Editors' note (March 4, 2014): Roku has announced a new, updated $50 Streaming Stick. Unlike the older MHL model reviewed here, the new one will work with any HDMI-equipped television.
The Roku Streaming Stick is an oddity among Roku's line. If you're buying it separately, it's because you own one specific TV: the Insignia E480. While some other devices do have the necessary MHL port, and some like the Oppo BDP-103 have even had their firmware upgraded to "unofficially" support the Roku, the Insignia TV is one of the only products certified "Roku Ready," which doesn't already come with the stick in the box. As a result, the Roku Streaming Stick is currently a very niche item -- we suggest you get one of the other Roku devices instead.
While we hear there are more MHL TVs coming at CES, it's likely that these TVs will already include a smart TV suite. Even if you still want to get a Roku to maximize your streaming options for compatibility's sake, you're safer with a Roku HD.
Design and features
Given that the Roku Streaming Stick is simply an overgrown USB key, and because it's hidden at the back of your TV, its design is almost superfluous. Yet, what you get is a purple "stick" with an activity light, a reset button, and an HDMI plug variant known as Mobile High-Definition Link or MHL. It's an interface designed to connect smartphones and has been used in 2012 on TVs such as the Samsung ES8000 and the LG LM9600.
While based on MHL, the Roku Streaming Stick is designed to be used with products carrying the specific "Roku Ready" certification. At present there are only two devices available: the 3M Streaming Projector (which already includes a Streaming Stick) and the Insignia E480 TV. While more MHL-toting products are promised at CES 2013, the only future "Roku Ready" TVs are an upcoming line of Hitachi LCDs.
So, why buy the Streaming Stick instead of opting for a nearly identical Roku 2 XS? Both have 1080p playback as well as the Gaming Remote, but the Stick also includes dual-band 802.11n. Using the MHL port also supplies the Stick power so it means you can cut down on some entertainment unit clutter by not opting for the XS.
By the way, that Gaming Remote is actually a good one. It's designed to double as a gaming controller, and waving it around controls an onscreen cursor if you're using the right app (like Angry Birds). The remote has hard plastic buttons that feel akin to a Nintendo controller's rather than the squishy remote buttons you might be used to. (Why don't more remotes use hard buttons? They're actually better!)
If you get a Roku Ready device, then it means you can use the television's own remote but if you opt for a regular MHL TV then you'll need to use the Gaming Remote.
The CNET editors are divided about the future of MHL -- and therefore the long-term prospects of this Roku product. Some think that MHL will become part of the HDMI offering by default, whereas others say that manufacturers will give up once people find better, wireless ways to connect their smartphones to their TVs: Miracast, AirPlay, and so forth. CES 2013 will be a good litmus test for which future is more likely.
Content and user interface
Editors' note: As the content and interface of the Streaming Stick is largely identical to that of other Roku models, we have reprinted that section from the Roku LT review here.
The home screen has a basic interface, with a horizontal row of channels to choose from. The Roku comes preloaded with the most-important channels: Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, and Pandora. The first three are an outstanding trio for cable-cutters, letting you mix and match subscription and pay-per-view content to catch up on your favorite TV shows.