The Roku 3500X Streaming Stick
The device itself closely resembles a large USB memory stick. But instead of using a USB connector it plugs directly into a spare HDMI socket on the back of your television set. It also requires extra power, which is supplied through a microUSB socket that you can connect to the mains, using the mains power adapter Roku supplies, or to any conveniently nearby USB socket.
It's not the most visually elegant arrangement, particularly if, as I did, you opt to use the short HDMI extension cable Roku will supply free if you think you're having wireless interference problems from the TV. But once installed this part of the system effectively disappears behind your television set, and can be forgotten. Everything now is driven from the neat black remote control that fits nicely in the hand, presenting an unconfusing array of only eight buttons arranged around a central four way joystick control.
The HDMI device connects to your LAN using conventional 2.4GHz or 5GHz WiFi. It also pairs wirelessly to its remote control (so no line of sight problems) using WiFi Direct. I had considerable difficulty getting both these connections to work, and I understand Roku is looking at ways to make this initial setup go more smoothly.
Commendably, Roku runs a user forum where you can discuss problems like this with other Roku customers. I also sought help through Roku's official Internet chat support, where response was slow but ultimately helpful. After those vital connections were established I had no further problems with the kit.
Once you've entered your wireless password (using the remote control to hunt-and-peck around a virtual keyboard - there's no provision to connect to a real Bluetooth or USB keyboard) and are hooked up to the LAN and the Internet, there's one more hurdle to jump, and this came as something of a shock. Although you might be intending only to avail yourself of the free services the Stick provides (and/or sign up to non-Roku subscriptions like Netflix) Roku won't let you proceed any further into the system until you've provided them with details of a valid credit card or equivalent payment system.
I could find no way round this. I asked the company for an explanation, but they could only tell me it was "to provide you the convenience of making purchases from the Roku Channel Store". I was left with little choice but to plug in my PayPal details and press on.
Once in the system you're presented with a wealth of optional channels to install, many free, some paid-for. I opted for Netflix (free to install, but with a subscription requirement), a very slick implementation of the BBC iPlayer, YouTube, MIT's openCourseware (to catch up on Quantum Mechanical Tunnelling, obviously) and TED Talks.
There are plenty more. Some of them are genuinely mind-broadening, but several I explored are downright junk. At least one of them, Crackle, is obsolete, the channel having been closed down this April. There are several so-called "free" movie channels: these tend to be delivered in the wrong aspect ratio, in sub-SD resolution, and not films you'd ever want to see anyway. They're also usually ad-riddled, which wouldn't be so bad, except for the paucity of advertisers, which tends to mean you'll be wading through the same three adverts over and over again.
I did come across "NRA Women", a specialist channel dedicated to women who like messing around with guns, but the more usual types of pornography were absent. One welcome find was Go Indie TV, home to a treasure trove of very early Hitchcock movies.
Video and sound quality obviously depend on the source, but if Netflix is anything to go by the Stick is certainly capable of delivering an excellent HD multimedia experience. Although not certified to work with projectors, my Stick, plugged into the HDMI socket of a BenQ W1500, produced a cinema-quality Netflix screen.
Another free "channel" worth installing is the Roku generic DLNA client. This can stream movies, audio and photos across your LAN from DLNA server apps and devices like the WD My Cloud. Roku also offers Twonky Beam, which can similarly stream from your phone to the Stick.
At around 50 quid the Stick is a tempting impulse purchase. Once I'd overcome the setup hurdle it was pleasant and simple to use (mostly for delivering Netflix, Ted Talks and the BBC iPlayer). Its insistence you enter your payment details before you can do anything at all with it is, I think, a huge downer, particularly as there's no mention of this on the packaging. Roku does say that you can remove your payment details at any time (and presumably continue to use the free services), but I haven't tried this.
This payment details requirement, along with the limited number of actually useful channels Roku provides, might persuade you to spend a few more quid on a fully-fledged Android set-top device with access to the entire contents of the Play Store and the Amazon App Store. I'm hoping to look at one of these in an upcoming review.
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