TECH
03/04/2014 03:58 pm ET

Roku's Answer To Chromecast Is This $50 Stick

Roku

In the fight for your TV set, the weapons keep getting smaller.

On Tuesday, Roku, the maker of the popular set-top boxes that stream video and music from the Internet to your TV, announced its new Streaming Stick, a 3-inch dongle that plugs into your TV's HDMI port to enable streaming. The stick will directly compete with Google's similar Chromecast device, which has been a hot seller since its release last summer.

This actually isn't Roku's first Streaming Stick, but you'd be forgiven if you thought it was. The company released one in 2012, but it only worked with "Roku Ready" TVs from a handful of manufacturers. Even though that number has grown, this new device works with a much wider range of TVs. It's also just $49.99, half the price of the original.

Think of Roku's new Streaming Stick as a very slimmed-down version of the set-top boxes that Roku has been selling for years: Plug it into an HDMI port and a power outlet, switch to the associated input on your TV, and Roku's menu appears on the screen, allowing you to control what you want to watch or listen to with the included remote.

Despite the physical similarities between the Streaming Stick and Chromecast -- both are roughly the same size and plug into a power outlet and hide behind your TV -- there are some key differences between the two.

Unlike Roku's Streaming Stick, Chromecast isn't a standalone device -- you must use an accompanying device like a computer, smartphone or tablet if you want to watch or listen to anything on your TV. Chromecast also doesn't work with a wide range of apps. The popular ones, like Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, YouTube and Pandora are all there, and Google continues to add more, but it doesn't have the diverse range of Roku's 1,200-strong channel store.

Of course, with Chromecast, you can always play something that's in your PC's browser and then "cast" it to your TV.

Which brings us to what Roku's new Streaming Stick doesn't have: the ability to cast from your Internet browser, though Roku says it's adding that later. At the moment, you can only cast YouTube, Netflix and local media like pictures, video and music from your mobile device.

Roku is pushing the included remote as one of the biggest advantages over Chromecast. You don't have to relinquish the use of your device to whoever is watching TV, the company says, like your child or the babysitter. It's also pushing the device's small size as perfect for a wall-mounted TV.

Roku prides itself on its simple, easy-to-use interface. Two large Chinese television makers, TCL and Hisense, licensed the platform to create Roku-enabled smart TVs that will go on sale in the fall.

Roku's new Streaming Stick joins Roku's lineup of set top boxes, which range in price from $49.99 to $99. The new stick doesn't have one of Roku's best features -- a headphone jack on the remote that allows someone to watch something without disturbing others in the room. For now, that feature only comes on the Roku 2 and Roku 3, priced at $79 and $99, respectively.

Even with a price tag of $50, Roku's Streaming Stick is still $15 more than Chromecast. But with a remote control, huge range of content and Roku's familiar interface, it will likely be strong competition for Chromecast. The device can be pre-ordered now, and will be available in stores in April.

Still, Chromecast has had a huge head start. According to NPD Group, it took 47 percent of the U.S. market for standalone streaming devices in the fourth quarter of last year, while Apple TV had 27 percent and Roku had 21 percent.

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