Photo by Roku

Before you head to the store, read our handy guide to the Roku experience.

You’re no longer beholden to cable companies if you want a broad range of television options. Thanks to streaming devices like Roku, it’s never been easier to cut the chord. And once you do, you’ll never look back. If you’re curious about Roku, which one of its many products is right for your needs, or how it stacks up to the competition, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s everything you need to know about Roku. 

What is Roku?

Roku is a digital media player that allows you to stream video, music, and entertainment content. Think of Roku like a DVD player you never have to put a disc in. Roku comes in many different forms, from set-top boxes to TV sets with the service built into them. What all Roku devices have in common, however, is the ability to give you access to a host of the biggest content providers on the planet.

With Roku, you can stream Amazon Video, Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Spotify, MLB, and more from the comfort of your home sofa without needing to pay for a cable package. Roku is the ideal media center for viewers who don’t want to have to buy a video game console to watch digital content. It’s affordable, versatile, and easy to use.

what is roku Photo by Roku

How does Roku work?

Roku requires an internet connection. Once you connect the device to one of your TV’s HDMI ports, Roku will walk you through setting up your internet connection and creating a Roku profile. Every Roku device comes with a remote that you use to navigate through menus and select programming. When you first start using Roku, you’ll find the service comes preloaded with some of the most traditional services, including Netflix, Amazon Video, and Hulu. But there’s plenty more to discover. Roku has more than 3,000 available channels that you can connect to from the Roku channel store. To find new channels go the main menu and select “Streaming Channels.” From there you can search channels by category, from 4K content to the top free channels. Some channels, like Netflix and Hulu, require you to have a subscription, but there are free options like Crackle that offer ad-supported programming.

Every Roku model can log into hotel Wi-Fi connections, which require you to log in before accessing the internet, a handy feature for frequent travelers. Roku’s remote is simple, but that’s part of the charm. Your grandparents can pick up a Roku remote and quickly figure it out. You can also easily use the Kodi media player with Roku. 


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It is important to note that not all Roku devices are created equally. To serve a broad range of needs Roku offers many different models, from simple, cheap dongles to more expensive set-top boxes that provide features like 4K Ultra HD video.

how does roku work Photo via Roku/Instagram

Which Roku device is right for you?

what is roku : Roku Express Photo by Roku

Roku Express

Roku Express and Express+

Roku Express is the most basic form of Roku, offering 1080p HD streaming in a cheap and easy package. Roku Express+ allows users with older TVs that still use A/V cables to turn their aging sets into modern smart devices. Roku Express is $29.99, while the Express+ will set you back $39.99. The remote on each model requires you to point at the device for it to work, but for under $42, you’re set for high-definition viewing. It’s a fantastic deal.

What is Roku : Roku streaming stick Photo by Roku

Roku Streaming Stick

Roku Streaming Stick

If you don’t want to mess with a set-top box or want a device that can take on the road, Roku Streaming Stick is the choice for you. This $49.99 model is simply an HMDI stick that plugs into the back of any modern TV. With a “point anywhere” remote, Roku Streaming Stick is perfect for game rooms or dorms where you’re not always camped out directly in front of the TV. For the extra $10 you’ll pay for the cost of a Roku Streaming Stick, you get the bonus of screen mirroring from your Android or Windows device. Sadly, Roku does not support screen mirroring on iOS.

what is roku : Roku Premiere+ Photo by Roku

Roku Premiere+

Roku Premiere and Premiere+

The Roku Premiere models are the starting point for viewers with 4K TV sets. Each offers support for 1080p and 4K Ultra HD support up to 60 fps. The Premiere models include a handy feature called Night Listening mode, which optimizes your entertainment for hours when people might be sleeping near you. Explosions are softened, while quiet sounds like whispering are heightened, letting you avoid having to always fiddle with the volume. Premiere+ comes with a point anywhere remote that includes a headphone jack for private listening. Just remember: Your ability to stream Ultra HD content will be dependent upon having a fast enough internet connection to handle it.

what is roku : roku ultra Photo by Roku

Roku Ultra

Roku Ultra

If you want the absolute best option Roku has to offer, the Ultra model is for you. In addition to all of the Premiere’s features, Roku Ultra adds support for optical digital audio and the coolest remote in the entire line. Roku Ultra is a powerful media center, able to stream a wide range of video and audio formats, so you can plug in a USB hard drive and play your entire media library on your TV. If you’re someone who always loses your remotes, Roku Ultra has your back. In addition to the night listening mode and headphone jack, Roku Ultra’s remote includes a speaker. Should you ever lose your remote, you can activate a “lost remote” feature that will alert you to exactly which sofa cushion it fell behind.

what is roku : Roku TV Photo by Roku

Roku TV

Roku TVs

Roku is already built into select models of televisions. When it comes to Roku TVs, the models and features break down into two categories: HD and 4K. The HD model’s come with the same basic features as the Roku Premiere+, minus the headphone jack in the remote. Roku’s 4K models primarily come with all of the same features as the Roku Ultra with the exception of HDR support. The only downside of Roku TVs is that neither model features the excellent Night Listening mode. If you’re buying a new TV, you don’t already have a streaming option, and you don’t own a gaming system, a Roku set is a solid way to kill a few birds with one stone. But you’re probably better off just getting your favorite TV and Roku Streaming Stick. 


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How does Ruku work Screengrab via Roku/Instagram

How Roku stacks up against the competition

Apple TV vs Roku

Apple TV will set you back around $149 for the cheapest model, but it lacks the wealth of options the similarly priced Roku Ultra provides, including the ability to stream 4K content. If you’re going to drop $149 on a streaming device, get the one that gives you the best streaming image quality.

Chromecast vs Roku

For most users, Roku Stick is all you will ever need. Roku Stick offers the most options and power for the lowest price around. Google’s Chromecast, at $35, is slightly cheaper than the Roku Stick, with largely the same features. However, it’s base model doesn’t come with a remote, meaning you need a smartphone to tablet to control your device. 

Amazon Fire TV Stick vs Roku

At $40, Amazon Fire Stick is the biggest competition Roku Stick has at the moment. Amazon’s streaming stick works the same as Roku’s but comes with an Alexa voice remote that allows you to pull up content without needing to search for it. However, Roku offers more streaming channels. If you only need the major streaming services and want the voice remote, Amazon Fire Stick is hard to beat.

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