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Lifewire / Emily Ramirez
5,500 channels of content
Platform-agnostic, easy to use interface
Thorough search algorithm
Slow and sluggish
Doesn’t work on computer monitors
The Roku Express is a great, affordable way to get into streaming media on your TV, thanks to its well-designed interface and loads of free and subscription content.
With the ubiquity of smart TVs preloaded with premium streaming apps, what’s the purpose of streaming devices like the Roku Express? When you tune in to the Express, you get access to thousands of free and premium shows you may never have discovered on the choice few apps of your smart TV, or on the same reruns that show up on your cable subscription. If you’re afraid of leaving cable, know that many primetime shows are on some streaming platform out there, and for much less money. You can get started with a $30 streaming device and a $10 subscription.
The Roku Express is a small package consisting of a palm-sized remote and the actual streaming box, which is half that size. It comes along with a power brick and micro USB to power the box, a battery for the remote, a two-foot HDMI cable, and an adhesive strip to stick your box to, say, the bottom of your television.
The adhesive strip is nice, as it gives ideas as to how to position the box in your living room in a place that’s both practical and aesthetically pleasing. This is important, since you need the box to be visible from the remote’s standpoint so that it can receive infrared communications. Putting the box behind a console or decoration will interrupt the remote’s signal.
Everything is made of a matte black plastic that doesn’t stand out. Nothing screams luxury, but for under $30, it doesn’t look bad at all. It’s just a tiny box with a small remote. On the back of the box, the only ports you’ll see are one HDMI output and one micro USB power port.
The remote itself is comfortable to hold, with a minimalist button layout. It has direct buttons to Netflix, ESPN, Sling TV, and Hulu, and you can navigate to any of Roku’s myriad other apps, but there are some key quality of life features missing on this remote. Notably, it lacks the volume control buttons that the Roku Express’s more grown-up siblings offer, and there’s no voice control or programmable buttons.
For only $30, it has a stellar library of content, and its clean unbiased interface makes it a pleasure to use.
The exceptionally cheap price tag is also reflected in the quality of the other extras. The HDMI cable is incredibly flimsy, as are the micro USB cable. However, if they seldom move, they shouldn’t break and they’ll get the job done. Besides, I have to give credit to Roku for including any cables at all for a budget product.
Roku’s included guide is great. It’s full of diagrams and photos to answer any basic questions you may have about positioning or connection. The actual setup process is similarly simple. Use the micro USB cable to power your Express box, connect the box to an open HDMI port on your TV, and make sure your TV’s on the right output.
Downloading your favorite apps is easy. Just go to the Streaming Channels menu and look through the available channels, or use the search bar if you have a specific channel in mind.
If you want to restrict the ability to download apps or make purchases on the Express, it’s easy to do so. Roku lets you set up a PIN that you’ll need to enter every time you try to download or buy something, which should deter your children or pets from buying anything without your permission.
For $30, the Roku Express delivers 1080p content to your TV. The 2019 model has the same specs as the 2018 model, but it consumes less power (so little that you can power it from your TV directly).
Once you have a show lined up and streaming, the image quality and buffer times are great. However, browsing through Roku’s channels can be slow and at times frustrating due to its paltry connection speed. Large, bloated channels like Netflix suffer the most, and buffer times before a video starts can be upwards of five seconds.
However, we didn’t have any crashing issues with the Roku Express, and while slow, performance was smooth. Videos and channels did load, eventually. It’s a budget streamer with patient performance, but it’s serviceable if you can’t spend an extra twenty dollars on a more upgraded streamer.
Roku Express runs with the same Roku interface as its more expensive cousins, and it’s well-loved for a reason. Compared to Fire TV, Chromecast, and Apple TV, Roku has the widest selection of apps available, and it doesn’t favor one streaming service over another.
Roku’s menus are easy to navigate, with clearly labeled categories and large icons. There’s apps for all the major paid streaming platforms, from Netflix to HBO, and there’s a lot of free apps, or channels, with excellent content available to stream.
On Vudu, Roku Channel, Crackle, NewsON, Pluto TV, and more, you’ll get free shows and movies to stream. How are they free? Instead of making money off subscriptions, they make money from ads, so it’s a lot like watching content on regular cable TV. I personally really enjoy the news and educational apps on Roku Express, which are full of engaging content for relatively few intrusions. And if you’re into cheesy kung-fu B-movies, my dad never seems to stop finding new ones on his Roku Streaming Stick+. No matter what you’re into, there’s a free channel for you out there.
You need the box to be visible from the remote’s standpoint so that it can receive infrared communications.
An interesting software perk from Roku that its competition doesn’t offer is its mobile app. You can use it as a remote for your Roku device, and that’s great, but more interestingly, you can also plug in your headphones and have the audio stream to your phone. If you like to stay up late and watch TV while your spouse sleeps, this is a great feature to have on hand.
The Roku Express is only $30, but it’s easy to find it for even cheaper in physical stores and even online during sales seasons. It’s not hard to nab it for $25 or less.
For only $10 to $20 more, you get a faster experience and more functionality out of Roku’s other offerings, so if you can afford it, the Premiere and Streaming Stick+ are the better value. As we move forward, 4K streaming is becoming the new standard, so it’s worth it to upgrade from the Express’s 1080p resolution.
If you can afford to upgrade, the Roku Streaming Stick+ (not to be confused with the regular Roku Streaming Stick) is a faster device that supports 4k streams and has volume controls, all for $50. The Streaming Stick+ runs all the same channels that the Express runs, so you’ll get a wealth of free content and support for all your subscriptions.
Compared to the budget Chromecast and Fire TV offerings, the Roku Express offers a sleeker user interface. Both Roku and Fire TV offers many more channels than Chromecast, and they have a physical remote with a real interface to navigate. It’s old-fashioned, but I’ve always found it easier and more enjoyable than using your phone to control devices.
Roku and Fire TV are a lot more similar to each other than they are to Chromecast, but there are some key differences. The Roku Express excels in having a great, comprehensive search algorithm that’s platform-agnostic, and its user interface is easy to navigate. Fire TV tries to guide you toward Amazon content, and its interface is a little more cumbersome to get around, but even the base model has volume control and Alexa voice controls. Fire TV also has a better games collection, if that’s something that interests you. As far as quantity and quality of content goes, Roku and Fire TV offer virtually the same apps and channels (over 5,000 of them, to be exact).
A cheap way to stream 1080p content with ease.
The Roku Express is a cheap way to turn a dumb TV into a smart TV, or simply to access thousands of free shows that you may not have available directly from your TV’s apps. For only $30, it has a stellar library of content, and its clean unbiased interface makes it a pleasure to use. However, its lack of 4K support and slow performance may make it worth considering an upgrade to its $50 sibling, the Roku Streaming Stick+.