Roku is among the most popular ways people can cut the cord and avoid the hefty cable TV bills at the moment. Yet, many people are still confused about how to use Roku to watch their favorite shows online, and which Roku devices they should get.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll answer the question, “Should you buy a Roku in 2021”, and discuss all you need to know about using Roku as your goto cord-cutting device.
Without further ado, let us begin.
What is Roku?
Roku, in a nutshell, is a line of digital streaming players developed by Roku, Inc. With a Roku device, we can access various streaming media content offered by various online services.
The company Roku, Inc. itself was first founded in October 2002 by the founder of the now-defunct ReplayTV (a DVR manufacturer) Anthony Wood. Wood was also an ex-vice president of Netflix, so he’s no stranger to the streaming industry.
The name “Roku” itself came after the Japanese word for “six” because it was Wood’s sixth startup. A fun fact, the original plan was for Netflix to build its own streaming player. Yet, after the plan was scrapped, Wood quitted Netflix and incorporated a new Roku company in February 2008 to build this player (with Netflix as the primary investor).
Since then, Roku has been one of, if not the most popular choice among cord-cutters, and launched its IPO in 2017 with $1.3 billion.
Today, we have the eighth generation of Roku products, launched in September 2019 (Roku launches a new generation of products every September/October Since 2015).
They are mainly known for the streaming USB sticks, allowing a budget-friendly way to stream content for cord-cutters, but there are also various other products including full-blown smart TVs.
Let us discuss the various devices Roku offers at the moment.
Different Roku Devices and Models
We can generally divide Roku products into four main groups:
- Roku streaming players
- Roku TV
- Roku Audio
- Roku Accessories
In this guide, we will mainly focus on Roku streaming players and Roku TVs.
Roku Streaming Players
In its eighth generation product lineup, Roku offers 4 main streaming players:
- Roku Express
- Roku Premiere
- Roku Streaming Stick+
- Roku Ultra
We will discuss the comparisons between these streaming devices further below.
A Roku TV is essentially a smart TV that is powered with ROKU OS (we will have a separate section to discuss the Roku OS below).
There are actually hundreds of Roku TV models offered by various brands, including:
For the sake of this buying guide, however, here are our recommendations for the best Roku TV available in 2021:
Best Overall: TCL 6-Series R625 4K QLED 55in
The 55-inch TCL 6-Series R625’s key highlight is obviously its affordable price. It’s certainly not a QLED with the best picture quality. However, considering its price tag, it has a really good picture quality with the quantum dot technology.
You can properly display 4K HDR content (provided you have access to the source), and the TCL 6-Series supports three different types of HDR content: HDR10, Dolby Vision, and HLG, and also capable of Dolby Atmos audio.
Best High-End Roku TV: TCL 75-Inch 4K Ultra HD Roku Smart LED TV
Why We Recommend This Roku TV: The top-of-the-line offering from TCL, with a 4K HDR and 120 HZ refresh rate display. CCZ (Contrast Color Zones) full-array backlight technology for better contrast levels, so the blacks look incredible even when viewed in total darkness.
However, the very deep contrast ratio compromised good viewing angles, so with this TV, images don’t look as good when viewed from the side. Also, there’s noticeable vertical banding in all kinds of content, but those all are mainly minor downsides.
Overall, very good picture quality with Roku OS, and performance-wise it is the best Roku TV we’ve tested and reviewed.
Best Small Roku TV: Hisense 32H4F 32-Inch LED Roku Smart TV
Why We Recommend This Roku TV: A great choice if you have limited space and need a smaller TV. Compatible with Amazon Alexa, which is a great feature considering its price and size. 720p resolution (or you can choose the Hisense 40H4F 40-Inch variant that offers 1080p picture quality).
Very affordable with great input lag and response time, and pretty decent contrast ratio. You get the same Roku OS and overall Roku experience as the higher-end models.
Roku Streaming Device Comparisons
Below is a table summarizing the key differences between all our Roku streaming device options:
Before we begin the comparison, some important notes:
- Roku Express+ (2018) is essentially the same as Roku Express+ with older hardware and composite RCA cable. This is your main choice if you have an older TV.
- Roku Streaming Stick+ Headphone Edition (Best Buy Exclusive) is similar to the standard Streaming Stick+, just different remote.
- Roku Express+ (Walmart Exclusive) is the same as Roku Express+ (2019) with voice remote instead of a standard remote.
- Roku Ultra LT is a toned-down and more affordable version of the Roku Ultra without microSD capability and other small features.
So, we’ll focus on the rest of the products:
The Roku Express is the most affordable choice in Roku’s current product lineup. Easy and simple to use, and (very) affordable. The main downside of the Roku Express is that it can only display standard HDTV (1080p) and not 4K resolution.
You can still access the same Roku OS and access all the available channels/streaming services that are available on the other Roku boxes/
However, since you only get the standard remote with the Roku Express, it doesn’t have the extra features like voice search, voice command, the ability to control your TV’s volume directly from the remote, and so on.
Also, the standard remote is infrared-based instead of Wi-Fi, based, so the remote must be used in a direct line of sight of the Roku Express box.
Keep in mind that the newest, eighth generation of Roku Express doesn’t include composite cable, so you’d have to purchase the 2018 edition of Roku Express+ (as discussed above) if you have an older TV.
Although, we’d recommend saving up for a new Roku TV instead if that’s the case. Check out our reviews for the best Roku TVs above.
The Roku Premiere is only around $10 more expensive than the Roku Express, but we’ll get a significant upgrade in the ability to play 4K HDR content. Nowadays, 4k HDR TVs are very common and more affordable than ever.
So, if your TV is 4K-capable, then you should invest in the Roku Premiere instead of Roku Express.
You still get the same simple remote, so the other features are similar to Roku Express. The main difference is the 4K picture quality.
Roku Streaming Stick+
The Roku Streaming Stick+ is the most popular line from Roku, and arguably is the brand Roku itself is synonymous with. You simply “stick” the Streaming Stick+ to your TV’s HDMI port, and a second cable plugs into your TV’s USB to get power.
With the Roku Streaming Stick+ you get the voice-enabled remote, and so you get extra features like voice search, power and volume control from the remote, and the stick has a dual-band Wi-Fi (2.4GHz and 5GHz) so it’s more stable overall. Pretty handy if you live in a congested area where nearby Wi-Fi networks can disrupt yours.
The Streaming Stick+ is almost always the best and most cost-efficient pick, except if your TV’s HDMI ports won’t allow you to plug in the streaming stick (i.e. directly facing your wall and it’s a tight space).
The Roku Ultra is the most premium streaming device offered by Roku at the moment. Features a larger streaming box than all other boxes offered here, and has all the features we’ve discussed so far.
On top of these features, the Roku Ultra also offers Ethernet connectivity for better-wired connection, a headphone jack on its remote (premium JBL headphone included) so we can watch TV in private. There are also smaller features like an MicroSD slot, lost remote finder, and a midnight mode (lowers explosive and sudden sounds).
You also get two programmable buttons in the new 2019 Ultra remote, so you can easily use them to launch your favorite apps. Obviously, the Roku Ultra is the most expensive out of all the others, so it’s up to you to decide whether the extra features are worth it.
Roku OS (Operating System)
First, it’s important to know how Roku OS and Roku’s service works.
There are two ways to access Roku OS
The first is to plug in a Roku device (as discussed above) to our TV. The Roku device will then connect to the internet to your home network (mainly via Wi-Fi, but a wired connection is available with Roku Ultra).
The second way is to use a Roku TV (also discussed above) that offers a built-in Roku OS. If you use a Roku TV, you don’t need a Roku streaming device and vice versa.
The Roku OS will then access the Apps (or “channels”) that are installed to the Roku OS. Netflix, for example, is a “channel” in Roku OS, which behaves like the Netflix app on your smartphone or tablet. Most of these Roku channels offer on-demand streaming (you can decide what shows you want to watch and when to watch them), but lately, there are several live-streaming channels.
The current version of the Roku OS is version 9.2 (October 2019), which offers new features such as:
- The ability to control Roku TVs and Roku streaming devices via Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa
- Easily search for 4K content by simply saying or typing “4K” in the search box
- Sleep timer to turn off the Roku TV at a designated time
- You can use a famous quote from a movie to search for movies
- Voice search can find and control stored music, photos, and saved movies via the Roku Media Player
Roku OS Voice Search
Available on the voice-enabled remote that is included with the Roku Ultra and Roku Premiere+ plan, the voice recognition offered by Roku US is certainly above average. You can easily find TVs and films (especially well-known ones) very easily and reliably.
As with any voice recognition app today, however, Roku OS’s voice search is not 100% accurate, but it is very reliable like 9 out of 10 times.
Cross-Platform Search Feature
A very useful feature considering we can have many different streaming platforms within the Roku OS. When, for instance, we search for a title or actor, it can search all your installed apps and then tell you which app has the show/movie available.
The Roku OS will also search platforms you are not currently subscribed to and will tell you whether you can freely access the content at the moment or whether you have to purchase subscriptions or rent the title.
At the moment, Roku OS’s cross-platform search supports more partners than any other similar services, including but not limited to Amazon Video, Blockbuster On Demand. Popcorn Flix, SnagFilms, STARZ PLAY, Acorn TV, CBS All Access, CinemaNow, Crackle, Hulu, M-GO, Met Opera On Demand, Nat Geo TV, and Netflix. You can check the full list of Roku search partners here.
Roku Mobile App
You can download a free Roku app on your iOS or Android devices as a companion of your Roku OS. Almost all the core features of the Roku OS is available on the mobile app like voice search or text search, browse for content, and more.
You can also access Roku “My Feed” straight from the mobile app, which we will discuss below.
Roku My Feed
My Feed is in a nutshell, a feature that lets you schedule and organizes the content you (want to) watch on Roku. You can follow a show, and then the Roku OS or Roku app will tell you when a new episode is available. This way, you don’t have to switch between different apps or check various websites to check whether your favorite show’s new episode is released.
Roku Channels and Streaming Capabilities
Today, there are over 3,000 channels available on Roku.
First, obviously Roku has its own The Roku Channel, which offers movies and TV shows for free. Then, you can also subscribe to the following services if you are looking to watch local channels like ABC, NBC, FOX, and CBS, and cable TV networks like ESPN, HBO, AMC, and others, like:
- Hulu+Live TV: check out our full Hulu+Live TV Review.
- Sling TV: see our full Sling TV Review.
- fuboTV: check out our review full Fubo TV Review.
- AT&T TV Now: see our full AT&T Now Review.
Here are some key highlights of content available on Roku:
Video Streaming: YouTube, Vimeo, and others
Plex: Plex Media Server with an official Plex channel. Great if you want to view personal content and stream your private media on Roku.
Sports: ESPN+, WWE Network, UFC Online, MLB.TV, NBA League Pass, NHL Game Center, NFL Now, WatchESPN, and more
News: CBS News, The Blaze, Weather Nation,Fox News, Sky News, and more
Popular Shows and On-Demand Movies: Netflix, Hulu TV, Amazon Instant Video, Sling TV, VUDU, M-GO, Disney+, PBS, HBO NOW, Crackle TV, PBS, Google Play Store and more
Roku TV vs SmartTV
When having a conversation around Roku, one of the most common questions to hear is “Do I need to buy a Roku TV?”. Also, whether one should buy a smart TV or not to cut the cord is also a very common question.
In general, our answer is that a proper Roku TV is a very good investment when you are in need to upgrade your TV. However, if you already have a pretty decent LED TV (even if it’s not a smart TV), it’s a much better investment to just purchase a Roku streaming device instead.
Another reason for this is that TV and streaming technologies are still changing all the time, and it’s much cheaper to just upgrade your streaming device rather than the whole TV set. To reiterate, however, there are some really good and cost-efficient Roku TVs if you are in the market for a new TV set.
Should You Buy A Roku? Which Device Should You Buy, and Why?
Based on our reviews, here are our general recommendations:
- If you are in the market of a new TV set, get a Roku TV according to your budget
- If you already have a 4K HDR TV, in most cases the Roku Streaming Stick+ is the best overall choice. It is very affordable and you still get the voice-enabled remote. There are two reasons not to opt for the Streaming Stick+:
- If your TV doesn’t yet support 4K, invest on Roku Express+ or it’s variant
- If your TV doesn’t have HDMI, your only option is to get a Roku Express (2018) with composite RCA cable included. Although, our recommendation is to save for a new TV instead.
Roku Internet Requirements
Does Roku require the internet? The answer is a strict yes. To stream any content with a Roku TV or a Roku streaming device, you will need it to be connected to your internet.
Roku devices don’t offer any internal storage to store your TV shows and movies, so you can’t watch anything offline. This is also the same case with other streaming devices like Amazon Fire TV Stick or the Apple TV.
So, even if you want to be a cord cutter and cut your cable or satellite TV subscription fee, you still need to subscribe to an internet provider. Internet-only plans in the U.S., however, are quite affordable nowadays, so this shouldn’t be a big issue for most of us.
Your internet bandwidth/speed will ultimately dictate the picture quality of your streamed content, and here is the general benchmark:
- Standard Definition (up to 480p): 2-3 Mbps connection
- HD 720p: 5 Mbps connection
- HD 1080p: 9 Mbps connection
- UHD 4K: 16 Mbps connection
Roku + Paid Streaming Service = No Cable Bill
Nowadays, paid streaming services like Hulu+Live TV, Sling TV, fuboTV, AT&T TV Now, and Philo offers a way to watch most shows and movies you will find on cable. Some streaming providers, like Hulu, also offer their own original content.
Not to mention, these streaming services now offer the ability to watch local channels like FOX, ABC, CBS, and NBC, among others, which used to the missing link of the online TV streaming experience. So, nowadays you don’t really need to get an antenna+DVR, except if these streaming services don’t stream these local channels to your location.
You might want to check our previous guide on how to watch local channels without cable here to learn further about cord-cutting with Roku and a paid streaming service.