Streaming device leader Roku has a whopping seven streamers in its 2020 lineup from the $30 Roku Express and all-new $100 Roku Ultra. Yet despite this influx of new blood, the company’s best model is one of its oldest. The Roku Streaming Stick Plus debuted in 2017, but three years later it maintains its spot as our favorite Roku device — and our favorite media streamer overall. It streams 4K and HDR video from Netflix, Amazon, Disney Plus, Vudu, Apple TV and others, comes with worthwhile features like a voice remote with buttons that can control your TV and runs Roku’s best-in-class streaming system. It has all of the stuff you need and none of the fluff.
The Streaming Stick Plus’ closest competitors are the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K from 2018 and the brand-new Chromecast with Google TV, both of which also cost $50. Both offer Dolby Vision HDR and superior voice support, thanks to Alexa and Google Assistant, respectively. Their menu systems are more modern-looking than Roku, with TV shows and movies on the home pages as opposed to just app tiles, but they’re also more cluttered and potentially confusing.
If you’re knee-deep in the ecosystems of Amazon or Google you might appreciate those devices’ ability to control smart home gear using your TV remote. But Roku has a new trick too: support for Apple’s AirPlay system, a feature Amazon and Google lack. It allows iPhones and other Apple devices to connect to your TV wirelessly, to mirror screens, show photos, control apps and more. AirPlay makes the Streaming Stick Plus a strong play for people knee-deep in Apple’s ecosystem who don’t want to pony up for an Apple TV 4K.
App support between the three is very similar, though thanks to a new deal between HBO Max and Roku the Streaming Stick Plus now has access to all major apps. The Apple TV similarly supports all major apps, while Google’s Chromecast with Google TV will join them in 2021 when it adds Apple TV. The only streamer missing an app is Amazon’s Fire TV, which still lacks Peacock.
Streaming service support
Apple TV Plus
Chromecast with Google TV
Coming in 2021
To take full advantage of 4K apps on the Streaming Stick Plus you’ll need a new 4K HDR TV, but even if you don’t have one, it’s worth considering the Plus over cheaper, non-4K streamers like the Roku Express. The price difference between the two is so small it might be worth paying in case you do get a 4K TV soon, and want to be ready.
In the three years since the Streaming Stick Plus debuted, nothing has matched its simplicity, affordability or performance. It’s Roku’s best streamer for the money and Roku makes our favorite streaming system. That’s why the Streaming Stick Plus remains our favorite streamer overall.
Roku need-to-know-ku The Streaming Stick Plus designed to hide behind your TV and plug directly into a free HDMI port. If space is tight you can use a male-to-female HDMI cable or “port saver,” and Roku will even send you one for free.The Advanced Wireless Receiver cable plugs into the stick with an old-school Mini — not Micro — USB connection. The Receiver in turn plugs into the supplied AC adapter, or a USB port on your TV, for power.If you elect to power the stick from your TV it takes longer to boot up so plugging directly into AC is usually the best route.
That thing in our right hand is the Advanced Wireless Receiver.
You can’t use the Plus without the Receiver cable. We tried plugging an old USB-to-Mini-USB cable in instead and received an error message.The Plus lacks Dolby Vision HDR, so all HDR is delivered as HDR10. This isn’t a big deal unless a) you have a Dolby Vision-capable TV, and b) it performs significantly better with Dolby Vision compared to HDR10. Streaming in 4K requires more bandwidth, and in the case of Netflix, a more expensive plan. Amazon recommends 15Mbps is ample for 4K streaming, while YouTube and Netflix recommend 20.The Roku Stick Plus can support Dolby Atmos, Dolby’s best in-home audio format. The slightly faster Roku Ultra offers most of all the same features as the Streaming Stick Plus, but adds Dolby Vision and several remote-centric functions. Its remote adds two voice shortcut buttons, a headphone jack for private listening, and a remote finder so you don’t lose it among the couch cushions. There’s also an SD card slot to expand the memory for faster app loading, a USB port and a wired Ethernet port. Check out Roku’s full 2020 player lineup here.
4K stick with the Roku you know (ku)
The iPhone has used a basic grid of apps since time immemorial, because it works and people are used to it. So does Roku, and every time we ask the company representatives about an update they essentially tell us it’s working too well to mess with. And for the most part, we agree.
Roku’s home page is fully customizable, allowing you to move app tiles to taste. All apps get equal footing, from Netflix to Toon Goggles, scrolling through them is smooth and fast, they launch quickly and responses within every app we tried were lightning fast. The interface doesn’t surface individual shows and movies on the home page, like Fire TV, but it’s visually simpler and less intrusive; there’s just one big ad to the right of the app list.
Stronger on apps and search, weaker on voice
Roku continues to have more apps than the competition, as well as best-in-class cross-platform search. We love that results are sorted by price, especially since Movies Anywhere allows you to consolidate your Vudu, Amazon, Google Play and Apple libraries.
Roku has a few extras not found elsewhere, including My Feed and headphone private listening via the Roku app (if you want it on the remote, you’ll need to get an Ultra), but the most important is the Roku Channel. It’s a hub for on-demand movies and TV shows and also includes live news feeds, a Kids section and even subscriptions to services like HBO.
Featured Free is another Roku-only extra. The idea is to surface TV shows from network apps that are available to watch immediately without having to sign in to those apps. Clicking a show title, like New Amsterdam, Family Guy or Grey’s Anatomy, launches the app (NBC, Fox Now or ABC, respectively) and begins playing the episode (with ads). The section also mixes in movies from The Roku Channel and plenty of older shows available to watch for free, like Seinfeld (from Sony’s Crackle), Duck Dynasty (from Tubi TV) or Hell’s Kitchen (from the Roku Channel).