Cable TV has fallen by the wayside and the age of online streaming has become the new standard. Many people are replacing the average set-top box with a streaming device. Netflix, HBO Go, ESPN, and many online streaming services can now be accessed solely through your favorite device. You have the ability to pick and choose all the features and services that fit your needs.
But which should you choose? Assuming you’ve narrowed it down to Roku, choosing from their selection of products may seem a little daunting at first. They offer one of the more holistic set of options for cord-cutters. So here we’ll break down all of their device options, their different features, and help you figure out which one fits your entertainment needs.
What is Roku?
Roku was one of the originators in online device streaming with their first device being release in 2008. The Roku DVP, released May 20th 2008, featured a Linux operating system originally supporting SD quality streaming. Subsequent generations included HD and HD-XR support for up to 1080p streaming. With Wi-Fi capability and HDMI outputs, it became an all-in-one high definition streaming device. Since the original, Roku has gone through five more generations of releases. Their current line-up of products offers seven different options.
Roku Express $29.99
Their most basic option, the Roku Express, is one of the better options for people looking to dip their toes into the Roku pool. Features include:
- A sole HDMI output supporting 720p and 1080p.
- A standard infrared remote with dedicated Netflix, Google Play, Hulu, and Sling TV buttons.
- Basic navigation and pause/play functionality.
- 512 MB of memory, 256 MB of channel storage, and MIPS 900 MHz processor.
- It is powered by micro-USB and has your standard HDMI output connections requiring only two cables.
The universal Roku app (available on iPhone and Android), acting as an audio pass-through and remote, gives you the option to forgo the need of the included remote if you wish. This gives you one-touch access to your apps and streaming services, outside of the four buttons on the remote.
Although the Roku Express has limited features, it’s hard to ignore the price. At $29.99, it is one of the most affordable streaming devices on the market, making buyers remorse almost impossible. If you are brand new to online streaming, and you simply want to test out the features of the Roku, the Express is an awesome option. Even if you find yourself wanting additional features down the road, this entry-level option is hard to argue against.
Roku Express+ $39.99
There is one obvious problem with the Roku Express, especially for those who are new to the online-streaming trend. What if you have an older TV? Those who aren’t up to speed with the latest technological trends and services may need to be accounted for, and this is where the Roku Express+ comes into play.
With the standard Express only featuring HDMI outputs, it leaves out the option for many people who still own a standard definition television. Sporting the phrase “Turn your older TV into a smart TV”, it gives added support for composite audio/video outputs. Featuring the exact same specs as the Express (plus the composite support), it is a slightly more accommodating option for those entry level cord-cutters.
The target customer for the Express+ is pretty obvious, with it being the only option for those who are still stuck with standard definition. If your plans to upgrade to HD are impending, the Express+ might work for you. It offers you the option of HDMI in addition to composite. But the Express+ isn’t only beneficial to those with standard definition televisions, as this also gives you the option to have analog audio out. So, for those of you who have an HD TV, but would like the option of having analog audio, the Express+ is a suitable choice.
It’s priced at $39.99, which is a small increase over the normal Express. It definitely has a niche target customer, but if it fits your needs, it is a great value with its features and support for varying resolutions.
Roku Streaming Stick $49.99
The Roku Streaming Stick features a pretty significant change in design compared to the previous two mentioned. Small and compact, it is a simple HDMI output based “stick”, similar to the size of a standard USB drive. The stick supports the standard 720p and 1080p wireless streaming and similar hardware the Express and Express+. With a slightly different processor, the BCM2836 900 MHz, you will see the same responsiveness and speed in a much smaller package.
The biggest benefit you’ll see with the Stick is the lack of power cable. It’s powered through the HDMI port on your television. The Streaming Stick will be virtually invisible when plugged into your TV.
Because of its small size, the Stick supports a Wi-Fi Direct remote, instead of your normal infrared sensor based remote. It’s a “point-anywhere” remote, which means your inputs are run via Wi-Fi and not the point-and-press signals of infrared.
The Roku Streaming Stick’s compact design carries a couple advantages over the normal set-top receiver. The first major advantage is portability. A small form factor makes it the perfect device for the nomad. If you work on the road or travel frequently, you’ll be able to use your Roku anywhere you have an HDMI compatible TV and Wi-Fi.
The next benefit is one that many are sure to relate to. The Streaming Stick doesn’t need a power outlet. With game consoles, audio systems, Blu-ray players, and a plethora of different power thirsty devices surrounding your television, the demand for fewer power cables is a huge benefit. This is also great for those with wall mounted TVs, requiring one less cable running down your wall.
All in all, the Roku Streaming Stick is another great entry-level device, matching great features with a solid price point. At $49.99, it is a small price increase over the previous two options, but it carries the added benefit of portability and discrete sizing. This is probably the best base-model Roku, a great marriage of affordability and features.
Roku Premiere $69.99
Finally, we are getting into the higher end and more powerful Roku devices. These are geared towards the more advanced cable-cutters. The biggest and most beneficial advantage that you will see with the Roku Premiere is the support for higher resolutions. The ability stream 4K content gives you the chance to appreciate the highest quality content available. Options for 4K content are constantly rising, with new channels and services continually adding higher resolution programming. Netflix, Amazon Prime Streaming, YouTube, and others all offer new 4K and HDR programming at an increasing rate.
In addition to the support for higher resolutions, the Premiere also features:
- The Cortex A53 quad-core 1.2 GHz processor
- 1 GB of memory (2x as much as the Express)
- An Infrared Remote Control
For those with a 4K supported television, the Premiere should be the lowest end model in consideration when looking at Roku products. The price is higher,but it is well worth the upgrade.
Roku Premiere + $99.99
Similar to the aforementioned Premiere, the Premiere+ is centered around the support for 4K streaming. The differences you’ll see are small but may be important depending on your current 4K television set up. More specifically speaking, the Premiere+ gives you the ability to stream HDR (High Dynamic Range) based programming. HDR TV is a color-overhaul when compared side-by-side to regular 4K content.
HDR is one of the most visually impressive additions to this new generation of higher-resolution televisions. The color range is beautifully dramatic, with the saturation and contrast being noticeably improved over 4K content. While the improved resolution is important, improved image quality is what HDR brings to the table. And it does not leave the viewer disappointed.
Aside from HDR support, the Premiere+ features an enhanced remote, allowing audio pass-through via a 3.5 mm headphone jack. This means you can enjoy your shows at whatever volume you please, without bothering those around the TV. The Premiere+ also features the “point-anywhere” remote as mentioned before, in addition to the basic infrared.
Internally the processor and memory are going to be the same as the regular Premiere, but now the Premiere+ allows support for additional external memory to be added. The micro SD slot allows additional channel storage, a feature not available on their lower end models.
The last new feature you’ll see on the Premire+ is the support for hard-wired Ethernet cables with up to 10/100 Mbps speed. This means, if you are streaming high quality (and subsequently high file-sized) content, you won’t be handicapped by the strength of your Wi-Fi signal. While this feature may not have been particularly important on the previous Roku models, high-quality 4K HDR content streaming may require more bandwidth than your current wireless signal can handle.
In summation, the Premiere+ is a must have for those who currently have a 4K HDR compatible TV. If your TV doesn’t support HDR, maybe this model isn’t your best option. Still, reasonably priced at $99.99, this is a great value for those with 4K HDR TVs.
Roku Ultra $129.99
We have officially reached the Cadillac of Roku models, with the Ultra being the top-of-the-line device. The Roku Ultra contains most of the great features of the previous models, with a couple of added bonuses.
Firstly, you’ll be able to watch 4K HDR content, but this model will let you access local data as well. An added USB port gives you the ability to play any saved files locally via an external device. Files from your laptop, phone, or any other device can be transferred and played via a simple USB thumb drive.
Another feature exclusive to the Ultra is the voice-search enabled remote. This gives you the ability to find whatever show or movie you’d like via voice command. You can search by title, actor, or director throughout many of your streaming channels. With the audio pass-through, infrared, and “point-anywhere” features also included, the Roku Ultra remote is the most comprehensive and powerful amongst all Roku devices.
The last feature that is unique to the Ultra is the optical audio output. This means it will support almost all of your external audio systems, giving you the complete audio and visual experience the power users will enjoy.
The Roku Ultra is the most comprehensive, powerful, advanced, and a complete streaming device that you can currently purchase on the market. But luxury comes at a price. Seeing a significant price increase of $30 more than the Premiere+, the Ultra may only be for the select few who require all of its features. While it is an awesome and complete experience, you may find one of the lower end models more realistic for your needs.
Which one is right for you?
Obviously there are a wide ranging, and almost convoluting list of differences between all the available Roku models. Based on pricing, features, and practicality, we have broken down which ones are the best value:
Basic TV Owners
For those of you who own your basic 1080p HD television, we recommend the Roku Streaming Stick. It is a great price at $49.99, lacks the need for an additional power cable, and is small, portable, and discrete. It is the best lower-end option for those who lack the need for 4K support and should be a great complimentary device for regular HD streamers.
4K TV Owners (Non-HDR)
The Roku Premiere is definitely the best option for those with basic 4K TVs, being fairly priced and powerful enough for all of your regular 4K programming. The rest of the higher end Roku models will be somewhat unnecessary for you, as they are mainly centered around the support for HDR.
4K HDR TV Owners
We suggest the Premiere+ for those of you with a 4K HDR television. While you may find justification for the higher end Roku Ultra, some of those features may just be overkill and superfluous (especially for the significant price increase). Being able to stream all of the highest quality content available for less than $100 is a great value, and will likely leave most cord-cutters satisfied for years to come.
Choosing an online streaming device isn’t a straight forward process. Roku alone offers numerous different models and features. Hopefully, finding the right one to fit all of your needs is a bit simpler now. Always consider what TV you have (or will soon have), what content you are streaming, and all of your supporting equipment when deciding on which model is right for you. All that will be left to do, is sit back and enjoy all of your favorite shows and movies!