- Roku refers to a family of streaming media players, which means they let you watch videos, listen to music, play games, and use other types of apps from the Internet on your TV.
- The Roku comes in multiple models, the main ones on their site being the Express, Premiere, Streaming Stick+, and Ultra (there are also a few models only available from either Walmart or Best Buy). There are also two soundbar/streaming player combos and some TVs with built-in Roku capabilities. See all models on the Roku website. >>
- To set up any one of the players, simply connect it to an HDMI port on your TV and use the included remote to follow the on-screen instructions to connect to the Internet and select the apps you want.
NOTE: The information below relates to the Roku models available in the U.S. as of November 2020. 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 multiple models, differentiated by performance and features. However, all models can access all Roku channels.
Here are some other features that are common to all the models:
- Full 1080p HD support
- Quad-core processor
- 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, including voice search
- Ability to use the app in locations where you need to log into Wi-Fi like hotels and dorm rooms
- Screen mirroring for compatible Android and Windows devices
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 lets you compare up to three models on their website and you can also find most of them at amazon.com/roku.
This is the most basic of the models, so it doesn’t have as high tech specs or most of the advanced features of the others.
Here are the main benefits of the Premiere over the Express model.
- Supports 4K and HDR video
- Has some enhanced audio features: Volume Leveling, Night Mode
Here are the main benefits of the Streaming Stick+ over the Express and Premiere models.
- Higher-end (802.11ac dual-band) wireless connectivity with greater range
- Voice remote with TV controls
The Ultra is Roku’s top-of-the-line model and includes the following benefits over the other models:
- Ports: USB for attaching a device to play personal media files, microSD for additional storage, Ethernet for a wired router connection
- Bluetooth, Dolby Atmos ,and Dolby Vision support
- Remote with personal shortcut buttons and headphone jack for private listening
- Remote finder because apparently the developers have seen my living room 🙂
NOTE: In addition to the standalone Roku players, you can also get Roku televisions, manufactured by TCL and Hisense in multiple sizes, 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). The available features may vary based on the 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.
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 no longer give a specific number of channels in their public directory, but it’s well into the thousands, including the top ones for movies and TV programming: Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu, Peacock, Disney+,HBO MAX, Google Play, 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? 🙂 )
Listen to Streaming Audio
The Roku supports lots of music and other audio 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 Ultra model that has 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, including advertising-supported services like Crackle. Others include highly popular services like Pandora for music and Facebook to view your photos and videos on your TV. There are also specialty channels, like Allrecipes.com and TEDTalks and some channels associated with broadcast and cable networks that make portions of their programming available for free 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
All of Roku’s models support screen mirroring for compatible Windows PCs and Android devices. 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 tablet or phone on your TV. Maybe you want to access your email on a big screen or browse a certain website or scroll through your Instagram feed or play Pokémon GO—anything you’re doing on the device will display on your TV.
My Two Cents
The Roku was the first streaming media player I bought (back in 2013/14 maybe?) and I didn’t even really know what it was when I got it. But I quickly learned to love it and it was what got me to start writing about streaming media on T4L.
There have been so many changes in the streaming world since then, both for devices and content, and these days I use my Fire TV Stick almost exclusively. Having said that, the Roku is an excellent product and is still probably the one you want if you’re interested in some of the more niche content providers. But even if you’re not, you can’t go wrong with this brand.
Ready to Buy?
Getting started with a Roku streaming media player
The process for setting up the Roku models is basically the same as it is for any streaming media player, with one addition:
- Connect the Roku to your TV and plug it in. Switch your TV’s input to the one your device is plugged into (HDMI 1, 2 etc.).
- 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, Apple TVs, and Google Chromecasts come pre-registered to your existing accounts with those companies.
- Download and install the channels you want to use. Some channels may be pre-installed.
- Sign in to the content providers you have accounts with. Depending on the streaming service, you may sign in using the Roku remote with an on-screen keyboard or by entering a code into a web page they provide.
Congratulations. You’re now ready to enjoy your Fire TV!
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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.