They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery -- and so Google must be blushing, because Roku has introduced its own streaming stick, similar to the Google Chromecast. That means you now have some real choices when it comes to easily and inexpensively turning your existing television into a smart TV.
First, a clarification: If you're not familiar with the term, a "smart TV" is a television that runs apps which give you access to streaming content via the Internet. These days, many TVs come with apps that run Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and more. Unfortunately, not only do these TVs come with a premium price tag, but their software is generally locked in when they're manufactured -- no upgrades or enhancements as the Internet evolves.
That's where $100 set top boxes like Roku and Apple TV come in. They transform any TV into a smart TV by delivering a broad array of online services via one of the set's HDMI ports. Last year, Google upped the ante by releasing the $35 Chromecast, a USB memory-key-shaped gadget that plugged into the TV's HDMI port and let you "cast" programming to your TV using your smartphone or tablet as a remote. That rendered the set top box essentially invisible and very portable.
Roku Streaming Stick looks very much like the Chromecast; measuring only three inches long and one inch wide, it plugs into your TV's HDMI port and gets power from a nearby USB port or an AC adapter. It costs $50, which is $15 more than the Chromecast -- and comes with its own remote control, so there's no smartphone needed (though there are both iOS and Android apps that allow for control by phone as well).
Where the Roku really shines, though, is in the number of apps and amount of content that's available. While Chromecast is still limited by its tiny library of apps (for the most part, Chromecast works with just Netlfix, Hulu, and YouTube right now), the Roku Streaming Stick delivers all of the apps and capabilities of the full-sized Roku set top box. That's about 1000 channels of content, and puts the diminutive stick on the same footing as any other set top box on the market. Options include the usual online streaming services as well as major television networks, sports programming, music services, and even games. It is also about to "cast" content from your phone or tablet's browser, just like the Chromecast.
Bottom line: Roku's Streaming Stick is a real game-changer in a way that the Chromecast isn't. Sure, the Chromecast delivers smart TV set-top box features at a throwaway price, but the Roku costs just a few dollars more and is clearly a compelling option. If you're looking to cut the cable cord or just multiply your entertainment options, the Roku Streaming Stick is a no-brainer. It will be available in April for $50.