How the Roku Streaming Stick Works

The Roku Streaming Stick is tiny -- unlike other streaming devices, once you plug it into your television, you won't even see it.
The Roku Streaming Stick is tiny -- unlike other streaming devices, once you plug it into your television, you won't even see it.
Image courtesy of Roku

Remember the bygone days when you were forced to watch television in real-time as it aired? If you came into your favorite program late or missed it entirely, you were out of luck until one of the big three networks, PBS or a UHF channel decided to play it again. Which might be never. You were irrevocably tied to the schedules set by the TV networks.

We got a taste of the good life with the invention of the programmable VHS player, which allowed us to record shows on magnetic tape from a single channel during set time ranges when we weren't home. This ability jumped forward light years with the creation of the DVR (Digital Video Recorder), which allows you to select and save programs from different channels to a hard drive, play them back at will, skip commercials, and even pause to run to the bathroom or rewind during shows that are currently airing. Cable and satellite TV companies began to offer their own DVRs to subscribers for an extra monthly fee. They also started providing video on demand, which enables you to pick and choose content to stream to your TV through your cable box, although choices are often limited by your channel subscriptions.

And more recently, the ever-increasing Internet bandwidth that makes it possible for us to stream large amounts of high-quality content has led to the creation of services like Netflix, HuluPlus and Amazon Prime Instant Video, which host and stream television shows and movies to their subscriber base via the Internet. These have given us far and away more content than we had access to before, even after cable increased our channel options from fewer than you could count on both hands to the low hundreds. The networks have gotten in on the streaming game, as well, with broadcasters like ABC and HBO allowing you to view shows online shortly after they air.

These innovations ushered in the next step in the evolution of television: set-top boxes like the Roku, Boxee Box and Apple TV. These new-ish devices allow you to stream a multitude of shows, movies and other content right off the Internet onto your nice big TV, rather than forcing you to huddle around your tiny computer monitor. They largely eliminate the need for storage space and further untether you from fixed programming schedules.

The tiny Roku Streaming Stick brings us still further into the future of streaming entertainment onto our big-screens. It is a small device, not much larger than the typical thumb drive, that plugs directly into a port on your TV and allows you to stream television shows, movies, music, games and other content from the Internet, in some cases without extra cables or remote controls.

Next, find out more about the current Roku box and what it does.

What is a Roku?

The pre-stick Roku is a box that you connect to your television via a cable to stream entertainment from the Internet through various content providers. The Roku Streaming Box began as the first device to allow streaming of Netflix to your television, but now its lineup has grown to more than 1000 channels, including all the major streamers plus a number of relatively small niche and local channels. Some of the services, such as Netflix, HuluPlus, Amazon, HBO Go, Spotify and various sports apps, require paid subscriptions, while many others, including Crackle, Pandora and a large number of stations that provide news, international programming, music, public domain classics and similar content, are free. You can even rent movies and shows through some Roku apps. All the current models also allow you to send limited content from your phone to your TV via the Roku mobile app.

There are three set-top box models currently available through Roku's website (listed from lowest to highest price): Roku 1, Roku 2 and Roku 3. All three connect to the Internet via WiFi, play up to 1080p high-definition video and allow for 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound, but there are some notable differences. Roku 1's Wi-Fi is not dual-band. Roku 1 and 2 allow you to connect to your TV either via RCA cables (for analog stereo and 480p standard definition video) or an HDMI cable (for 720p or 1080p high-definition video and digital 5.1 or 7.1 surround audio pass through). Roku 3 requires an HDMI cable. Roku 1 comes with a basic remote, but the Roku 2 and 3 remotes include a headphone jack and 3's also includes motion-control for gaming. Roku 3 includes Ethernet for wired Internet connection and USB and microSD slots for external storage. Roku 3 also has a processor that's 5 times faster than the others and comes with "Angry Birds Space" preinstalled.

Unlike a DVR, the Roku doesn't store most of its content, but streams it directly, eliminating the need for large amounts of internal storage. Streaming via the device requires that you have high speed Internet, with recommended speeds of at least 1.5 Mbps for standard definition content and 3 Mbps for HD.

Setup and use are fairly easy. You connect the box to your TV via an A/V cable (included) or an HDMI cable (purchased separately, but required for HD quality playback), plug it into a power source, and control it with the simple battery-powered remote. There are a few steps to connect it to your home WiFi network (or optionally Ethernet, if you have the Roku 3) and to create a Roku account. You have to go to their Channel Store and pick whatever channels you want the option to view. You can then pick a channel from your list, browse its content and watch to your heart's content.

Many other devices stream online content to your TV these days, including other set-top boxes, most new Blu-Ray DVD players, DVRs, gaming systems, Smart TVs and even some HDMI-enabled home computers. But Roku stands out from most of its competitors for its affordability, intuitive user interface (UI) and number of available channels. They are a leader in the set-top box field, having sold millions of units to date. Roku is even working on a line of television sets with integrated Roku hardware and software [source: McCracken].

And now, with the new HDMI version of the Roku Streaming Stick, they will compete directly with the other new inexpensive stick streamer, the Chromecast. Continue reading to find out more about Roku's latest innovation.

What is the Roku Streaming Stick?

The Roku Streaming Stick is the size of an average USB thumb drive.
The Roku Streaming Stick is the size of an average USB thumb drive.
Image courtesy of Roku

The Roku Streaming Stick takes all the capabilities of the current Roku box, the smallest of which is 3.5 by 3.5 by 1 inches (8.9 by 8.9 by 2.5 centimeters), and crams them into a tiny thumb drive-sized form. There are two versions: the original MHL version (now called the Roku Ready version) measuring 2.7 by 1 by 0.4 inches (6.9 by 2.5 by 1 centimers), and the new HDMI version measuring 3.1 by 1.1 by 0.5 inches (7.9 by 2.8 by 1.3 centimeters). Both plug directly into a television port and allow you to stream shows, movies, music and more, all via your home WiFi network, without taking up the living room real estate required by current set-top boxes.

They stream at up to 1080p video resolution and provide digital over HDMI audio output with 5.1 and 7.1 surround pass through with applicable content. Both Streaming Sticks are compatible with 802.11a/b/g/n dual-band WiFi, the faster the better for HD streaming. Roku recommends a minimum of 1.5 Mbps to view standard definition and 3.0 Mbps to view HD.

The Roku Ready version (the original Streaming Stick released in 2012) requires an MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) port on your television or monitor, but the new version works with an HDMI port, which can be found on all modern HDTVs. The Consumer Electronics Control (CEC) capabilities inherent in MHL allow you to use the remote that came with your TV to control the Roku Ready stick, rather than a separate Roku remote, although you can purchase a Roku remote separately if you would prefer. The MHL port also powers the Streaming Stick, so there is no need to plug the device into a power supply, making it the most unobtrusive choice. But MHL is still relatively rare, unfortunately. You can check the Roku web site to find out what TVs and other devices are certified as Roku Ready, and check the MHL Consortium site to find out what display devices currently incorporate MHL.

The new HDMI version of the Streaming Stick requires that you plug it into a power supply (either your TV's USB port or a wall socket). The device has a micro-USB port, and comes with a USB power cable and wall adapter. There's also a reset button near the micro-USB port. It comes with a basic Roku RF remote control (the type without motion control or a headphone jack).

You can also download an iOS or Android app to use your phone or tablet as a remote and to throw video, photos and other content to your TV, although it can't mirror just anything from your phone. The Roku Streaming Stick and the Roku 3 allow you to cast Netflix and YouTube videos directly from your phone, and all Roku models allow you to send locally stored videos, photos and music to your TV. The app has been updated for the launch of the new Streaming Stick.

To find out which version is best for you, read on to find out what an MHL port is and whether your current TV set is likely to have one.

What is MHL and what devices have it?

The MHL connector on a Roku Ready Streaming Stick may look like a HDMI interface at first glimpse, but it's actually a different technology.
The MHL connector on a Roku Ready Streaming Stick may look like a HDMI interface at first glimpse, but it's actually a different technology.
Image courtesy of Roku

Mobile High-definition Link (MHL) is a relatively new interface, rolled out in 2011, that allows you to connect mobile and portable devices to a television via an MHL-enabled port. The standard is being developed and licensed by the MHL Consortium, a collection of electronics manufacturers started by Sony, Toshiba, Samsung, Nokia and Silicon Image (the creator of the technology). A wide number of additional electronics manufacturers have signed on as adopters.

The MHL port has the same form as an HDMI port, but it isn't HDMI. HDMI is High-Definition Multimedia Interface, a standard connector included on most new TVs, which allows for uncompressed high-definition digital video and multi-channel audio via a single cable. MHL also allows for the same quality of video and audio input, and uses the same physical end-connector, but it's a different technology that uses five wires or pins to transmit high-def video and audio from a device to your TV while at the same time sending power back to the device.

MHL (and newer HDMI) standards also include Consumer Electronics Control (CEC), which makes it possible to use your TV's remote control to operate the plugged-in device. With HDMI, this only works if both the device and TV are the same brand. But with MHL, you should be able to use your TV remote to control any MHL-enabled device, regardless of brand.

There are some MHL-enabled mobile phones that you can connect to an HDMI or MHL-enabled television set or monitor via a special MHL-to-HDMI adapter to display the phone's output to the screen. The cable connects to a micro-USB port on the phone and to an HDMI or MHL port on the display. An internal switch in the device allows it to determine which is plugged in, the adapter or a normal micro-USB cable, and it reacts accordingly. If the monitor is just HDMI and not MHL, a power supply needs to be plugged into the adapter via another micro-USB port. But if it's plugged into an MHL port, the monitor will power the device while it's streaming. Keeping your mobile phone powered means that you can use it to play content to a large screen and not have to worry about rendering it temporarily useless by draining the battery.

There are more MHL-enabled TVs on the market now than there were when the first Roku Streaming Stick came out, but they are still relatively rare in the wild compared to TVs with just HDMI. You can check a TV's technical specifications to see whether it has the technology, or check your TV for a port labeled MHL.

Fortunately, HDMI is ubiquitous, and you can now pick a Roku Streaming Stick for either type of port. Read on to find out if this device really converts your TV into a Smart TV.

Does the Roku Streaming Stick really turn your TV into a Smart TV?

A Smart TV, sometimes referred to as a Connected TV, is, at its simplest, a television that can access the Internet. Usually, these terms are used to refer to television sets with computer components and software built into them, allowing everything from surfing the net to streaming movies to playing games. The Streaming Stick will provide some, but not all, of these capabilities to any HDTV that isn't already a Smart TV. And for those that already are, it's likely to provide far more streaming channels than the TV's built-in software.

Smart TVs offered by different manufacturers have differing features, and all seem to be evolving and offering more and more channels. Some manufacturers have developed their own software, and some have incorporated existing software, like Google TV. These sets generally have more interactive Internet features than the Roku. For instance, on a Google TV enabled Smart TV, you can search the Web through the Chrome browser, as well as stream videos and download a wide variety Android apps -- including games.

Through Roku's many channels, you can stream lots of content, play games, view your Facebook pictures and videos and now even cast Netflix and YouTube videos from your phone to your TV. Roku's mobile app also includes a very handy search feature that allows you to type in the name of a movie or TV show, and it returns a list the channels on which it is available, and the prices, if applicable, across several of the more popular apps. You can even type in the names of actors or directors to find their work. But you can't surf the Web via Roku, since there's no browser. You're limited to the Channel Store's offerings and the mobile app capabilities.

But as the people at Roku point out, TVs are expensive and people don't tend to replace them very often. Smart TVs have a reputation for being a bit difficult to use, and require a complicated remote or Bluetooth keyboard, whereas the Roku has an intuitive user interface that can have you streaming content with a few button clicks on its simplified remote. TV manufacturers are also slower to update their software than Roku, which is able to put out frequent software updates. And Roku's hardware is much easier and cheaper to replace than an entire TV. You could even buy multiples to smarten up your spare TVs.

So, the Roku Streaming Stick is definitely a viable alternative to a Smart TV for a lot of consumers. As long as you're looking to watch programs, view pictures, listen to music, or play the sorts of games you would on your phone, rather than turn your television set into a full-fledged computer monitor, the Roku Streaming Stick might make your TV smart enough for your purposes.

Continue reading to find out about some of the other streaming options.

The Roku Streaming Stick vs. Other Set-top and Stick Options

Apple TV is one of Roku's competitors, but as of March 2014, they don't offer a product comparable in size to the Roku Streaming Stick.
Apple TV is one of Roku's competitors, but as of March 2014, they don't offer a product comparable in size to the Roku Streaming Stick.
Image courtesy Apple, Inc.

There are many set-top boxes stick devices that offer different features and sets of channels at widely varying prices. Picking the one that's best for you requires a bit of research, but here are a few of the offerings as of mid-2014.

Boxee Box, like Roku, offers a large number of channels, and has a few extra perks, like streaming from your home network, a full Web browser, a qwerty keyboard on the back of its remote control, two USB ports plus Ethernet, and the availability of the Live TV device, a plug-in contraption that lets you stream local broadcast stations. Boxee is priced much higher than Roku, though, at around $180 for the box, and $50 for the Live TV device. Boxee was purchased by Samsung in 2013, but the devices are still on the market as of 2014.

Apple TV streams content from the iTunes library on your computer straight to your TV via an HDMI cable and WiFi. It also streams over 30 channels including Netflix, HuluPlus, HBO Go, YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, Crackle, PBS, several Disney channels and a few sports channels. It is missing some of the major players (no Amazon, Spotify or Pandora, for instance). Like all but the Roku 3, it doesn't allow for external storage (besides your computer iTunes content) and acts as a streaming-only device. But Apple TV allows you to mirror content from your iPhone or iPad straight to your TV, so it might be a good choice if have an iOS device or if you are a heavy iTunes user. It retails for $99.

Google TV comes integrated into some TVs, but is also available via set-top boxes including the Sony Internet Player for around $130 and the VIZIO Co-Star for around $100. These include a full Android operating system with the Chrome Web browser. Both come with remotes that include a touchpad and keyboard and enable you to use your TV as a basic app-type computer, but require a little more computer literacy than boxes like the Roku. Sony has come out with a more full-featured MHL stick with Google TV capabilities called the Bravia Smart Stick. It only works with new Sony Bravia HDTVs and carries a price of around $150.

In late 2013, Google unleashed a wildly popular stick streaming device called the Chromecast. At $35 retail, it is about $15 less than the HDMI Roku Streaming Stick. With only 14 apps as of this writing, it doesn't have nearly as many channel choices, although you can purchase content through Google Play and cast Chrome browser pages. Chromecast also doesn't have Roku's TV interface or handy cross-channel search feature, and doesn't come with a remote. It uses your mobile phone or tablet (or even your laptop in some cases) as the remote and the interface. Like the latest Roku stick, it is HDMI and therefore has to be plugged into a power source. Your phone and Chromecast have to be connected to the same WiFi network for it to work.

Two other stick devices started as Kickstarter projects in 2012 and are both now on the market: the Equiso Smart TV and the Pocket TV by Infinitec. Both are thumb drive-sized sticks that plug directly into your TV and allow you to use an Android operating system to surf the net or stream high-definition content. The Equiso is an MHL stick that also works with HDMI when plugged into power. It retails for $69. The Pocket TV is HDMI-only and its list price is $99 or more, depending upon remote model, but it can be had for half price on sale.

Truth be told, you may already have a streaming device hooked up to your TV. The Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii gaming platforms and many Blu-ray players and DVRs provide streaming via a host of apps. Xbox requires an annual Xbox Live Gold membership, the Tivo DVR has a monthly fee on top of the hefty box price and cable and satellite DVR boxes require monthly subscription fees.

Existing Roku boxes also compete with their little stick siblings, since they provide the same interface and streaming experience. The HDMI Roku Streaming Stick is tied with Roku 1 as the cheapest Roku, plus its diminutive size and the addition of dual-band WiFi and Netflix and YouTube casting are advantages.

Is the future now?

The new HDMI version of the Roku Streaming Stick is available for $49.99 in mid-2014. The Roku Ready (MHL) version has been available since 2012, and is currently $69.99, plus $24.99 for the optional remote.

Reactions to both versions have been largely positive, citing the large number of channels, ease of use, compact design, inclusion of the remote with the HDMI version and the handy cross-channel search feature in the mobile app. One complaint about the new HDMI version is that certain apps, including Netflix, are slow to boot up, although the lag seems to go away once they are booted.

When the first Roku Streaming Stick was released, the company expressed a hope that manufacturers would embrace the idea of using their streaming stick to provide Smart TV capabilities to consumers rather than concentrating on integrating software and computer hardware themselves, which involves a high cost and a good amount of complexity. Roku's VP of Marketing stated that developers find them very easy to work with, and they get products and services to market quickly, which is part of the reason they have been able to port so many channels, often before anyone else [source: Tong]. Now even Roku is jumping into the integrated TV market [source: McCracken]. But until you're ready to entirely replace your TV, the Roku Streaming Stick gives you an inexpensive option for greatly increasing the content available through your TV -- in a tiny, unobtrusive package.

Cable and satellite TV aren't likely to disappear soon, due to business models and licenses that keep a lot of broadcast and cable content off the Internet and set-top boxes, but as fast as our online, on-demand options are growing, there is little doubt that streaming will one day overtake traditional broadcasting routes as our chosen means of viewing entertainment. Streaming can be a complement to existing TV options, or a total replacement if you aren't addicted to particular shows that you can't get online.

Author's Note: How the Roku Streaming Stick Works

I am a self-confessed entertainment addict who spends an enormous amount of time streaming movies and TV shows to my big-screen television. In my 20s, when I had to use a slider bar to select from whatever was playing at the time on the 30 or so existing cable channels, I dreamt of the day that I could watch what I wanted, when I wanted, rather than having to rush home for prime time. I figured this would come to pass straight through cable one day, which it did with the inception of video on demand. But my expectations were surpassed first with the DVR, and then with all the set-top and other streaming devices available today. Things like the Roku brought my pipe dream to fruition.

I already have a Chromecast that I use to cast content from my phone to the little HDTV in front of my treadmill (it also has an old Roku attached), but I am seriously considering getting a Roku Streaming Stick for the main television. The cross-channel search capability via the mobile app makes it really compelling since I'm constantly consulting canistream.it to find out which app has what I want to watch. Anything to get me out of menus and Web sites and into the content faster sounds like a winner to me. Plus it's always good to have the device with the most channels, even if those include lots of little niche stuff. Who knows? Maybe one day I'll want to watch one of the three fishing channels.

Related Articles

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