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What's the best Roku streaming player? We tested them to bring you our top 4
Roku is a household name in the streaming player game. The dongle-based devices turn your TV into a smart TV, with all kinds of great features. So, once you’ve decided to get a Roku device, what should you be looking for? You might be tempted to assume that any Roku will do and just go with the cheapest option. They’re all Rokus, after all, right? Well, yes and no. Each device does have its own particular strong points, and those come at different prices, so think about what you really need.
Some of your key considerations when comparing Roku players are:
- Image resolution
With all of that in mind, we tested all Roku devices to highlight some of their best features. Below, you’ll find our top pick along with three other contenders worth a look.
Roku Express 4K Plus packs a punch at an affordable price
Roku Express has been a go-to budget streaming device for a while, but the Roku Express 4K Plus option gives you a bit more bang for your buck, albeit at a slightly higher price point. We think it’s worth the extra cash though, since it elevates the Express model to 4K, letting you have top-quality image resolution while you stream at an affordable price. You’re having your cake and eating it too.
So, what does that look like in practice?
When we plugged in the Roku Express 4K Plus, we immediately saw the benefits of a top-tier streaming device, all in a small, portable package. The fob is just a touch bigger than the classic Express, so it’s equally easy to take with you if you’re going on vacation or tend to travel for work and want your familiar streaming experience wherever you go.
Portability and affordability don't have to come with the pitfalls of a budget device.
We were able to open everything quickly and get right to streaming. It’s not the fastest streaming device on the market, so comparatively, there is a lag, but it’s barely noticeable to the average consumer. We were happy with it. It’s not designed to play games, and so you may run into more disruptive lags if you try to use it that way, so be warned if that’s what you’re in the market for.
You won’t get Dolby Vision or Dolby Atmos with the Express 4K Plus, but that’s the price you pay for, well, the price you pay. It’s a budget streamer that plays in the big leagues, and that does mean a few dropped features. In our testing the picture looked great, though, holding its own against much more expensive options. You’ll get the full benefit of 4K streaming, as long as your TV can keep up.
The Roku experience is, as always, very streamlined and user-friendly with the Roku Express 4K Plus. Roku has the simplest UI around, which admittedly may not be for everyone, but we appreciate its simplicity. It’s certainly not as sleek as Google, Apple, or Amazon’s interfaces, so be warned. But it is easy to learn and navigate, and that means you can jump to the content you’re looking for in an intuitive way.
That feature is also great for kids. We found that they can use the device on their own without needing too much help, and you get to retain some control. The whole experience can be stripped down to just two or three apps that you want your kids to use, and then they can safely use it on their own. There’s no clutter from other apps you don’t want them using, and that gives you some control over what they end up watching too.
Your Roku remote is also a great way to cut down on clutter. The simple, small controller can be used to power up your TV and adjust volume and other basic functions, on top of navigating the Roku menu. It’s pretty bare-bones, but we found that it gets the job done well. And while the remote itself is pretty small, the Roku “find my remote” feature means you’re not likely to lose it. The function is simple, and the sound that comes out of your remote makes it quick and easy to locate to get back to whatever you want to watch.
And the Roku Express 4K Plus works smoothly with all the popular voice assistants, so you can speak your commands aloud and trust that your device will listen.
What makes it stand out?
- Portability: You can unplug it and take it with you on trips easily.
- Affordability: It’s not as cheap as the classic Roku Express, but it’s still a pretty thrifty option at $54.99.
- 4K image: A lot of streamers offer 4K resolution, and with this device, you’ll get to enjoy that crisp image quality at its fullest.
The best of the rest: 3 more Roku streaming devices to check out
We recommend the Roku Express 4K Plus as an all-around top-notch device that balances quality and value. It’s hardly the only choice though. If you’re looking for speed and power, on the one hand, or the lowest price possible, on the other, you’ll likely want to look a little further. That’s why we’ve got three more models to recommend.
- Roku Ultra: The top-of-the-line Roku streaming device has all the bells and whistles, but it does come at a premium.
- Roku Streaming Stick 4K Plus: Similar to the Express 4K but with just a bit more speed, albeit at a higher price.
- Roku Express: Roku’s most affordable streamer, but it drops 4K support and includes a more basic remote.
Roku Ultra is a solid top-of-the-line device in the Roku family
So, what if you have a bigger budget and want a bit more oomph in your Roku device? We think that the Roku Ultra can let you enjoy all the same features as the Express 4K Plus, but with a few added bells and whistles.
A big winner here is image quality. The Roku Ultra supports Full HD, 4K UHD, and Dolby Vision HDR streaming — the Express 4K Plus had to do away with the Dolby format. If you have a good TV and you want to make sure you’re using it to its full potential, this is a sweet choice. In our testing, we found that the boosted streaming quality shows.
More than that, we noticed with the Ultra that those short waits for apps to load are reduced significantly. What you lose in portability with the bigger Roku box, you more than make up for in speed and memory.
It’s also just more adaptable to your needs. The remote control has extra features, like dedicated shortcut buttons to your favorite apps, along with an earphone jack to let you watch your favorite shows and movies without bothering anyone in your household. The shortcuts are nice to have, but the earphones are a feature that we wish came with every streaming device. By plugging into the remote, you don’t have to mess with Bluetooth, and you get crisp sound in a portable format. We loved the convenience, and you will too.
Lastly, that extra space on the device itself can be put to great use. This is the only Roku device with an Ethernet port and storage expansion options through a microSD card slot or full-size USB port.
At $99.99, you’re certainly paying a hefty sum for what you get, but this is Roku’s fastest and most powerful player, and there’s just no skimping for that.
What makes it stand out?
- Performance: If you want speed and image quality, this is the best it gets from Roku.
- Convenience: With shortcut buttons and fast loading times, you can get right to what you want almost immediately.
- Dependable Roku interface: If you like the clean, easy-to-use Roku UI, this is the way to get it in a premium package.
Roku Streaming Stick 4K Plus
The Roku Streaming Stick 4K Plus has a lot in common with the Express 4K Plus, and it’s actually a slightly better device, but at an additional cost, we can’t quite justify it as our top pick, so here it is, among other strong contenders.
The main upgrade here is that the device supports up to 4K video content with a compatible TV, but you also get HDR 10, HDR 10+, and Dolby Vision, unlike the more bare-bones (but still 4K) Express 4K Plus. If you’re looking for a more complete home theater experience, we think this alone makes it worth the premium over the Express 4K Plus.
It also comes with the Voice Remote Pro, which is rechargeable and offers extra buttons and the “find my remote” feature, so that’s some added value, certainly, if you like a good one-stop remote for all your streaming controls. A more bare-bones remote comes with the almost identical non-Plus Roku Streaming Stick 4K if you want something in between the Express 4K Plus and the Streaming Stick 4K Plus.
You’re certainly paying for all of those features. It’s still much cheaper than the Ultra, though, so the Streaming Stick 4K Plus is a great in-between device if the Express Plus isn’t quite meeting your needs.
What makes it stand out?
- Portable: The streaming stick is barely bigger than a thumb drive and easy to take with you on the go.
- Affordable: A little north of the Express 4K Plus, this is still a pretty reasonable option.
- Powerful: The extra cost does mean this is a faster, more powerful device, which could give it the edge if that’s what you’re after.
The Roku Express is the most affordable streamer
Our top pick is affordable, but if budget is your top concern, you can do even better with the Roku Express, the cheapest Roku option to meet your streaming needs.
This is not a luxury streaming option, and there’s no getting around that. You’ll have the bare-bones Roku remote, and while your picture quality will reach HD, that’s as high as it goes. No 4K or specialty video formats. It’s not a bad image, but on a 4K compatible TV, we certainly notice the difference between this and, say, our favorite 4K blu-rays. Plenty of folks don’t care and don’t even have 4K TVs, so that’s not a deal-breaker for a lot of users. If that’s you, then you might as well save the money.
On the plus side, you still get the Roku UI, which is very child-friendly, easy to use, and makes jumping through your streaming apps easy as pie. For $39.99, it represents a huge savings, on all of the other options, and you’re getting the Roku experience.
What makes it stand out?
- Affordability: This is as cheap as it gets in the Roku family!
- Portable: Even smaller than the Express 4K, the Express is incredibly easy to carry around with you.
- Roku UI: The lower price doesn’t take away from the easy-to-use Roku interface.
You may want to check out a Roku Smart TV too
If you’re in the market for a new TV, you may want to bypass getting a streaming device and go straight for a Roku smart TV.
The advantage here is that you’ll get to bypass the Roku dongle or plug-in box and instead just enjoy the benefits of Roku built right into the TV itself. That will lock you in, to some degree, but if you’re sold on Roku, you might as well. We like the streamlined experience of dealing with just the one device, not to mention using just one remote.
If you want a pretty basic model with 4K capability, the Hisense R8F Roku TV is a great choice. It’s budget-friendly at about $500. You can save even more with the TCL 5-Series Roku TV, without sacrificing too much quality. For higher performance, the TCL 6-Series Roku TV is a great bet, though it’ll add a couple hundred dollars to the price tag.
What to look for in a good Roku device
What to look for in a Roku streaming device will vary from person to person. We all want different things when streaming, and luckily, Roku devices vary enough to offer something for just about everyone.
Here are just a few key considerations:
- Price: If you’re on a budget, you’ll want to compare features on the cheaper Rokus like the Express.
- Picture quality: If you don’t have a 4K TV, there’s no use blowing money on a 4K device. But if you want 4K or Dolby picture formats to make the most of your screen, be mindful of what each Roku brings to the table.
- Speed: Are you looking to streamline your, er, streaming? A faster, more powerful device will cut down loading times.
- Portability: This one’s self-explanatory. Do you need something small enough to fit in your pocket when you’re on the go?
- Extra features: If you want ethernet or USB ports, a good remote control, earphone jacks, or other specific special features, read the fine print. Roku devices don’t all come equipped with the same stuff.
Yes. You’ll connect your Roku device to your home Wi-Fi (or optionally ethernet if you have the Roku Ultra). Roku connects you to web-based services, effectively turning your TV into a smart TV. It won’t be much use without internet, and there’s no built-in storage for downloading content.
Yes, many Roku devices, including our top pick as well as Roku smart TVs, are available in 4K.
No. You can get a Roku smart TV, but Roku devices plug into regular TVs and use your home internet to connect you to your favorite streaming services. If you have a smart TV, you can still get a Roku device, but it’s not a prerequisite.