Roku is a name synonymous with streaming sticks and boxes, delivering devices to make catch-up and video on-demand easy for virtually everyone in any home, regardless of TV setup.

Having recently refreshed its lineup to just two products, Roku now offers the Streaming Stick+ for ultra-high resolution 4K TV owners, and the Roku Express, as reviewed here, which caters for Full HD resolution only.

What sets Roku apart from its peers - such as the Amazon Fire TV/Fire TV Stick - is that the platform is completely open, so has all the major services under one roof (Amazon, Netflix, BBC, et al). Its rivals tend to only have a mixture, rather than all of them.

However, with many TV and set-top boxes nowadays offering many apps and catch-up service pre-installed, is there truly a need for a Roku?

  • 35.5 x 83.8 x 17.8mm; 36 grams
  • Connections: HDMI, mains power 

The Roku Express is tiny. Not quite Roku Streaming Stick tiny, as it doesn't plug directly into an HDMI port to remain out of sight, but it's hardly going to be an eyesore in any room.

On the front there's a straight edge, where you'll find the infrared (IR) receiver, but the device curves off at the back. It's a nice design touch that just about prevents it from being nothing more than a boring little black box. The Roku logo is debossed on the top, too, which adds a point of interest.

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On the bottom there's a strip where you can apply a double-sided sticky sheet, so you can stick the Express to the top or bottom of your TV, if you want. 

When it comes to connections, things are kept simple: there's an HDMI output to deliver content to your TV, plus a Micro-USB port for power. Both cables are included in the box, but they're rather short. Roku says this is deliberate so that if you attach the Express to your TV, you're not left with too much cable hanging down to be tied up. You will also need access to a mains socket for power, although if your TV support it, the Express can be powered by a USB output.

  • Remote control included
  • Requires 2xAAA batteries (included)

Also included in the box is a newly designed remote control. It's chunkier than the version that came with the Roku Streaming Stick and has a new selection of quick-launch buttons for select apps (Netflix, Red Bull TV, Rakuten TV and Yupp TV).

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As with the majority of services available you will need to pay for a subscription - although Freeview channels and BBC channels (assuming you have a UK TV Licence) are free to access.

  • Wi-Fi required for streaming
  • Smartphone/PC access needed for Roku account setup

Roku has always made it easy to get started - and the Roku Express continues that trend. Once you've plugged it in, press any button on the remote to turn it on and it will automatically jump into a setup mode.

All you need to do is enter your Wi-Fi details to connect the Express to your home network. You also need a smartphone or PC nearby so you can go to Roku's website to link the Express to a Roku account.

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Roku also asks you to enter some card details, but don't worry, it won't charge you anything unless you subscribe to various services or specifically purchase content.

Once you've done all that, the Express will automatically add a selection of services/channels, including all the major ones you're likely to use, to your home screen.

  • Netflix, Amazon Video, Now TV, Google Play Movies
  • BBC iPlayer, All 4, ITV Player, My5
  • Collates available content from all services

The Roku interface has remained largely unchanged over the years. On the home screen there are sub-headings for Home, My Feed, Search, Streaming Channels and Settings. It's how some of these different menus work that has changed though.

Home is where you will find quick-access to the most popular apps. All the major players are there, including Netflix, Amazon Video, Now TV, Google Play Movies and the four catch up services for UK terrestrial channels.

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My Feed presents content areas for movies and TV shows, as well as movies coming soon. In movies, Roku will collate a list of flicks available to watch from the various services that it thinks you will like. It's the same for TV shows. Movies coming soon presents a list of films that have been or are currently out in the cinema. You can flag any of them and Roku will let you know when any of them become available on the services/channels you have installed.

Search is a core feature of what has set Roku apart from much of the competition. You can use it to search by movie or TV show title, or even by actor, director and channel name if you happen to know it. A search for people's favourite Tom Hanks will (at the time of writing) reveal 56 results for movies and TV shows that he appears in and that are available through our various sign-up services on the Roku store. As with movies coming soon, you can "follow" and actor, so when new content starring them becomes available the Express will let you know.

When you select a movie, Roku will show you from where it's available. In the instance of Inferno (terrible choice, we know), it can be watched on Now TV with a subscription, or it can be bought on Amazon Video. It's a very clever aggregation tool that helps you decide what to watch depending on what services you're signed up to. Or you might decide not to watch, due to the costs, and move onto the next thing.

This collation of content used to be a "Roku special", but other providers - from Apple to Virgin to Amazon - have caught up in this regard, offering cross-channel/service content search.

Roku Express Interface image 2

You can also change the theme of the interface if you wish. When you first turn the Roku Express on it's set to a default purple theme, but there are a few others to choose from and a store where you can download more. We quite enjoy the Daydream theme. 

  • 720p and 1080p output (no 4K)
  • DTS Digital Surround through HDMI pass-through

Want a smooth experience, then you've come to the right place. The older Streaming Stick was occasionally slow to respond, which caused us to get a little annoyed at times, whereas the Express has upgraded the internals and now boasts five times the processing power.

Roku Express Interface image 3

It's certainly noticeable, as you're able to flick through menus and the store with speed and ease. Apps loads quickly too and, again, navigating through any of them is a cinch.

The Roku Express can output video in 720p and 1080p resolution, which you get depends on the content source and the TV you're watching it on. If you want 4K then you'll need to look to the pricier Streaming Stick+ instead. 

Netflix, for example, supports Full HD 1080p, whereas Now TV only outputs up to 720p. If you're watching 720p content on a 1080p TV, the Roku Express will upscale it.

  • Touchscreen control via smart device
  • Photo, music, video casting
  • Search function, including voice

The Roku remote included with the Express doesn't support voice control, so typing in searches can take some time. Fortunately the companion app - available for iOS and Android devices - can step in for voice-based and quicker keyboard-based search.

The app remote fully mimics the physical remote control, with play/pause button, fast-forward, home and options. Usefully, results show within the app itself, like a mini screen away from the big screen. Once you've selected something to watch, it's ready to watch on the big screen via the cast button in the top of the video app being used. It's not possible to watch content within the app itself.

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Another incredibly useful feature is private listening, which is something that was previously reserved for Roku's more expensive players. This means you can plug some headphones into your phone and activate the private listening mode so that audio from what you're watching is outputted by your phone instead of the TV. Handy if you're watching late at night and don't want to disturb anyone. We even tested this feature with some Lightning headphones with an iPhone and it worked perfectly. Lip sync is highly accurate, although you will need a high-speed Wi-Fi network to make sure it stays this way.

The app can also be used to cast music, photos and videos from your phone to the big screen. We did encounter a few problems with this feature, though, such as videos taking an extremely long time to load and sometimes not loading at all. We couldn't get music from our Apple Music library to play either, despite the Roku app being given permission to access it and display our entire library.

Price when reviewed:
£30

Verdict

Whether or not you need the Roku Express in your life depends entirely on your TV viewing habits, the TV you already own and any other peripherals you may already have attached. If you have a games console, for example, you can get the same major apps through that.

On the other hand, if you only have Netflix on your TV, but you want Amazon Video and Now TV, too, then something like the Roku Express will be the perfect addition.

It's inexpensive and small enough to remain out of sight and out of mind. The vast selection of other channels/services in the store beyond the core important ones may not be relevant to everyone out there, but Roku says a lot of them have a cult following, so it's certainly worth spending some time searching through the store to see if there's anything extra you'd like to try.

If you have a 4K TV, you'll be better off getting something like the Roku Streaming Stick+. It offers all the same functionality as the Express, but adds 4K streaming.

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The Roku's natural competitor is from Amazon. It also includes access to Netflix and the major UK channels, plus the remote has integrated Alexa voice control and search - which will be more appealing to those who perhaps don't own a smartphone.

Read the full article: Fire TV Stick with voice control review