Are streaming sticks the present and future?

-March 17, 2017

Regarding the Roku Streaming Stick Model 3500 that I mentioned in my prior post, I actually have two of them, both purchased in 2015 as factory refurbs (one from Groupon, the other from Newegg). One, as I mentioned last time, is now a permanent resident of my travel attaché case. The other, as will be the case with the Roku 1 that it replaced, is destined for eventual dissection as an EDN teardown candidate.

Joining it there is a recently acquired Roku Streaming Stick Model 3600. I obtained it via a Sling TV promotion; sign up for at least one month's worth of service, at a minimum of $19.99 per month, and the Streaming Stick is free. Alternatively, via the same promotion, I could have gotten the more conventional form factor Roku Premiere+ for $49.99 (versus a $99.99 MSRP). I'll discuss the thinking behind my pick in a bit.

Part of the motivation, of course, was to try out the Sling TV service, which I've written about before and which represents Dish Network's attempt to target the cord-cutting community. The service is supported on numerous devices I own (along with, ironically, Comcast's seemingly competitive X1 set-top boxes), and from my testing so far seems to work well. Its base "Orange" service tier offers more than 30 channels' worth of content; for an additional $5/month, the "Blue" tier bumps the allocation up to 45 channels. And beyond this base service foundation, a host of further English- and Spanish-language channel package add-ons are also available, all of which reminds me of the wrap-up question in my previous Sling TV-inclusive coverage ... is cord-cutting really cheaper in the long run?

What prompted me to push "purchase," however, wasn't the opportunity to test Sling TV as it is now, but as it plans to evolve in the near future. Coincidentally (not), the same day that AT&T rolled out its own attempt to capture cord-cutters, DirecTV Now (which, like Sling TV before it, was plagued by early teething problems), Sling TV announced that it would shortly begin rolling out a beta of its cloud DVR capabilities. Such a server-side "TiVo"-like feature would match that currently offered by Sony with its PlayStation Vue service, one-upping DirecTV Now (which has no current plans for cloud DVR facilities of its own) in the process. Roku owners are supposedly first in the cloud DVR beta queue; wish me luck!

The other reason why I decided to take Dish Network up on its Sling TV promotion offer was the chance to take an intimate look at the latest-and-greatest Roku Streaming Stick Model 3600. Whereas the Model 3500 was based on Broadcom's BCM2835 application processor, the Model 3600 evolves to the newer BCM2836 SoC running at 900 MHz, leading to a platform which Roku claims has "8× the processing power of our 2014 Streaming Stick" and "gets you to your favorite shows fast, with smooth and responsive navigation, and channels that launch quickly."

The BCM2836 (also used in the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B), versus the BCM2835 (also found in first-generation Raspberry Pi variants along with the Zero and Compute Module), migrates from an ARM11- to ARM Cortex-A7-based processor architecture foundation. It also quadruples the number of available per-chip CPU cores. Couple these architectural and numerical advancements with the previously mentioned clock speed boost also delivered by the BCM2835-to-BCM2836 evolution, and Roku's 8× overall processing power enhancement doesn't seem all that infeasible. The Streaming Stick Model 3600 successor also supports the ability to stream audio to a smartphone or other device over Bluetooth. Stay tuned for a teardown to come!

When you see the amount of compute horsepower and other capabilities delivered by modern "streaming sticks" such as the Roku units mentioned here, along with competitors such as Amazon's Fire TV Stick series, you might wonder why anyone would bother buying an entertainment shelf space-consuming conventional Roku or competitive counterpart unit any longer. It's a good question. Historically, Roku's "hockey puck" and rectangular form factor devices delivered a demonstrably superior feature set, leading to higher output video quality, a faster-responding UI, beefier gaming capabilities, etc. And that's still true to at least some degree ... the earlier mentioned Roku Premier+, for example, supports 4K displays over HDMI, along with 802.11ac Wi-Fi, wired Ethernet, and storage augmentation via an integrated microSD memory card slot.

But the differences from more compact and otherwise more convenient "stick" form factor alternatives are becoming less distinct and less significant over time. I don't own a 4K display, nor am I running an 802.11ac wireless network, and my 802.11n network seems to reliability push enough bandwidth that wired Ethernet connectivity is unnecessary, so the decision between a free Streaming Stick and a $50 Premier+ was an easy one for me. Amazon similarly doesn't seem to be pushing its conventional (and much more expensive) Fire TV "box" much anymore, in favor of its second-generation Fire TV Stick, a decision that I suspect is fundamentally fueled by consumer versus supplier preference.

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