This post has been updated to include information about the new Roku models announced in September 2016. NOTE: The information below relates to the Roku models available in the U.S. Models available in other locations may differ in price, features, and supported content providers.
What is a Roku?
The Roku is a streaming media player, which means it takes content from the Internet and displays it on your TV. The Roku comes in six models, differentiated by performance and features. However, all models can access all 3500+ Roku channels.
Here are some other features that are common to all the models:
- Full 1080p HD support
- Shortcut buttons on the remote for popular channels, e.g. Netflix, Hulu, HBO GO, etc (buttons vary by model)
- Search across multiple content providers
- Mobile app available for casting personal media to your TV and providing remote capabilities
- Ability to use the app in locations where you need to log into Wi-Fi like hotels and dorm rooms
In addition to the Roku players, you can also get televisions, manufactured by other companies, that have Roku capabilities built into them. Their on-screen interface is basically the same as the players’, with a few extra boxes for the various inputs (HDMI, A/V, cable, antenna). Also, the available features vary based on the manufacturer and model.
The main advantage of a Roku TV is that it eliminates one remote from your home entertainment setup. The main disadvantage is that it’s more expensive than any of the separate players. So they can be a great option if you’re already looking to buy a new set but, if you’re not, you’re probably better off getting the specific player you want.
Roku Player Models
This section explains what the main differences are between the various Roku models. Each model includes all the features of the less expensive ones unless otherwise stated. Roku also has a PDF comparison chart that gives a quick glance at the differences between all the models.
The two Express models are the lowest-end versions, so they’re slower and don’t have most of the advanced features of the others. However the Express+ does have one very important benefit in that it is the only model now that can be used with non-HDTVs (in addition HDTVs). It has A/V ports (yellow, red, white connectors) so it is a great option for a lot of perfectly good TVs out there that just don’t happen to be HDTV. It’s also a major benefit over the other three streaming player competitors—Fire TV, Apple TV, Chromecast—which all require HDTVs.
As far as I can tell, the A/V support is the only difference between the Express and the Express+.
NOTE: For some reason, Roku doesn’t seem to be selling the Express+ directly on Amazon so the ones available there are priced quite a bit above the list price. So if you have an older TV, you might want to purchase the Express+ from Roku’s website or take a look at the previous generation Roku 1, which also supports non-HDTVs.
Here are the main benefits of the Premiere over the Express+, Express, and Streaming Stick.
- It supports 4K video.
- It has a quad-core processor and 802.11ac dual-band wireless connectivity.
- It offers a new feature called Night Listening Mode, that reduces loud sounds like explosions and increases soft sounds like whispering. You’re stuck with a line-of-sight remote, though.
- It has a slot for a Micro SD card for additional memory to store additional apps and games if you run out of space on the box.
- It supports screen mirroring from compatible PCs and mobile devices.
Here are the main benefits of the Premiere+ over the Premiere, Express+, Express, and Streaming Stick.
- It supports HDR video.
- It has an Ethernet port.
- It comes with a more sophisticated remote control (but not the enhanced one that comes with the Ultra model):
- It includes a headphone jack, so you can watch your streaming content without disturbing other people.
- You don’t need to point it at the Roku player to work. (The streaming stick’s remote has this feature as well.)
The Ultra is Roku’s top-of-the-line model. It supports both 4K and HDR video. Note, however, that these features will only be of value to people who have 4K/HDR TVs and who are streaming content that is available in 4K and HDR.
The other main benefits of the Roku Ultra over the other models are:
- It includes an Optical Out audio port for connecting to home theater systems.
- It’s now the only model with a USB port for attaching a device to play your personal media files.
- It has an enhanced remote that provides voice search and has gaming buttons.
- It has a remote finder because apparently the developers have seen my living room. 🙂
Unlike the other 5 models, the Roku streaming stick is not a box. It’s a small stick that you plug directly into an HDMI port on your TV, which makes it a great option for wall-mounted TVs or if your TV is on a stand that doesn’t have a lot of space for a box.
In terms of features, the streaming stick is most like the Roku Premiere, but is missing the 4K support and additional Ethernet, USB, and Micro SD ports. It does, however, come with a “point anywhere” remote, but it doesn’t include a headphone jack. (Could these be any more confusing Roku?)
What can you do with a Roku?
Watch Streaming Videos
Roku’s biggest differentiator is the sheer number of channels it offers. (“Channels” is the term Roku uses for what some other streaming players call “apps.”) They have more than 2,500 channels in their public directory, including the top ones for movies and TV programming: Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu, Google Play, HBO GO/NOW, PBS, Lifetime, YouTube, WatchESPN, WWE Network, etc. They also have channels for popular children’s, news, educational, comedy, fitness, food, and other categories of videos as well as niche content providers like ACORN TV (British series), JW Broadcasting (Christian), Crunchyroll (anime), and Pokémon TV (umm… do I really need to spell this one out? 🙂 )
Note: Buying a Roku does not give you access to the content you can watch on it, just like buying a TV does not give you access to cable TV shows. You need to have accounts with each service that provides the content (some free, some paid) and/or subscribe to a cable/satellite package that gives you permission to access specific networks through the Roku.
Listen to Streaming Audio
The Roku supports lots of music services as well, including Amazon Music, Pandora, Spotify, iHeart Radio, and Sirius XM.
There are many free and paid games available to play on the Roku, including highly popular ones like Angry Birds Toons, Sudoku, and Jeopardy. Note that if you want to play a lot of games, you may need the extra storage capacity that comes with the Roku 2, 3, and 4 models that have a slot for a Micro SD card.
Additional Notes about Roku Channels
I’ve mentioned the various premium channels a lot because that’s probably the number one reason people buy a Roku. But there are also many free channels available to use with the player. Some of them are highly popular services like Pandora for music and Facebook to view your photos and videos on your TV. Some are specialty channels, like Allrecipes.com and TEDTalks. There are also some channels associated with broadcast and cable networks that make portions of their programming available through the Roku, such as CNN, PBS, and SyFy. And there are lots of non-video, audio, and games apps available including ones for social media, photo sharing, personal media serving, shopping, and weather info.
Browse through the channels and you may be surprised at all the additional services you can get. It took me a couple of years before I discovered that there’s an Amazon Music channel where I can play all the music I have uploaded there!
And if all those public channels aren’t enough for you, there’s a whole slew of private channels available that provide access to even more content, including iTunes Podcasts, CNN International, and NASA TV. You can find more info in this T4L post about Roku private channels.
Mirror a Mobile Device’s Screen
Unfortunately, Roku has removed screen mirroring from its entire 2016 line of streaming boxes. UPDATE: A November 2017 software update (Roku OS 7.5) is bringing screen mirroring back to the Premiere, Premiere+, and Ultra models (woo-hoo!). It’s also available with the Streaming Stick. With this feature, if you have a compatible Windows PC, Android device, or Kindle Fire tablet, you can mirror its screen on your TV. This has a couple of benefits:
- Any streaming media you can access via your compatible device you can now watch on your TV—for example, you can watch shows from broadcast and cable networks this way if there’s not a Roku-specific channel for them but they stream them on their websites or with mobile apps.
- You can also see any non-streaming content from your device on your TV. Maybe you want to scroll through your Facebook or Twitter accounts on a large screen or access your email or browse match.com profiles—anything you’re doing on your device will display on your TV.
So is there anything NOT to love about the Roku?
Well, since nobody’s perfect, there are a few things:
- There is no iTunes channel, so the only way to access iTunes content if you have it is via mirroring if you have a compatible device. (There’s also a private Roku channel for iTunes podcasts.)
- While the Roku Ultra has voice search capabilities, there is no voice assistant like Siri for the Apple TV or Alexa for the Amazon Fire TV.
- There’s no full-fledged game console so you have fewer games options than with the new Fire TV or new Apple TV.
- As mentioned earlier, they removed the screen mirroring capability from all the latest models except the stick.
My two cents
The Roku was my introduction to streaming media players. I bought it without really understanding what it did and even after setting it up I was confused about a few things. That confusion is actually why I ended up writing my first post about the Roku, which led me to eventually create an entire special section on streaming media players.
Once I had it figured out, though, I loved it. While I have all the Big Four players, my Roku is one of the two I use the most (the other one is the Fire TV Stick). Even with such a huge library of channels, I find the on-screen menus pretty easy to navigate in general and the streaming is smooth and reliable.
The most difficult thing with the Roku is deciding between all the models, so here is what I would do if I were looking to buy one for the first time now.
- I would only go for the Roku Ultra if I was a super audio and video enthusiast, which I am not. It will provide the highest quality experience and, of course, if you want to stream HDR video or use an optical digital connection for your audio, then this is the only option that offers those features.
- For a regular HDTV, I would get either the Roku Premiere or the streaming stick. I’d go with the Premiere if I wanted the voice search capability, the headphone jack in the remote or if I wanted to play games that require a motion control remote. I’d get the Roku 2 if I didn’t need those extras but I wanted the faster performance or the additional ports, especially if I wanted to connect to the Internet with an Ethernet cable instead of over Wi-Fi. If cost was more important to me than any of those additional features, then I’d get the streaming stick.
- If I didn’t have an HDTV, but my TV had A/V ports, then I would get the Roku Express+, which is the only one that could connect to it directly. There are HDMI-to-A/V adapters, but the quality isn’t as good as with a direct connection.
Ready to Buy?
The following instructions and screenshots refer to an earlier version of the Roku. There may be some interface differences with the new models, but the basic concepts and steps should be very similar.
The process for setting up the Roku is basically the same as it is for any streaming media player, with one additions:
- Connect the Roku to your TV and plug it in. Switch the input on your TV for the port you’re using.
- Connect the Roku to the Internet. The Roku has an on-screen wizard to walk you through the steps to get connected.
- Sign up for a Roku account. This is the added step, because Amazon Fire TVs and Apple TVs come pre-registered to your existing accounts with those companies.
- Connect to the content providers you want to watch/use.
In addition to reading the detailed steps below, you can follow along with this setup video. It uses the Roku Ultra, but the basic steps will apply to all the models.
NOTE: The images for setting up the player come from setting up the Roku 4 model.The process will be almost identical for the other models. There may be minor differences because of the different features—for example, the Roku 4 setup process includes a step where you can select 4K HD, which wouldn’t be an option with the other models.
Connect the Roku to your television and plug it in
To connect any of the box models to the TV, you’ll need an HDMI cable with full-sized plugs on each end or A/V cables for the Roku 1. These don’t come with the devices; you’ll need to provide your own. Plug one end of the cable into the box and the other end into one of the appropriate port on your TV. The stick just plugs directly into the port; no cable needed.
Note the number of the port (e.g. HDMI 1, HDMI 2, Video 1…) and use your television remote (NOT your Roku remote) to switch to that input. You’ll know you’re on the right channel when you see the Roku logo on the screen.
Note: If you don’t have your television’s remote, your cable/satellite/universal remote probably has an Input button but if it doesn’t your TV should have a button on it to switch inputs. When you want to go back to watching regular TV, use the Input button to switch back to the port where your TV signal goes into the TV.
Then connect the power cord to the box/stick and plug it in. Note that there is no on or off switch for the Roku; it’s always on (but uses very little energy when it’s not actually in use).
Connect your Roku to the Internet
With the Roku Premiere+ and Ultra, you can connect to your Internet router using an Ethernet cable (also not included) or wirelessly. If you use a cable, it will automatically detect the Internet signal. If you connect wirelessly, the messages on the TV screen will walk you through the steps to connect.
The other models are all Wi-Fi only.
To enter your router password, use the Roku remote to move through the characters on the screen to select them one at a time.
Sign Up for a Roku account
After you’ve connected the Roku to your TV and the Internet, you’ll receive on-screen prompts to set up an account at roku.com. You will receive a unique code that you use to match the online account to your physical device.
Note: When setting up your account, you will need to provide a credit card number but you won’t be charged anything at this time. The number is just kept on file for purchasing content directly from Roku. For example, you can get a Jeopardy game for $1.99 (for HD displays only) and Roku has partnered with a movie/TV provider called M-GO that you pay for with your Roku account.
Now you can…
Connect to the Content Providers You Want to Watch/Use
This is the part I struggled with when I first set up my Roku. I didn’t really understand what a “channel” was or how to watch things through them.
Once you’ve got the player set up, you’ll see some of the most popular channels listed on your home screen—for example Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, and HBO GO. These channels have already been installed on your Roku. But to watch content from any of the hundreds of other channels, you have to first install them from the Channel store. You can either do this from the Roku menu on your TV or from the Roku website.
I generally find it easier to browse them from the website although the one downside is that you can’t tell if a channel is free or not unless you click the Details button. (If it says “Service May Require Additional Fees,” then it’s not free.) In the on-screen menu, there’s a category for Top Free, which is convenient.
Once you’ve picked the channels you want, you just click the Add Channel link and it will be installed on your box. You’ll then see that channel on your Home screen (you may have to wait a few minutes for it to appear).
NOTE: Roku has a special partnership with a content provider called M-GO. This doesn’t show up as a channel on your Roku. Instead, there are separate Movies and TV Shows menu items where you can rent or purchase their videos. You’ll have to create an account with M-GO but, if you order one of their videos, it will be charged through the credit card you have on file with Roku. I haven’t used M-GO myself so I can’t say whether it has much more to offer beyond the other premium providers.
The other part that confused me when I first got my Roku was that I thought that once a channel was installed—for example, Amazon Instant Video—I would be able to immediately start watching content from that service. That’s only true for the free channels.
For the premium channels like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, HBO GO, Pandora, etc. you need to already have an account with those services to be able to watch their content through the Roku.
The following is an example of what you would do if you wanted to see content from one of those services. I’ll use Amazon Instant Video for my example. The images below come from setting up an earlier version of the Roku, but the process will be basically the same for current models.
Click the Home button on the Roku remote and use the arrow keys to go to Streaming Channels, which opens the Roku Channel Store.
Use the arrow keys to select the channel you want to watch (in this example, Amazon Instant Video.
Click Sign In.
At this point, the Roku will give you the option to sign in with your Amazon credentials on the screen or via computer. The interface on screen is a bit unwieldy, so select the option to sign in on Amazon.
A screen will pop up with a URL where you need to go to activate the service and the code you need to enter. In this case, the URL is www.amazon.com/mytv.
Note: Every content provider will have its own interface and instructions for how to proceed at this point so the instructions below will not be identical for other services. But the basic steps will be the same. Also, if you don’t already have an account with the provider, you’ll be given the opportunity to sign up now.
Click the Register a Device button.
You may be prompted to enter your Amazon username and password and then will be taken to a screen where you can enter the Roku code provided. After you enter the code, your TV screen will show a Success message and you can click Continue to finish that part of the process.
Finish the registration process on Amazon.
You’ll need to set up payment options and set a PIN that you will use when ordering content through the Roku.
Now when you go to the Amazon Instant Video channel on your Roku, you’ll be able to search for titles and browse your watchlist.
When you find something you want to watch, you simply select it and you will be given whatever options you would have if you ordered it on your computer or tablet. In the case of Amazon, you usually have an option to rent it for 24 hours in standard or high-definition formats or purchase it for a higher price. If you’re an Amazon Prime member, the same titles available for free to you on your computer are now available on your TV.
Tip: Trying to search using the remote control and the on-screen keyboard is not the easiest process. My recommendation is you find the titles you want to watch on the Amazon website and add them to your Watchlist. You can then browse the list quickly using the Roku remote and start enjoying your show!
Installing and Using Roku Mobile Apps
As I mentioned above, trying to order products through the Roku remote and on-screen interface is not very easy. You can often find an easier process via each content provider’s individual website. However, if you have an iOS, Android, or Fire phone or tablet or a Windows 8 or 10 PC, you can download a free Roku app that makes it easy to search through all of your channels in one place. You can also use the device as the remote control, add new channels, purchase apps and games and play music and view photos and videos that are stored on your device through your Roku.
Congratulations. You’re now ready to enjoy your Roku!
You may also be interested in:
Frequently Asked Questions about Streaming Media
The links below will take you to the Streaming Media FAQ page that has answers to questions relevant to streaming players and content in general.