If you’ve done any video streaming in the past decade, odds are you’ve at least heard of Roku. The company’s set-top boxes rose to popularity alongside streaming giant Netflix, and at one point the two companies were actually connected.
Today Roku still offers set-top boxes, now with 4K streaming support, HDR, surround sound, and more. It also competes with Google’s Chromecast and Amazon’s Fire TV with its smaller streaming sticks. Roku even has deals with multiple TV manufacturers around the globe to release smart TVs under its Roku TV brand.
This means that for newcomers to Roku, it can be confusing knowing which device to buy. To help, we have put together this comprehensive Roku buyer’s guide, with information on each of the company’s offerings, as well as some background on the company and platform.
What is Roku?
Roku is a line of set-top boxes, streaming sticks, and smart TVs that enable media streaming from a variety of online platforms. The set-top boxes paved the way for the small, inexpensive streaming sticks that millions of consumers around the world now use to watch Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, and others.
The first Roku device, released in 2008, was developed in collaboration with Netflix, which started its online streaming business a year earlier in 2007. Rather than release it under the Netflix brand, it was spun-off into a separate company to avoid any potential licensing issues.
Roku devices were ahead of the curve in 2010, offering HD streaming with the Roku HD-XR, at a time few streaming services supported it. In 2015, the Roku 4 was released: the first device to support UHD (4K) streaming.
Since then, Roku has expanded its offerings to include a range of devices at varying price points. One of the main things that separates them from competitors is support for nearly all streaming platforms and an included remote control.
Why is it called Roku? What does Roku mean?
The origin of the brand name comes from the company’s founder Anthony Wood. The word Roku means six in Japanese, and it was the sixth company he started. Wood still remains the CEO and Chairman of Roku, inc. in 2020.
How do Roku devices work?
Using a Roku device is simple. All you need to do is plug it in, log into your Roku account (or create one for free), and select the content you want to stream. Roku separates content into channels, which can be a TV network, a website, an application, or a streaming service like Netflix.
Depending on where you live in the world, you will have access to a few Roku channels for free. There is no subscription fee involved, and as long as you own a working Roku device, you can stream these channels free of charge. One of them is the Roku Channel, which has a small selection of movies and shows and is permanently free.
Once you boot up your Roku stick, you can use the remote to select which channel to watch, add or subscribe to channels on your account, or search for content to watch. One great feature of Roku devices is that once you set up your channels, you can search for content across all of them at once, instead of browsing each individual library separately.
If the content you want to watch isn’t on one of your channels, Roku will even show you the cheapest way to watch it.
Best Roku channels
There are literally thousands of channels on Roku, with a huge selection of both free and premium channels for kids and adults alike. Below we’ve listed some of the best Roku channels to give you an idea of what’s available on the platform.
- Apple TV Plus — Apple’s platform is filled with exclusive TV shows and movies, available for a small subscription fee.
- Crackle — This free ad-supported platform has a solid list of popular movies that rotates frequently.
- CuriosityStream — A subscription streaming service filled with great documentaries and other non-fiction content.
- Disney Plus — Disney’s subscription service includes all of its animated classics, as well as the Pixar, Marvel, Nat Geo, and Star Wars catalogs.
- HBO — HBO’s impressive library of original TV shows and movies is available for a monthly fee, but the expanded HBO Max catalog is not supported.
- Hulu — A great selection of TV shows and some movies, with both ad-supported and ad-free plans available.
- MLB.tv — One of many subscription sports channels on Roku, enabling streaming of all Major League Baseball games.
- Netflix — The largest subscription streaming service in the world. Streaming quality depends on which subscription plan you choose.
- PBS Kids — Free access to classic kids programming like Sesame Street, Arthur, and The Electric Company, with no ads or interruptions.
- Prime Video — Amazon’s service includes a library of content behind a subscription fee, as well as the ability to buy and rent individual titles.
- The Roku Channel — Free, ad-supported access to a rotating list of movies and TV shows.
- Twitch — The most popular video game streaming platform available free of charge. Streamers may run ads, and in-app subscriptions are available.
- YouTube — The largest video platform functions largely the same as the phone app or website, allowing you to stream well over a billion hours of content free of charge.
What about DVR?
Roku devices are fairly low-cost streaming options, and as such don’t have DVR capabilities built-in. Most have very little onboard storage. Only the more expensive models like the Roku Ultra offer SD card memory expansion.
However, in today’s age of streaming ubiquity, there is another way to get DVR on your Roku device — cloud DVR. Many services, like YouTube TV, Hulu with Live TV, and fuboTV, allow you to save live content on the cloud and stream it whenever you want.
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This is great because it eliminates the need for on-device storage, and allows you to stream in other rooms of the house (or other houses entirely). However, it also means that you won’t be able to stream them offline, which is one of the major draws of DVR in the first place.
Best Roku devices
Roku offers a line of streaming devices at different price points, including set-top boxes, streaming sticks, and even other types of products like smart speakers. Odds are if you’ve found your way to this Roku buyer’s guide you’re looking for a streaming device, so let’s start with those.
Below we’ve listed our picks for the best Roku streaming devices you can currently buy. The latest were released in late 2019, and there’s no word yet on updated models for 2020. A bit further down we’ve also included details about other Roku products like the soundbar and Roku TVs.
The cheapest device in the 2019 Roku lineup is the Express. It is a small and simple HDMI device that provides everything you need to start streaming on any modern TV. It connects to the internet via Wi-Fi and comes with a basic remote to navigate menus and control playback.
Streaming is limited to 1080p HD quality and the remote doesn’t have any special features like a headphone jack or voice controls. Nevertheless, it’s the best Roku device for casual watchers. It runs at just $30, making it a great entry point into the Roku ecosystem.
If you can afford to spend a bit more, you should check out the Walmart-exclusive Roku Express Plus. It adds voice commands and the ability to control normal TV functions with the remote, eliminating the need to juggle two remotes. It only costs $10 more, bringing the total cost to $40.
4K TVs have become more and more affordable over the years, and if you want a Roku streaming device that supports this resolution, you’ll want to look at the Roku Premiere. It’s the cheapest model to offer UHD 4K streaming with HDR.
Read also: The best 4K monitors you can get on a budget
Apart from that, it’s virtually identical to the Roku Express. You get the same basic remote with no voice controls, and it connects via single-band Wi-Fi. The good news is that it only costs $10 more, so you can get your 4K streaming fix for just $40.
Roku Streaming Stick Plus
If there’s one Roku device that’d we’d have to pick for most users, it would be the Roku Streaming Stick Plus. It has a smaller, USB stick-like appearance that plugs into your TV’s HDMI port so it won’t clutter up your entertainment system. It can also be plugged in directly into your TV’s USB port for power (although you should make sure your TV supports this first).
Despite its small size, Roku Streaming Stick Plus packs a lot of features: UHD 4K, HDR, and a premium remote with voice controls. That’s a lot of convenience for a device that costs just $60.
But before you go out and buy it, you should check out the Best Buy-exclusive Roku Streaming Stick Plus HE (pictured above). It has all the same features, but the remote also has a headphone jack. Audio is streamed directly from your Roku device, so you don’t have to mess with your existing home audio setup. There’s even a set of headphones included in the box!
To make matters even better, this enhanced model carries the exact same price tag. That makes the Streaming Stick Plus HE the real best value Roku device, provided you have access to a Best Buy location near you.
The Roku Ultra is the most premium device Roku currently offers. It has all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a high-end model: 4K UHD, HDR, a premium remote, and even an ethernet port for a more consistent connection while streaming.
There are several things that make the Roku Ultra remote better than other models. First, it has a headphone jack for private listening. You’ll find a nice set of JBL earbuds to get started in the box. The voice-enabled remote also has customizable buttons that you can program to navigate to your favorite Roku channels instantly.
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If you’re someone who constantly loses remotes into the couch cushion abyss, there’s even a “Find My Remote” button on the streaming device itself. All of this comes at a cost, however, with this model running at roughly $100.
You can save some money by buying the Walmart-exclusive Roku Ultra LT, which swaps the fancy JBL earbuds for a normal set and removes the new customizable buttons on the remote. Apart from that, you still get the same great streaming experience. It costs $80, so you can put those extra $20 towards more streaming subscriptions!
Other Roku devices
Although streaming devices are by far Roku’s most popular products, the company offers several other gadgets as well. These range from premium streaming speakers to full-on smart TVs with a Roku-based operating system. Some of these are manufactured by Roku itself, but the TVs are always made in partnership with established brands like HiSense or TCL.
Perhaps the most attractive is the Roku Smart Soundbar. It solves two problems with a single device. Not only does it enhance your existing TV’s speakers, but it also has built-in 4K streaming support, and comes with a remote. It costs $180, with an additional Roku subwoofer and Roku speakers available. These extra speakers are also able to connect to Roku TVs, eliminating the need for any other streaming devices.
There is a variety of Roku Smart TVs on the market too, and some of them start as low as $130. They are a solid alternative to streaming devices for people who have outdated TVs and want an upgrade.
Roku was one of the first companies to blaze a trail into the unknown wilderness of streaming media a decade ago. Nowadays, there are many more options available. Some of these are coming from the biggest companies in the world like Google, Apple, and Amazon.
Read also: The best media streaming devices you can buy
If you’re not entirely convinced by any of the Roku devices above, we’ve broken down a few of the best alternatives below. Not included are Smart TVs, which often have many of the same capabilities but are far too numerous to list here.
Google launched its first Chromecast streaming dongle in 2013 and has since expanded the line to include two models. The cheapest, called simply Chromecast, costs $35 and allows up to HD quality. The Chromecast Ultra, costing $69, allows 4K streaming and has an ethernet port for a more consistent connection.
Price-wise, this makes Chromecast devices comparable to Roku’s streaming sticks, but in practice, they work completely differently. First, there is no operating system or channel store. In order to stream to your TV via Chromecast, you need to “cast” media from a smartphone or a computer. Most streaming apps support casting, so compatibility isn’t much of an issue.
An even bigger difference is the lack of a remote. Just like you need another device (usually your phone) to start streaming via Chromecast, you also need it to control playback. There are some ways to use your TV remote with a Chromecast, but they aren’t ideal. There are rumors of an upcoming Chromecast with a remote included, but for now, your phone or PC will have to do.
Way back in 2007, before Roku had even entered the streaming game, Apple had already released a streaming set-top box called Apple TV. Today, there are two Apple TV devices currently available: the Apple TV HD and the Apple TV 4K.
Apple TV devices work very similarly to Roku devices, with a built-in OS and an app store to navigate streaming services. They both come with a physical remote, but you can also use a normal remote control or a remote app on your smartphone.
As expected from Apple-brand devices, they start at a much higher price point than those of most competitors. The HD model costs $149, while the 4K model has two versions with 32GB of storage ($179) and 64GB of storage ($199). However, all new purchases come with a free year of Apple TV Plus, which would normally cost $60.
Amazon Fire TV
Amazon, not to be outdone by other tech giants, currently offers three streaming devices under the Fire TV brand. They run on the Android-based Fire OS, which has channel support similar to Roku OS. However, Fire TV doesn’t support nearly as many channels.
There are two streaming sticks on offer: the HD-only Amazon Fire TV Stick at $40, and the Fire TV Stick 4K at $50. There’s also a set-top box called the Fire TV Cube, which adds integration with Amazon Echo smart speakers and costs $120.
All three come with Alexa voice-enabled remotes, making them a great alternative to Roku streaming devices. They’re best for people who have already bought into the Amazon home ecosystem, or for people who just love using voice commands to control everything in their homes.
Nvidia Shield TV
There are countless Android TV devices available on the market, but the Nvidia Shield TV is easily the best. It takes a unique approach by including a Tegra X1+ processor, which is more powerful than the processor found in Nintendo Switch consoles. It allows you to play a variety of games and, more importantly, upscale 720p content all the way to 4K with help from Nvidia’s AI neural network.
The two latest models available are from 2019. The first is the standard Shield TV with 8GB of storage and 2GB of RAM, which costs $150. The more powerful Shield TV Pro costs $200, with 16GB of storage and 3GB of RAM. Both models come with a comfortable remote control. Older models used to come with a gamepad, but Nvidia has dropped it on the Shield TV and Shield TV Pro.
Capable of running demanding Android games and AAA titles via the GeForce Now streaming service, Nvidia Shield TV devices are a great option for those who want to stream media and game from time to time. The streaming device doesn’t hold a candle to the next-gen PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X consoles, but it’s still one of the best Android TV boxes out there.
Q: Does Roku have Disney Plus?
A: Yes, there is a channel for Disney Plus. Read more about it here.
Q: Does Roku have YouTube?
A: Yes, there is a free channel for YouTube.
Q: What about YouTube TV?
A: Yes, there is another channel for YouTube TV.
Q: Does Roku have HBO Max?
A: No, HBO Max is not available on Roku devices. You can access the HBO app but it doesn’t include the extra content of HBO Max. Learn more about HBO Max here.
Q: Which Roku is the best?
A: For most users, the Roku Streaming Stick Plus HE is the best option. It offers UHD 4K streaming and a remote with a headphone jack for just $60. Its only downside is that it can only be purchased at Best Buy.
Q: Are Roku channels free?
A: Some Roku channels, like Pluto TV, PBS Kids, Crackle, the Roku Channel, YouTube, and others are available for free. Many subscription channels like Crunchyroll and Cartoon Network have limited ad-supported libraries, too.
Q: Does Roku have a web browser?
A: No, there are no browsers available on the Channel Store. There have been web browsers in the past, but they have since been removed.
Q: Is Roku free to use?
A: Yes! There are no additional subscription fees after buying your device, which you can do for as little as $30. Certain channels may pull support for older models, but this isn’t something you should worry about with new devices.