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Everything you need to know about Roku

Joe Supan

Jan 10, 2020 — 9 min read

With seven models and integration in countless TVs, Roku has something for everyone. What they all have in common is an easy-to-navigate interface and reliable hardware.

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What is Roku?

  • Seven models to choose from
  • Prices range from $29.99 to $99.99
  • 4K HDR streaming available on $39.99 models and up

Roku is the most popular streaming device in the U.S. by a wide margin. Its most popular model looks like a small thumb drive, plugs into your TV’s HDMI port and connects to your internet through Wi-Fi or an ethernet cord. Once connected, it gives you access to hundreds of streaming apps like Netflix, YouTube and Disney+. 

By some estimates, there are currently more than 52 million Roku devices in U.S. homes —  double that of second-place Amazon Fire TV. That doesn’t necessarily mean all those homes bought Roku streaming devices, though. Roku’s software is built into some of the most popular smart TVs around, including models from TCL, JVC, Sharp, Philips and more.

There’s a reason Roku is so popular. It’s incredibly simple to use, with a learning curve so flat it’s virtually nonexistent. Of the four main streaming devices — Roku, Amazon’s Fire TV Stick, Google’s Chromecast and Apple TV — Roku is easily the most “plug and play.” If TV streaming sounds a little overwhelming, Roku is the place to start. Here’s our Roku review:  

How does Roku work?

Roku — and all streaming devices — plugs into your TV’s HDMI port to give you access to hundreds of streaming services. There are seven different Roku models, but they all work this way. 

Some plug directly into the HDMI port, while others connect via an HDMI cable. But most of them use a USB port that connects to a power outlet. Only the Roku Ultra ($99.99) and Ultra LT ($79.99) have Ethernet ports. With these, you can run an Ethernet cord from the Roku to your wireless router, which provides a more reliable wired connection. 

Once it’s set up, you’ll see a home screen with Roku’s menu on the left and all of your streaming apps on the right. A number of apps come pre-downloaded, but you’ll have to manually download more niche services like The Criterion Channel and Shudder. If you have a TV with Roku built-in, you’ll see the same interface but with added options above your streaming channels to change inputs and watch live TV via an antenna.

Keep in mind you’ll need a subscription to most of these apps to use them. Just because you have HBO Now downloaded on your Roku doesn’t mean you can use the app to watch shows, for instance. 

All of Roku’s models come with a remote, but only some of them include a microphone for voice control and a headphone jack. You can also control the device and listen on headphones by using the Roku mobile app on your smartphone. The remote is short and stubby, with dedicated buttons for popular services like Netflix, and the latest models even include buttons you can program to access your favorite services. It’s arguably the best remote of any streaming device, being simple to use and also able to control your TV.

Roku streaming devices compared

While most streaming devices only have one or two options, Roku has seven different models to choose from. (There are two variations of the Streaming Stick+ and Ultra.) That can be a little confusing when it comes to choosing a device, but it also means you can find one perfectly tailored to your situation. 

The biggest line of demarcation is whether the device supports 4K resolution or not. 4K-compatible devices always cost a little more, but if you plan on buying a new TV anytime soon, it’s absolutely worth the upgrade. 

Different Roku devices also use different Wi-Fi standards to connect to the internet. These are updated every few years, with 802.11ac being the latest one. You’ll get less congestion and more bandwidth on these Roku devices. Put simply, you’re less likely to experience buffering during your favorite show. That said, your internet connection will still have the biggest impact on this. 

Finally, some Rokus have more bells and whistles than others. All of them come with a remote, but only some let you control it with voice commands. Similarly, only the Ultra comes with headphones that plug into the remote. Roku makes all of their accessories available to purchase separately, so you can mix and match if you see one feature you like. 

Roku Express ($29.99)

If you want to make your old TV smart while paying the bare minimum, the Express is a solid option. Only Amazon’s Fire TV Stick ($24.99) is cheaper, although the Roku Express is often marked down to $24.99, too. You’ll be stuck with an older Wi-Fi standard, but as long as you’re getting at least 5 Mbps download speeds, you should be fine.

Roku Express+ ($39.99)

The only difference between the Express and Express+ is that the Express+ includes a voice remote, which Roku sells on its own for $19.99. This feature comes in handy more than you might think, as searching for movie or TV show titles one letter at a time can get tiresome fast.

Roku Premiere ($39.99)

At $39.99, the Premiere is the cheapest streaming device that supports 4K HDR streaming, although Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K is occasionally on sale below $40. After that standout feature, it’s pretty bare bones — no voice control, no headphone jack on the remote and it still uses an out-of-date wireless standard. The wireless standard might actually present an issue here, as 4K streaming generally requires 25 Mbps download speeds. 

Roku Streaming Stick+ ($49.99)

The Streaming Stick+ is the best 4K streaming device for most people. It supports 4K and HDR, adheres to the latest wireless standards and comes with voice control on the remote. It’s also smaller than Roku’s less expensive models, so you can easily take it with you when you travel. The only downside? There’s no ethernet port, so you’ll be limited to wireless streaming. 

If you want a headphone jack (and a pair of headphones) included on the remote, Roku also sells a Headphone Edition of the Streaming Stick+ for $59.99. 

Roku Ultra ($99.99)

The most expensive model Roku sells, the Ultra has just about everything you could ever want in a streaming device. In addition to everything the Streaming Stick+ offers, the Ultra also includes a pair of JBL headphones and an Ethernet port on the device. There’s also a lost remote finder; just click a button on the device and the remote will play a sound to help you find it. 

If those bells and whistles sound like overkill, Roku also sells the Ultra LT for $79.99. It’s the exact same, but the JBL headphones aren’t included. 

Roku vs. other streaming devices

Roku is unique in both the number of different models it offers and the simplicity of its interface. If you’re new to streaming, Roku is probably the best way to ease into what can be confusing new terrain for many people. 

That said, Roku’s simplicity is both a blessing and a curse. You’ll only see the streaming apps on the home screen, not individual shows or movies you’ve watched recently. That can add a couple extra clicks to your evening viewing — instead of just choosing Friends from Apple TV’s home screen, you’ll have to open Netflix, then resume playing the show on Roku — but for most people, that’s not a dealbreaker. Roku also mitigates this extra step by putting four popular streaming apps right on the remote, so you only have to click one button to open them from anywhere. 

The other major difference is that Roku doesn’t let you to mirror your phone or tablet to your TV screen, a feature that Google Chromecast and Apple TV both provide. If you want to share photos and videos on your TV, it might be worth upgrading to one of those. Keep in mind, though, Google Chromecast doesn’t have a remote, so you’ll need to download all your streaming apps onto a phone or tablet to use them. 

No support for DolbyVision HDR

If your 4K TV supports DolbyVision HDR — regarded as the HDR format with the best image quality by most experts — you should take advantage of it. Fortunately, there are plenty of alternatives available. Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K, Google’s Chromecast Ultra and the Apple TV 4K all support both HDR-10 and Dolby Vision HDR formats.  However, if you have a TV with Roku built in that is Dolby Vision capable, you’ll get the feature.

Easy-to-navigate interface

Above all else, Roku is characterized by its simplicity. Like an iPhone, it’s essentially just a grid with all the apps you’ve downloaded, and not much else. For someone new to streaming, that might be just what they need, while others might find it limiting. You won’t see your most recently watched shows, for example.

But in our experience, it did everything we needed it to and it did it well. Navigating back and forth between apps was lightning fast (if not quite as instantaneous as Apple TV), and we appreciated how you can move apps around on the home screen to your liking. 

And unlike the other streaming devices, Roku doesn’t have any skin in the streaming game. Amazon Fire TV relentlessly promotes content from its own Prime Video streaming service, to the point where it’s hard to tell where the device ends and the service begins. Apple TV does the same with Apple TV+; there’s just far less to promote. Roku’s agnosticism felt like a breath of fresh air in that regard.

That carried over to its search function, too, which performed as well or better than any of the other streaming services. When we searched Alien, for example, Roku showed us all the options for streaming it, including the free streaming service Sony Crackle. Apple TV, on the other hand, guided us towards iTunes’s rental options without showing us that we could watch it for free.

The Roku Channel

All of Roku’s devices come pre-installed with The Roku Channel, one of the best free streaming services around. For many users, this is worth the price of a Roku itself. In a company newsletter last year, an internal survey revealed that 43% of respondents said the free Roku Channel “influenced or strongly influenced their decision to buy a Roku device.”

You can currently find popular titles like Spotlight, The Terminator and Big Fish streaming for free on The Roku Channel. 

Roku FAQs

Can I watch local channels on Roku?

To watch local channels on Roku, you’ll need to use a live TV streaming service that includes them. The only free option for streaming local channels is called Locast, and it’s currently only available in 16 U.S. cities:

  • Atlanta
  • Baltimore
  • Boston
  • Chicago
  • Dallas
  • Denver
  • Houston
  • Los Angeles
  • New York
  • Philadelphia
  • Phoenix
  • Rapid City
  • San Francisco
  • Seattle
  • Sioux Falls
  • Washington, D.C

If you don’t live in one of these markets, you’ll have to subscribe to a live TV streaming service. YouTube TV ($50/mo.), Hulu + Live TV ($55/mo.) and AT&T TV NOW ($65/mo.) are the only ones that include every local channel. 

The exception is if you have a TV with Roku built in — many of these allow you to plug in an antenna and watch your local channels live. The option to watch live TV then appears in the normal Roku menu.

Can I watch live sports on Roku?

You can watch live sports on Roku, but in most cases, you’ll need to pay for a live TV streaming service to get them (unless you’re using a Roku TV with antenna support). These generally cost around $50/mo., and allow you to stream the same channels you get through cable. If Locast is available in your area, you can also use that to watch a number of live sporting events on ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. 

What internet speed do I need to use Roku?

You’ll generally need around 5 Mbps download speeds for HD streaming on Roku, and 25 Mbps for 4K streaming. Keep in mind, though, the more devices that are using the internet at once, the higher speed you’ll need. If you’re not sure what kind of speed you’re currently getting, you can use our speedtest below to test your connection.

Your speed test results:

Download Speeds

888 Mbps

Upload Speeds

88 Mbps

Need more for the price?

Try these helpful hacks to improve your internet speed. Or if you just want more bang for your buck, check out providers near you with more speed for the price. Either way, we’ll help you find what you need.

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Pro Tip: For best results, use an Ethernet cord to connect your router or modem directly to your device before you run the test.

The bottom line

Roku is one of the best all-around streaming devices on the market — and one of the most affordable. Its greatest strength is its simplicity. It’s easy to set up, intuitive to use and almost always works reliably. And with seven different models to choose from, almost everyone can find exactly what they want. 

It’s drawbacks are fairly specific. Roku doesn’t support Dolby Vision HDR on any of its devices, and you can only mirror limited content from your phone or tablet to the TV screen. If those aren’t dealbreakers, most people will be perfectly happy using Roku.

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Joe Supan

Written by:

Joe Supan

Senior Writer, Broadband Content

Joe oversees all things broadband for Allconnect. His work has been referenced by Yahoo!, Lifehacker and more. He has utilized thousands of data points to build a library of metrics to help users navigate these … Read more

Trey Paul

Edited by:

Trey Paul

Editor, Head of Content

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