and the small difference in price is easy to overlook when you consider the fact that it boasts over 1,200 channels (or apps) – including the ever-elusive Amazon Instant Video, which so many of its rivals lack. Compare its offerings to the Chromecast’s seven or eight apps and the new Roku Stick almost seems like a no-brainer.
There’s just one problem. Roku already made a Roku Streaming Stick, which was in almost every way superior to this new contender. And soon you won’t be able to buy it anymore. At least not directly.
The new Roku Streaming Stick’s biggest selling point seems to be that it connects to your entertainment system via a standard HDMI port, whereas the old Roku Stick required an MHL-capable HDMI connection. The new Roku Stick also comes with a remote control, whereas the old one didn’t.
And therein lies the biggest problem, at least for me. The beauty of the old MHL-capable Roku Stick was that once connected to an MHL-capable HDMI port — on your display, AV receiver or processor, or Blu-ray player – that device gave you complete control of the entire Roku interface. In my case, with the old Roku Streaming Stick plugged into the MHL port of my OPPO BDP-103 Blu-ray player, which is in turn connected to my Control4 automation system, my Roku experienced was controlled by the same remote I use to fire up my home theater at the touch of a button, tweak the lights, open locks, adjust the thermostat… I could go on and on. It is, of course, also completely controllable via my Control MyHome app.
Since the new Roku Stick has been dumbed down to standard HDMI connectivity, it won’t interface with that personalized, unified control experience. So the answer to the question, “Why does the new Roku Stick come with a remote when the old one didn’t?” is simple: The new one requires its own remote (or yet another standalone app to navigate on your smart phone). The old one didn’t. Incidentally, the new one also requires its own USB power supply. The old one didn’t.
And that wouldn’t make me so grumpy if you could still buy the old MHL Roku Stick separately. In the press release for the new HDMI Roku Stick, Jim Funk, senior vice president of product management at Roku, says, “The new Roku Streaming Stick gives consumers more choice for streaming entertainment to the TV than any other device.” Except, he forgot to add, the old Roku Stick, which is now available only as a pack-in with select Roku Ready devices. I just checked OPPO’s website, where I purchased my Roku Stick for $49, and it’s no longer available. Likewise, the Amazon listing for the MHL Roku Stick lists it disparagingly as the “Old Version” and points potential purchasers toward the preorder for the newer, cheaper Stick.
So if you’ve been considering adding the Roku experience to your home entertainment system – and seriously, you should; it’s the best streaming media ecosystem on the market in terms of its interface and wealth of content – don’t get taken in by the shiny marketing language of the new Roku Streaming Stick. It’s a huge step backward in terms of integration and it’ll just add one more remote control to your coffee table. Instead, I would suggest the standalone Roku 3 player, which not only sports a dedicated Ethernet port, but is also supported by some truly amazing two-way IP drivers, developed by Extra Vegetables for Control4 and URC Total Control, and available through your local home technology specialist.
Mind you, I’m not saying that the new Roku Steaming Stick (HDMI Version) won’t be a success. At its price, I’m sure it will have huge market appeal, and it will introduce a much wider audience to the Roku experience, which is a good thing in my opinion. But with its lack of MHL support, it’s also tying those new users down to a more limited control experience.