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Roku bets big on a smaller streaming stick

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Because stick sounds so much better than 'dongle'

Streaming media company Roku added a new piece of hardware today to its line up of video set-top boxes and streaming sticks. The newest addition is a smaller, thinner Roku stick that will replace the company's second-generation stick introduced in 2014.

The new Roku streaming stick, which plugs into a HDMI port on the side of a TV and gives users access to thousands of online video "channels," is just slightly larger than a USB thumb drive. It has been updated to include a quad-core processor that Roku says gives it eight times more power than the previous model. Those are really the two key things that are new about this piece of hardware.

It has a dual-band MIMO antenna, just like the Roku stick before it. And it supports 1080p HD video like the previous model did (unlike Roku's $130 set-top box, which streams 4K video).

And the price is the same: $50 for this new stick, the same price as the previous streaming stick. This is also more expensive than Google Chromecast and the Amazon Fire TV Stick, and by some estimates, Google Chromecast is the clear leader in terms of market share for streaming sticks. But Roku thinks its smaller form factor and increased processing power is what will set it apart from competitors.

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The remote that accompanies the new stick is a simplified version of the Roku remote that comes with set-top boxes, which means that it doesn't have a headphone jack for private listening. However, the Roku mobile app will now play audio for whatever program you're watching, which means you can just plug headphones into your phone (or suggest someone else plug in) for private listening. It's a feature that's currently only available through the streaming stick, though it certainly seems like something that would be useful across all Roku devices and TV sets.

This new stick is the third one Roku has released, and the company says it has continued to iterate on the stick because market trends indicate that consumers really, really like inexpensive streaming sticks. The company's first streaming stick only worked on TV sets that supported a standard called MHL. The technology meant that the streaming stick didn't need an additional power cable, because the stick drew power from the TV itself, but not every TV supports MHL. The second Roku stick ditched the MHL standard and did require an additional power cable, like the current version does.

Private listening can be done directly from Roku's mobile app, rather than the remote

Along with the new streaming stick, Roku is also rolling out a software update across its many different devices, Roku OS 7.1. Roku's software updates usually aren't major overhauls, but small tweaks or incremental changes that make finding stuff to watch easier as Roku supports more and more channels.

The latest software will suggest top movies and TV shows based on crowdsourced searches. These aren't necessarily what's new or rated highest, but more about what people are interested in. For example, during a brief demo of the new stick and OS, the original My Big Fat Greek Wedding came up on a list of suggested movies, presumably because consumers are looking to watch the first film with the sequel currently in theaters.

The stick goes on sale today and will start shipping near the end of the month. The software roll out starts today, Roku says, and will become available on boxes or sticks within six to eight weeks.