(Pocket-lint) - If you haven't bought a TV for the last couple of years then chances are it is not "smart". If you want the latest streaming and catch-up services without the cost implication of signing up to the binding contracts for a set-top box, then there are ways around that. Roku has made small-size connected streaming boxes for some time now, but with its latest Roku Streaming Stick has managed to cram that technology into a HDMI-based device slightly bigger than a typical USB stick drive.
Size is everything these days, so a small way such as this to "smart" up your TV is welcome, assuming it's not so old there are no HDMI ports available. But with Google's Chromecast now also on the map, has the Roku got what it takes to make the Streaming Stick a viable purchase? We've been watching Netflix, iPlayer and more to find out whether it's really any good.
Whereas the Roku boxes previously have been small physical devices that you place on a shelf or on top of something else, the Roku Streaming Stick is far smaller. The idea is that you simply plug it into a spare HDMI socket on your TV. It's small, bright purple and - striking colour aside - is pretty dull in terms of design, but as it will probably be forever hidden away out of sight that's no bother.
The power is provided in the guise of a Micro-USB socket rather than drawing directly through the TV's HDMI terminal. In the box comes the power cable, or if you are lucky enough that your ageing TV has a USB socket on it then you can plug the cable from the Streaming Stick into the USB socket and take power from there.
In case of emergencies there is a hard reset button on the stick itself, but you shouldn't need to press it unless things all go awry. They didn't during our time testing the Roku.
At the controls
Included in the box is a dedicated remote, or you can link up the free iPhone or Android smartphone apps to take over things instead. The included remote is basic, but better than most you'll find in terms of build and because it's not infrared (IR), you don't need to worry about pointing it directly at the Stick.
However, it's a shame that Roku hasn't included the more advanced remote control that features built-in headphone support. That will be down to cost, we suspect, as such a remote only comes with its top-spec box. Even so, with a device such as the Streaming Stick aimed, presumably, at bedroom TVs, the inclusion of its headphone tech - which allows you to simply plug a pair of headphones into the remote to mute the TV and not disturb anyone around you - would have been a great addition here.
READ: Roku 3 review
The smartphone app allows not only for control over the Streaming Stick, but also to send content from your phone. Videos, music or photos can be sent all at the press of a button, although we found longer videos did take some time to be retrieved by the device - something we wouldn't usually experience with Apple TV.
This is a potentially good way to push personal files to a larger screen, but isn't as expansive as Google's Chromecast, as you can't mirror webpages with their related content. There are still some gaps: on the iPhone we weren't able to stream Netflix, for example. This is coming, supposedly, but you might as well switch on your phone's Wi-Fi and get the separate Netflix app or use the specific app from the Roku store to cater for that.
READ: Google Chromecast review
Setting the Roku Streaming Stick up is incredibly easy. Plug it into your TV and the box gets started with the setup procedure which you can follow. You'll obviously need an internet connection, preferably a fast one otherwise streaming won't be up to scratch, but you'll also need a separate device such as your laptop, tablet, or smartphone to validate the device on via Roku's website. A bit annoying, but fairly common practice.
This is to ensure you've got a Roku account, a requirement for getting everything to work. You'll also need to part with your credit card details even though there is no subscription or cost to pay - such ongoing payments will only come into play if you want to download certain subscription-based apps.
Once the basics are done you can then add apps available from within Roku's store to customise your home screen experience. So if you want some 4oD then you can seek it out.
Using the remote makes it easy to chop through the Roku's on-screen interface which is, if you've ever used or seen Roku's setup before, much the same as the one offered by the various Roku boxes. It's fairly straightforward to use and the interface nippy enough not to frustrate.
The interface is now based around two panels that you can scroll through or across. On the opening screen you have My Channels, Channel Store, and Settings on the left. On the right you have a grid of nine channel spaces for quick access to your favourite apps and channels. Scrolling to the right gets rid of the first menu and instead of revealing more channel options, a huge advert - either for Roku or Netflix or similar - appears, which is not only a bit naff but a huge waste of screen real estate.
You can move channels into the order you want them by pressing the asterisk button on the remote but you can't ever get more than nine tiles on the screen at any one time. To view more you have to scroll down.
There is some customisation, but not to fix the above nine tile problem. It's more cosmetic stuff: Roku allows you to change the look of the menu interface, swapping out the purple colour scheme for various seasonal themes or one of five presets which go by names such as "Daydream" or "Decaf". No prizes here: the former has clouds, the latter is brown.
The interface, although wasteful in use of space on screen, is easy to use and straightforward. However, as there is no overriding menu system forced upon app developers every app looks and feels different. That's either great or poor depending on how you look at these things.
The core approach to Roku is that you can expand it by adding more "channels" via the Channel Store. Unlike Apple TV you don't have to wait for a system update to add more content or for more content to become available. Just wait for developers to get on and develop an app for it. Here there is plenty of choice and plenty being added frequently.
Big hitters already available include BBC iPlayer, Netflix, Now TV, Demand 5, Sky News, Crackle, Vevo, Plex, Spotify, and TuneIn Radio. You can also get apps like Flickr, Facebook, Picasa, and YouTube. These are free, but some can impose sign-up costs, such as monthly payments for Netflix or Now TV. But such services are non-contractual so it's easy to buy a few months to catch your favourite show and then back out without ongoing monies leaving your bank.
As with all app stores there are some good apps and services and some not so good. Of the hundreds of apps available in the Roku Channel Store you'll probably only be interested in the handful we've already mentioned. Still, the good news is that they are present and if a new hot service launches it can very easily be added.
What you don't get, however, is the chance to rent or buy content in the same way as the iTunes store or Google Play, although with Now TV covering all the latest movies, and Netflix covering a large chunk of TV shows and older movies you should be pretty well covered.
Importantly where there have been omissions in past iterations of Channel Store, those gaps are now getting filled. Since the launch of the Roku 3 in November 2013, you can now get 4oD for example.
If you are looking to enhance your living room, or as we more likely suspect "smarten" a second TV in the house, then the Roku Streaming Stick does a good job. With full support of services like Netflix, Now TV, Sky Store, Demand 5, and 4oD, the Roku system has shown that not only does it have a good selection, but that selection keeps growing.
Unlike Google Chromecast you don't need to have your phone present and the included remote makes Roku a more traditional TV-centric experience. That will be perfect for some users depending on your stance - we like the Roku and feel Google's Chromecast has a slightly different take.
It's not all perfect though. The chances are you'll need to use the power cable rather than a TV-based USB port to power it, we'd like the headphone-based remote to be in the box, and of the boasted 500-plus channels available a large swathe of them are pointless and irrelevant. But that last point is just the nature of the market really.
Even if you just want to obtain a handful of the key services, then the Roku is a great way to do it without the bulk or hassle of a bigger, pricier set-top box.