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Roku Streaming Stick packs big punch in a small frame

With the addition of Amazon Fire TV this week, the market for video-streaming devices is getting crowded. And maybe that's why Roku made its latest device so small.

The Saratoga, Calif., company recently began shipping the Streaming Stick, a video-streaming dongle that users can discreetly plug into their HDTVs to access online video services such as Netflix, HBO Go and Pandora.

Measuring 3.1 inches by 1.1 inches and just 0.5 inch tall, the Streaming Stick takes up a lot less space than Roku's other devices, which resemble hockey pucks.

But don't judge the Streaming Stick by its size -- it is just as powerful as the other Rokus.

The dongle has access to Roku's more than 1,200 channels. It also pulls content from the Internet using speedy dual-band, dual-antenna MIMO Wi-Fi connectivity, just like the pricey $99.99 Roku 3. And like all Rokus, the Streaming Stick comes complete with a wireless remote control.

Most importantly, the Streaming Stick streams video at up to 1080p HD video quality. In my experience, video streamed through the device looked sharp and just as good as any other streaming device on the market.

The Streaming Stick is also a lot cheaper than other Roku players. It retails for $49.99 -- the same price as the Roku 1, but it is cheaper than the Roku 3 and the $79.99 Roku 2.

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There's only two notable features missing from the Roku Streaming Stick, and they both have to do with its remote control. It lacks a headphone jack that allows for private listening (available on the Roku 2 and Roku 3), and it lacks motion sensor capabilities (available on the Roku 3) that can be used to play games such as "Angry Birds."

But with its low price and small size, the Streaming Stick is an obvious rival to the Chromecast, the surprise hit released by Google last year.

Like the new Roku, the Chromecast is a cheap dongle that users plug into the back of their TVs.

At $35, the Chromecast is $15 cheaper than the Streaming Stick, but Roku offers a few features on its device that might entice consumers into paying the difference.

The most notable is the remote control. Chromecast can only be controlled by other devices. This means that users must open apps on their smartphones and tablets or go to websites on their computers and tap the "Cast" button to tell the Chromecast to play content from a provider.

This can make rewinding and fast-forwarding troublesome on the Google device because some content apps do not have buttons for those functions. Instead, users have to slide the video progress bar with their fingertips and hope it lands where they desire.

With the Streaming Stick, this isn't an issue. Users have physical buttons on the remote control that they can press to fast forward and rewind. They can also press the replay button, which rewinds footage by about seven seconds.

And for those who don't mind or prefer using their smartphones as their remote controls, the Streaming Stick can be controlled using the Roku mobile app for Apple and Android devices. Users can also "fling" content to the Streaming Stick from the Netflix and YouTube apps on their mobile devices too, the same way that users do with Chromecast.

VIDEO: Unboxing the $49.99 Roku Streaming Stick

Besides having a remote control, the Streaming Stick also has an advantage over Chromecast when it comes to content.

Google's streaming device has access to only about a dozen content providers. The Streaming Stick has access to basically any provider users could want.

For instance, two popular providers were not available through Chromecast while they were on Streaming Stick: Amazon Instant Video and Spotify. 

I personally don't have a favorite between the Chromecast and the Streaming Stick. Both deliver video with great quality. The Streaming Stick happens to do a little more, but you have to pay a little more for it.

Users who want the cheaper choice should go with the Chromecast while those who want a more well-rounded experience should pick up the Streaming Stick.

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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