- The Roku is a streaming media player, which means it lets you watch videos, listen to music, play games, and use other types of apps from the Internet on your TV.
- The Roku comes in five models: The Express and Express+ are the basic models, with the Plus version also supporting TVs that don’t have HDMI ports. The Streaming Stick and Stick Plus have higher wireless specs and some additional features like voice search through the remote, with the Plus also supporting 4K and HDR video. The Ultra model has the same specs as the sticks, but many additional features including an Ethernet connection, a micro SD slot for additional storage, a USB port for content on external drives, gaming buttons and a remote finder.
- To set up any one of the players, simply plug it into an HDMI port on your TV (or A/V port for the Express+ if desired) 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. Models available in other locations may differ in price, features, and supported content providers. It has been updated to include information about the most current lineup of Roku players, including new models introduced in the fall of 2017.
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 five 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
NOTE: 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). 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 don’t have as high tech specs or most of the advanced features of the others. However, they have upgraded the processor from the previous generation to quad-core, so streaming is faster and smoother now.
The Express+ also has one very important benefit in that it is the only model now that can be used with non-HDTVs (in addition to 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 current generation Express+ directly on Amazon so if you have an older TV, you can purchase the Express+ from Roku’s website.
In 2017, Roku retired the Premiere and Premiere+ models and are now positioning the Streaming Stick as the mid-range model, with the Plus version having some higher tech specs.
Here are the main benefits of the Streaming Stick and Streaming Stick+ over the Express/Express+ models.
- Higher-end (802.11ac dual-band) wireless connectivity.
- Wireless remote (so it doesn’t require line of sight) with buttons to control TV power and volume and voice-search capabilities.
- The Streaming Stick+ also supports 4K Ultra HD and HDR video and has an advanced wireless receiver.
The Ultra is Roku’s top-of-the-line model and, like the Streaming Stick+, it supports 4K and HDR video. The list price has decreased $30 from the previous generation.
The other main benefits of the Roku Ultra over the other models are:
- It’s now the only model with a USB port for attaching a device to play your personal media files, a microSD slot for additional storage, and an Ethernet port for a wired connection to your router.
- It has an enhanced remote that has gaming buttons and a headphone jack for private listening.
- It has a remote finder because apparently the developers have seen my living room. 🙂
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 specifi 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, 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? 🙂 )
IMPORTANT: 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 streaming service that provides the content (some free, some paid) and/or subscribe to a cable/satellite package that gives you permission to access shows from specific networks through the Roku. For example, if you pay for HBO through your cable provider, then you can use the HBO GO app to stream their shows for free by using your cable company login. If you do not have cable or your package doesn’t include HBO, you can purchase the HBO NOW service and use that app to watch their shows.
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. 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
With the current product lineup, Roku has brought screen mirroring back to all its models (yay!). With this feature, if you have a compatible Windows PC or Android device, 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 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.
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.
- The company removed the optical audio port from all its models this year. You can still get the feature with some Roku TVs.
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 needed the additional features on the box like the USB, Ethernet, and microSD ports or on the remote (headphones jack, gaming buttons).
- For a regular HDTV, I would get either the Roku Streaming Stick. I’d go with the Streaming Stick+ if I had a 4K/HDR TV and subscribed to services that provide video in those formats.
- If cost was my primary concern, I’d go with the Roku Express, since you’re still getting a pretty good product at a great price.
- 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 addition:
- 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, Apple TVs, and Google Chromecasts 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 previous generation of 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 and Roku has partnered with the Fandango streaming service 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).
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!
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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.