Roku's new streaming stick challenges Chromecast

The biggest differences? Price, apps and a physical remote

Roku today announced it will sell a new version of its Streaming Stick at a price half that of its predecessor.

Like Google's Chromecast, the Roku Streaming Stick looks like a thumb drive and plugs into the HDMI port of a TV to allow users to stream entertainment content to the TV.

Unlike Chromecast, Roku's device comes with an actual remote control.

Roku
Roku's Streaming Stick (front) and its RF-based remote control.

With Chromecast, a user must download a set-up app for PCs or Macs, which connects it to a Wi-Fi network. The device then streams media from the Internet, not from your mobile device. With Roku's Streaming Stick, you're essentially getting Roku's set-top box in a smaller form factor; content streams from it.

Jonathan Gaw, a research manager at IDC, said Roku needed to step up and respond to Chromecast, "and the new version of their Streaming Stick does that."

"The extra $15 is a bit of a chunk to swallow, but there are still a lot of folks who don't have tablets and will find navigating on their smartphones to be too inconvenient, and Roku still has a healthy lead in terms of content channels," he said. "Google is doing its best to bring in new content to Chromecast, and we're confident that that effort will pick up steam this year."

Long term, however, neither Google nor Roku actually want to be in the dongle business. The devices are more of a method of getting other manufacturers to adopt their platforms for televisions and other video-viewing devices, Gaw said.

Chromecast
Google's Chromecast streaming media player.

The latest Roku Streaming Stick is similar in size to Chromecast, measuring 0.5-in. x-1.1-in. x 3.1 in., and offers the same number of TV channels -- 1,200 in U.S., 750 in Canada and the U.K. -- as its predecessor, which was launched in 2012. Like the older model, it also offers access to 31,000 movies.

Roku's new stick comes with apps for Android and iOS devices, meaning it can be used with smartphones or tablets.

Like Roku's set-top boxes, the new stick can be controlled either with the supplied remote control or the mobile app. Roku has also upgraded the app, Roku Search, for the Streaming Stick. It now allows users to search for movies or TV shows and compare prices for the services. Once a movie or TV series appears, it will immediately begin playing.

As with the previous stick, the new one streams both 720p and 1080p high-definition content.

Like Chromecast, the Roku Streaming stick comes with both Netflix and YouTube mobile apps embedded, allowing users to cast videos from a smartphone or tablet straight to a TV. It can also stream services such as Amazon Instant, Blockbuster, HBO Go, Pandora, Hulu Plus, Showtime Anytime, Time Warner Cable, Spotify, and much more.

Chromecast doesn't come with apps on it, but it can access integrated apps, including Netflix and YouTube, HBO Go, Red Bull TV, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Google Play TV, Vevo, Songza, Plex, Post TV, RealPlayer Cloud and Viki.

Gartner analyst Paul O'Donovan believes that while Roku's new Streaming stick is similar to Google's Chromecast dongle, Google has the advantage because of a wider range of applications and lower price point (Chromecast sells for $35). "But for TV watching they look very close," O'Donovan said.

The new Roku Streaming Stick is different from its predecessor in that, like Google Chromecast, it's powered by an HDTV's HDMI port (or via an included power adapter that can plug into the wall).

The old Roku Ready version used a Mobile High Definition Link (MHL)-enabled HDMI port. The new stick works with any HDMI port.

The new Roku Streaming Stick has a retail price of $49 in the U.S. and $59 in Canada. In the U.K., it will retail for 49 Euros.

The Roku Streaming Stick will be available in April. Like its predecessor, the new streaming stick can be purchased online at retail sites such as Amazon.com, BestBuy.com and Staples.com as well as on Roku's own website.

Roku also plans to add additional mobile features such as the ability to stream content from a computer to a TV.

Lucas Mearian covers consumer data storage, consumerization of IT, mobile device management, renewable energy, telematics/car tech and entertainment tech for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at  @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

See more by Lucas Mearian on Computerworld.com.

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