Lauren Goode

Recent Posts by Lauren Goode

Roku to Launch Streaming Stick in October — And Then Wait for Consumers to Catch Up to New TV Standard

If there’s one thing that can be said about Roku devices — set-top boxes that stream Internet video to TV sets — it’s that they’re easy to use.

Which is why it’s surprising that Roku is complicating its newest device by attaching it to a technical standard that’s not yet widely adopted.

You might have heard of the Roku Streaming Stick: We’ve covered it (here and here) before. Essentially, it’s Roku’s top-of-the-line 2 XS box compressed into a tiny dongle, one not much bigger than a thumb drive. The dongle plugs into a port on the back of your TV to offer you the same streaming video apps you’d get from the bigger box. Like magic, it transforms your “dumb,” or non-Internet-connected TV, into a “smart TV.”

The Streaming Stick, which Roku has been teasing since this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in January, is finally coming to market in mid to late October, the company said yesterday in an interview. It costs $99 and comes with a remote. Even better, it has dual-band Wi-Fi, for faster, higher-quality HD streaming, and has double the onboard memory of the Roku box.

But don’t throw your Roku box out the window just yet, because there’s a catch: The Streaming Stick works only with MHL-equipped TV sets. MHL is a relatively new technical standard set by a consortium of electronics makers in December 2010. So far, about 100 160 manufacturers worldwide are deploying MHL smartphones and TVs. The MHL estimates that more than 200 million MHL-enabled products will have shipped worldwide by the end of 2012, and Roku believes consumers can expect to see more MHL devices coming out of next year’s CES.

But, in the case of the Streaming Stick, Roku says there are currently only two MHL-friendly Insignia TVs — Best Buy’s in-house brand — available on the market. In the coming weeks, seven MHL-equipped Hitachi TVs will become available, followed by four Apex TVs.

The Streaming Stick can also work with select Blu-ray players, but Roku hasn’t announced any compatible models yet.

So, why would Roku go with the MHL standard? Well, the California-based start-up has a few compelling reasons. While the MHL port looks the same, physically, as an HDMI port, the MHL port channels power from the host device to keep the connected device running. So, the TV will juice the Roku Streaming Stick, which means there are no wires attached to this device. If the area behind your TV looks like mine, with its spaghetti-like pile of wires, a wire-free device is welcome.

The Roku Streaming Stick’s remote also controls the volume and other functions on MHL-equipped TVs, so, theoretically, you could pare down your stockpile of remotes and maybe use just one (or two). And when you first plug in the Stick, it fires up the Roku app on the TV without forcing you to switch inputs. The same goes for when you’re watching live TV and want to switch to Roku. Users can hit the “Home” button on the Roku remote — or their standard MHL TV remote — and Roku launches.

Lastly, Roku is making the argument that even if you invest in a new, expensive, smart TV, it will become outdated in just a few years, whereas the Roku Streaming Stick offers an inexpensive upgrade option, provided that the company continues to upgrade its device and its app platform.

Roku currently streams content from Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video and MLB.tv — and Vudu, its newest partner — to name a few. Today, the company also introduced a new mobile app that works like Apple’s AirPlay, controlling and streaming content from your iPhone or iPad to the Roku app on your TV set.

While Roku certainly has a nifty idea with the Streaming Stick — one that sets it apart a bit from the existing set-top boxes on the market — it’s hard to say how quickly this will catch on when relatively few consumers have the TV sets to support it.

Update: An earlier version of this article stated that 100 electronics manufacturers are currently shipping MHL-equipped devices; The MHL consortium says it has more than 160 licensed manufacturers supporting the MHL standard.


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