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- Roku is a company that makes popular media players that turn your regular TV into a smart TV — all you need is an internet connection.
- Roku uses a simple interface that lets you access different streaming apps to watch your favorite shows and movies on popular services like Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu, Sling TV, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Now, and more.
- There are many different Roku streaming sticks and boxes to choose from, with certain models better suited for specific needs and budgets.
- The Roku Express and the Roku Premiere are the most affordable options, while the Roku Streaming Stick+ is the company’s mid-range model, and the Roku Ultra is the most high-end option.
Even as a tech writer, it’s difficult for me to keep up with all of the “smart” products that are constantly released. While you may have seen Roku boxes around your local Best Buy, you’re probably still left wondering just what these devices do and what the differences are between each player.
Thankfully, once you examine each model, deciding whether you need a Roku Premiere or a Roku Ultra doesn’t have to be complicated. With that in mind, we’ve broken down the basics of what you can expect from a Roku player, along with details on each of the lineup’s various models.
What is Roku?
Roku is a company that makes media players, which essentially turn standard TVs into smart TVs. These digital streaming boxes and sticks use an internet connection to watch shows and movies from online services — like Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and more — on your standard display.
Unlike traditional downloading methods where you have to wait for an entire video file to transfer before watching it, “streaming” allows you to watch videos as the data is being sent. Streaming also doesn’t require large amounts of storage since the video data is only kept temporarily on a device.
The best way to understand streaming is to think of YouTube or Netflix. As long as you have a steady internet connection, YouTube videos start playing as soon as you click on them. This is because the video is being streamed to you over the internet in real time.
If you have a TV with no “smart” functionality — meaning it can’t connect to the internet and download applications — you’ll need a separate media player, like a Roku device, to access YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, and more. And even if you already have a smart TV, depending on your display model, a Roku player might provide certain apps and playback features that your TV does not include.
By connecting to the internet and providing a simple interface, Roku makes it easy to stream content from a variety of services. All of you favorite apps can be organized on a simple homepage, enabling you to easily select Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Now, and more. You can also search for more channels or individual titles across various services.
As far as getting started with a Roku, we can’t think of a better tutorial than Roku’s own: “Just connect them to the Internet, set up a Roku account, and start streaming.”
In some cases, you’ll also find TVs that have Roku built-in. Some TCL TVs, like the model featured in our best 4K TV guide, use the Roku TV operating system. Instead of having a dedicated streaming box, the functionality of Roku is built right into the TV.
When it comes to standalone Roku media players, there are currently five primary Roku models to choose from. We’re going to break down the differences between them so you know which one is right for you.
Read on to see which Roku is right for you based on your budget and TV watching habits.
Roku Express and Express+
With basic HD playback and Wi-Fi connectivity, the Roku Express is the simplest and most affordable Roku available.
The entry-level Roku Express is the company’s most inexpensive media player, and it’s a great fit for buyers who just need a simple HD streaming solution. The device connects to the internet wirelessly and is designed to rest on a TV stand.
The tiny box is so compact that it’s actually smaller than the included remote. This mean you won’t really have to worry about another component taking up a lot of space on your entertainment center. For simplified setup, the device only has two connections: one for HDMI, which goes to your TV, and another for power.
For Wi-Fi, the Roku Express uses 802.11bgn single-band wireless. This is an older wireless protocol than the version used on some of Roku’s other players, so it may not maintain as steady of a connection. Unfortunately, there is no wired Ethernet option.
When it comes to video, the Express offers support for up to 1080p streaming and provides access to the same library of HD apps that are available on all Roku players, including popular services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and Disney Plus.
In addition to the standard Express, there’s also an Express+ model. This version adds an A/V composite connection (red, white, and yellow cables), which makes it easy to connect to older TVs that might not have HDMI.
This is the most basic player Roku makes, but the Roku Express is still a worthy option if you don’t have a 4K TV and don’t need 4K playback.
The Roku Premiere is a great budget streaming box for buyers who want 4K HDR support.
Like the Roku Express, the Roku Premiere is an ultra-compact streaming box. In addition to streaming full HD content, the Roku Premiere steps things up with support for 4K playback, which is four times the resolution of full HD.
The device also offers HDR10 support from select apps like Netflix and Disney Plus. Movies and shows with HDR are capable of producing enhanced contrast and colors on compatible 4K HDR TVs.
Like most Roku players, the Roku Premiere is Wi-Fi only and does not support a wired Ethernet connection for internet. It also sports the same 802.11bgn single-band wireless functionality as the Roku Express, rather than the 802.11ac MIMO dual-band wireless capabilities included on the company’s more expensive models.
Still, if you just want a simple, inexpensive 4K HDR streaming player, the Roku Premiere is one of the best budget 4K media boxes you can buy.
You can read our full review of the Premiere here.
Roku Streaming Stick+
The Roku Streaming Stick+ is designed to plug right into your TV’s HDMI port, adding support for 4K HDR streaming.
The Roku Streaming Stick+ is similar to the Roku Premiere, but instead of being a small box you hook up to your TV, it’s a slim stick that you plug directly into your TV’s HDMI port. It features up to 4K HDR playback from supported apps for enhanced detail, color, and contrast.
Unlike the company’s less expensive models, the Roku Streaming Stick+ also boasts the newer 802.11ac MIMO dual-band wireless protocol, which could result in a more reliable connection. The stick also comes with a voice remote so you can search for content through spoken commands.
In addition to the Streaming Stick+, Roku still sells a standard Streaming Stick model as well. This version is the same as the Streaming Stick+, except it does not include 4K HDR support. Since both models are now the same price, there’s really no reason to choose the older version.
You can read our full review of the Streaming Stick+.
The Roku Ultra is one of the best flagship streaming players there is — offering 4K HDR playback, a voice remote with a headphone jack, and support for extra storage.
Resting at the top of the Roku lineup is the Roku Ultra. Like the Streaming Stick+, this model also offers up to 4K HDR streaming with 802.11ac MIMO dual-band wireless and a voice remote.
Unlike the Stick, however, the Roku Ultra uses a more traditional streaming box design — though it’s still very compact in size. It also includes a few extra features and perks, helping to cement it as the company’s flagship model.
First up, the Roku Ultra supports storage expansion with a USB flash drive or microSD card. You can load movies, music, or photos onto one of these devices, plug it in, and enjoy it on your TV. The Roku Ultra is also the only Roku player that supports a wired Ethernet internet connection, which is a great feature for buyers who don’t have reliable Wi-Fi. Finally, the included voice remote features a nice addition that other Roku remotes don’t offer — a handy headphone jack for private listening.
Though most buyers will probably be satisfied with the features found on the Roku Premiere or Roku Streaming Stick+, the Roku Ultra is an attractive option if you want to play files from external storage or stream shows late at night without waking up the rest of your family.
You can read our full review of the Roku Ultra here.