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Roku’s new updates make it the best option for cord-cutters
Before you head to the store, here’s what you need to know about Roku.
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.
On Sept. 28, Roku went public with a $1.3 billion stock market valuation. “Roku’s position in this ecosystem is being the platform that ties together the customers, the advertisers, the user, and we’ve been competing with big companies for a long time very successfully. … We do it by winning customer reviews,” Wood told CNBC Thursday. “We have built a purpose-built operating system for TV; it is the best way to stream and that’s how we get customers.”
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 as 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.
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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.
Roku makes cord-cutting easy. If you’re looking to replicate your cable service without a visit from a scheduled technician and a long-term contract, Roku is an ideal for live TV streaming through services that include Sling TV, Hulu with Live TV, CBS All Access, DirecTV Now, FuboTV, Philo, and PS Vue. For $4.99, you can also add Acorn TV, a streaming service that specializes in British drama and comedy, and then there’s Crackle, a free ad-supported option for movies and TV.
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 equal. 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.
Which Roku device is right for you?
Roku has updated its complete lineup, fixing many of the problems that have plagued previous versions of the device. Featuring across the board upgrades, Roku has laid the foundation for their future with these new devices. Here’s what you need to know.
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, and it’s made all the better by Roku’s last product update. Each Express model is now five times more powerful than before, fixing the annoying issue many users experienced with newer apps where navigating was sluggish. Using the Express and Express+ is a fast, peppy experience, whether you’re browsing with the included remote or the service’s app. You’re still limited to a max 1080p output, but as far as budget streaming devices go, Roku Express cannot be beaten.
If you don’t want to mess with a set-top box or want a device that can take on the road, the Roku Streaming Stick is the choice for you. This $49.99 model is merely 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.
Roku’s new Streaming Stick has a 50 percent faster processor, according to Roku, and an upgraded remote. The remote has been enhanced to add voice control functions, along with power and volume controls for your TV. Yes, your Roku Streaming Stick can now turn off your TV for you. No more juggling remotes, unless you’ve got other devices on different inputs. Even then the feature makes Roku easier for the whole family to use.
The newest addition to the Roku family, the Streaming Stick+, replaces the Roku Premiere and Premiere+. This $69.99 wonder is the perfect streaming stick for the future, especially if you have plans for upgrading your TV. Supporting HD, 4K, and HDR video, the Streaming Stick+ packs a remarkable amount of power into the tiny portable package of an HDMI stick. It has the same “point anywhere” remote as the standard Stick, along with its voice commands and power and volume control. Finally, the device has an advanced wireless receiver that gives you four times the range, making it perfect for game rooms away from the router. Or, more likely, hotel rooms.
We were able to test a Streaming Stick+ unit for a few weeks, and it’s easily the best Roku experience we’ve had yet. Navigating the menus is fast and easy, even when it comes to entering login information with the remote. Voice search is a treat, putting your favorite shows just a few words away. Whether it’s worth the extra $20 fully depends on if you plan on upgrading to 4K, but even on an HD TV, the Streaming Stick+ is a killer app.
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The Roku Ultra is now sort of the odd man out of the Roku family. At $99.99, it’s one of the most expensive mid-tier streaming devices on the market, and most users will have to ask themselves if its unique features are worth the $30 premium. For the most part, Roku Ultra is the same box the company previously sold. It handles HD, 4K, and HDR with ease. There have, however, been some changes, including the removal of the optical audio output. The Ultra still has its charms, especially if you need a media center, thanks to its USB and microSD ports, allowing you play your personal digital media library from a wide range of supported video and audio formats.
If you’re someone who always loses your remotes, Roku Ultra might be ideal. Roku Ultra’s remote includes a speaker, which can be activated from the Ultra box itself. Just press the button, and your remote will beep until it’s in your hands. Your remote can also now control the volume and power of your TV. While every Roku device gets Private Listening through the Roku app, the Ultra’s remote includes a headphone jack so you can watch in privacy without using your phone. Finally, the Ultra is rounded out by an ethernet port, which comes in handy for streaming 4K movies if you don’t have a particularly fast Wi-Fi router.
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 Roku stacks up against the competition
Apple TV vs. Roku
Apple TV and Roku have both recently gone through hardware updates, with the Roku being the clear winner for all but the most ardent Apple disciples. The base level Apple TV will set you back $149 but finally brings 4K to the device. The problem is you can get a 4K Roku for $69.99 or $99.99. If you get the Streaming Stick+, that’s an $80 difference just for a 4K picture, not to mention how many more streaming channels Roku offers.
Chromecast vs Roku
In the battle of Roku and Google’s Chromecast, Roku is undefeated. A Chromecast starts at $35 while offering the same features as the $29.99 Roku Express. Actually, that’s not accurate, since the Chromecast doesn’t come with a remote. Chromecast’s 4K option, the Ultra, costs the same as a Roku Streaming Stick+ and, again, it doesn’t come with a remote. At any price point, there are better options than the Chromecast.
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Amazon Fire TV Stick vs Roku
If you just want a basic streaming device, Roku Express is your best bet. At $29.99, it handles HD, comes with a great remote, and can be controlled with the Roku app. However, if you’re intrigued by the idea of voice controls, Amazon comes on top. At $39.99, 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. When it comes to 4K, however, Amazon’s Fire TV and Roku’s Streaming Stick+ cost the same. Then it becomes a matter of which service you prefer. However, Roku offers more streaming channels than Amazon does, so that’s worth considering if you’re thinking of making a purchase.
Apple TV vs. Roku
Apple TV and Roku have both recently gone through hardware updates, and Roku came out on top. Most of it boils to price. The base level Apple TV costs $149, and it doesn’t include 4K. By contrast, 4K Roku Streaming Stick+ is just $69.99. Siri might be better than Roku’s search, but the difference isn’t worth $100 extra dollars for a 4K picture. Apple TV’s interface might have a slight edge, but both are easy to use and come with remotes. At this point, the only reason to invest in an Apple TV over Roku is if you’re an Apple fanboy who just can’t let go.
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.
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John-Michael Bond is a tech reporter and culture writer for Daily Dot. A longtime cord-cutter and early adapter, he's an expert on streaming services (Hulu with Live TV), devices (Roku, Amazon Fire), and anime. A former staff writer for TUAW, he's knowledgeable on all things Apple and Android. You can also also find him regularly performing standup comedy in Los Angeles.