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Roku’s new streaming stick makes nearly any TV a smart TV

(Courtesy of Roku)
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It's easier than ever to make your plain, old television into a smart TV, and Roku's new streaming stick has cleverly boiled down the best of the company's set-top boxes into something that's roughly the size of your thumb.

It's a big step for Roku, which has previously released set-top boxes and a streaming stick that only worked with "Roku Ready" televisions. Now, like Google's Chromecast, the Roku Streaming Stick only requires your television's HDMI port -- and a nearby USB port or outlet for power -- to bring you content from video providers such as Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video. ( chief executive Jeffrey Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post.)  You can also stream content to your television screen by way of your phone's YouTube app, as you can with Google's device.

Unlike Google's Chromecast, however, the Roku Streaming Stick also has access to the hundreds of free and paid channels that Roku has in its stable including PBS, MGo, Vudu, and ESPN,  giving users a much richer selection of content on hand. The device also lets you stream your own personal movies, music and photos to the television by way of a Roku smartphone app. The app also doubles as a digital remote -- something that's particularly useful when you're entering search terms or registration information and have the option of a touchscreen keyboard.

If digital remotes aren't your thing, the Roku Streaming Stick also comes with a traditional remote (and batteries!) to let you navigate the device using menus that should look very familiar to anyone who's used a Roku set-top box in the past. It has the same rich search features, which let you know not only whether a video you want to watch is available on any of your services, but also gives you a price comparison.

Sadly, however, the streaming stick's remote does not include one of the best features of the Roku 3 -- a headphone jack, to let you watch your videos without bothering others in your household. Nor does it have the motion sensors that let users play games such as Angry Birds on the company's higher-end accessories. It also has one great disadvantage when compared to Google's Chromecast or even Apple TV: users can't stream anything from their computer screens to the television, which means this is not a good tool for your next presentation.

While only $15 more than the Chromecast for far more channels, the $50 price tag probably pushes the Roku Streaming Stick above the "impulse buy" threshold for most people. Still, even with a stripped-down feature set, the little device is a good buy for people who watch a lot of online video but aren't quite ready to invest in a full smart TV.

The Roku Streaming Stick, with its wide variety of channels -- including those that work with your cable subscription -- is more than worth it to those who really want to see their Netflix and other videos on the biggest screen in the house.

The device ships Thursday from, and is expected to arrive in stores in early April.