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Review of Roku Stick & Roku Boxes

By Jeremy Evans / August 10, 2017 / Tags: , ,

Roku is the streaming device to beat for cord cutters and cable-holdouts alike.

Roku streaming devices

I’ll get it out of the way upfront–I call it the Roku Rule of Streaming: It doesn’t matter whether you want a stick or a box–the Roku devices are the best streaming devices on the market.

There are a couple exceptions to the Roku Rule, which I’ll highlight in a moment. But first…

Why Roku?

Roku is the king of the streaming device market. The reason for Roku’s dominance is simple: making high quality, affordable streaming devices is all Roku does. Amazon, Apple, and Google, on the other hand, use the streaming device market as another way to sell more of their other products. The Amazon Fire TV devices exist to help Amazon sell Amazon Video and Amazon Prime memberships. Apple TV exists to help Apple sell iTunes content, and other Apple apps. Chromecast exists to help Google sell Android phones and Google Play content. But for Roku, streaming devices are everything. Therefore, Roku lives and dies by its ability to make the best streaming device in the world. And Roku is alive and thriving.

Roku screen

The Roku devices speak for themselves: the Streaming Stick and all the boxes provide access to the best apps, with more variety and high-quality streaming content than any competitors. The Roku devices are all fast, easy to use, and reasonably priced. Plus, Roku’s search capabilities are better than its competitors. Roku queries all the major streaming services at once for each query, and tells you all the different places you can get what you’re looking for with price comparisons. Since Roku is not affiliated with a particular streaming service, Roku doesn’t play favorites. And Roku’s menu interface is the best on the market as well–it’s simple, yet easily customized, so you can organize your channels and apps the way that you want.

Why Roku Might Not Be You

There are some exceptions to the Roku Rule. Roku may not be the best streaming device for you if:

1. You’re a heavy user of Amazon products and services; you’re an Amazon Prime member; or think you might want to join Amazon Prime (which I do recommend). In this case, the Amazon Fire TV or Fire TV Stick are probably better options.

2. You use Kodi to stream TV, or think you might want to start using Kodi. Then you’ll be better off with either the Amazon Fire devices or Nvidia’s Android TV devices. Kodi does not work with Roku.

3. You are obsessed with Apple products and are uncomfortable outside of the Apple ecosystem. Get the (laughably overpriced) Apple TV instead.

If none of these exceptions apply to you, read on. You’re subject to the Roku Rule, and you’ll almost certainly be happiest with a Roku box or stick.

The Two Shapes Of Roku Streamers

Roku has two main categories of streaming devices: box and stick. At this point, most tech writers split their analysis of the Roku Streaming Stick (just a single model) and Roku boxes (several models available) into a bunch of separate articles. That’s not necessary here. The strengths and weaknesses of the Roku brand are the same for both the Roku Stick and any of the boxes.

Should You Get A Roku Stick Or Box?

If you already think you want a Roku device, the next question is whether to get the stick or one of the boxes. First, rest assured the Roku Stick and the boxes have the same content options. You’re probably considering Roku because you want the most content, so know that you’ll get this with either stick or box.

The Roku Stick is for people with basic HDTVs who just want to stream TV and movies from Netflix, Hulu, Sling TV, etc. The Roku Stick is for fast, easy access to a huge variety of content. It costs around $50.

The Roku Stick is NOT for you if you have poor home WiFi. If you have a spotty WiFi network, you’ll want a Roku box so you can connect to the internet via an ethernet port, bypassing your WiFi altogether.

Also, the Roku Stick is NOT for people who want HDR or 4K picture quality. Nor is the Stick for folks who want added features like an enhanced remote control with voice search, headphones for private listening, or the ability to cast files from a computer onto a TV screen.

If you want any of those added features–and if you’re willing to pay for them–go with one of the Roku boxes. These range in price from $60-$100 depending on the model. I’ll describe the particular features of the Roku boxes in a bit. For now, just know the basic differences between the stick and the boxes.

Roku Streaming Stick Review

Roku Streaming Stick Review

If I could only recommend one streaming device right now, it would be the newest model of the Roku Streaming Stick. The Roku Stick is only $50, making it among the most affordable streaming devices you can buy. It is also among the best, regardless of price.

The prior model of the Roku Stick was the best way to try out cutting the cord, mainly because it was simple, and it offered the most affordable way to get a bunch of excellent streaming services. Additionally, the Roku Stick’s minimalist design was uncomplicated and unintimidating. But there was one big problem with the earlier Roku Stick–it was slow, and prone to freezing.

The current version is much quicker. It’s just as fast as the Roku boxes, and it feels as responsive as any other modern streaming device I’ve tried. (And I’ve tried a lot of them.)

Easy, Fast, Flexible, Fully-Loaded

From a marketing standpoint, the simplicity of the Roku Stick is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. I think that while potential customers appreciate the simplicity of this little device, they just can’t believe the small, unimposing stick can deliver such an incredible variety of entertainment. Fortunately, these skeptical consumers are wrong. It’s best not to think of this device as being a “stick.” Rather, think of it as a key that unlocks the door to hundreds of channels and thousands of movies.

The Roku Stick is very easy to set up and use. It doesn’t take more than 5 minutes to unpack it, plug it in to your TV, connect to your WiFi, and start streaming great content. As for your WiFi network connection, the Roku Stick will work on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks without any trouble. The Roku Stick doesn’t support the quickest WiFi networks, but you’re not going to use it for gaming or watching 4k streams, so it doesn’t need to.

Roku streaming stick screen

Roku says the new stick is eight times faster than the previous 2014 model, thanks to an upgraded quad-core processor. As a result, the new Roku Stick launches programs much quicker than the old one. The Stick responds immediately to remote control commands, and it will go through the Roku settings and menus smoothly. In speed tests, the new Stick defeated the Amazon Fire TV Stick handily. In fact, the Roku Stick is just as fast as the Roku 2 Media Box–which is impressive considering that the Stick is about half the price and even less the size.

The Roku Stick’s remote control is a straightforward clicker whose sole purpose is navigating the Roku’s onscreen menu and getting you to the stuff you want to watch. It’s not an infrared remote, so you don’t need to point it at anything–it just operates through your WiFi. If you want more pizazz from your remote control, like voice search, you can control the Roku Stick through your smartphone instead.

Roku Stick Bottom Line

If you want to stream what is far and away the best selection of TV shows and movies for an affordable price–and don’t care about extra features like 4K–you can’t beat the Roku Stick.


Review Of The Roku Boxes
Roku streaming devices content

A Roku box is for someone who wants Roku quality and content, plus has additional requirements beyond those offered by the more affordable Roku Stick.

As stated, people burdened with poor WiFi will want a Roku box over the stick. Roku boxes (except the Premier) have ethernet cable ports, which will allow you to stream directly from your Internet modem to your Roku, bypassing the need for WiFi.

Most people who opt for the boxes, however, do so for the added features. If you want perks like a voice controlled remote, private listening via headphones that plug into the remote, or the ability to cast files from your computer to your TV, you need a box.

So which Roku box should you get? Each has a different price based on the features it brings to the table. Also, Roku has recently introduced a new product lineup with a different naming convention. Keeping up with all the boxes, prices, and features can get unnecessarily overwhelming, so I’m going to streamline the analysis.

Roku 2, Roku 3, Roku 4

Roku 2, 3, and 4 streaming boxes

These are the names of the older models of Roku boxes. I’m referencing them here because they’re still quite popular. You’ll find people talking about Roku 2/3/4 even though Roku doesn’t even sell them on its website anymore.

Roku 2 and Roku 3 are essentially the same product. Other than cost (Roku 2 is about $20 cheaper), the only difference is that Roku 3 has a better remote. Roku 3’s remote has voice control, and a built-in headphone jack so you can enjoy private listening. Neither Roku 2 or 3 has 4K support (this is going to be an important issue in a moment).

The Roku 4 was the first Roku device to support 4K picture quality, with a higher price tag to show for it.

The current Roku boxes (described below) all have 4K support. Each is simply a better version of the Roku 4. As a result, Roku 4 is no longer relevant.

This is not the case with Roku 2 and Roku 3. These boxes are still relevant.

Remember when I wrote that the lack of 4K streaming in Roku 2 and Roku 3 is important? That’s because 4K content (and HDR for that matter) is still pretty rare. There just isn’t that much 4K stuff out there. As a result, many people who want a Roku box will not want to pay extra for content with 4K/HDR resolution–not to mention a 4K TV, which is essential. So many people will prefer a Roku 2 or 3.

So. If you want a Roku box–but you don’t want to pay extra for 4K–you’ll want a Roku 2 (cheaper) or Roku 3 (better remote). Both these models are quite a bit cheaper (in price only) than the boxes in Roku’s new product lineup (below). Roku’s website doesn’t even refer to the Roku 2 or Roku 3 anymore. So if you want to buy one you’ll have to get it from Amazon or another store.

Roku’s New Lineup: Premier, Premier Plus, Ultra

Roku boxes lineup

Each of the Roku boxes in the current product lineup has 4K streaming capabilities. The Roku Ultra has the most features, followed by the Roku Premier Plus, then the Roku Premier.

The table below shows a comparison of the lineup direct from Roku. There’s a lot of information in it, and it’s hard to make sense of it all. So, before you take in the full table, take a look at my condensed list below with the most important features for the Premier Plus and Ultra. (The $80 Roku Premier doesn’t have any of these features. It’s for people who have a 4K TV, but not for those with TVs that allow for both 4K and HDR streaming. As you can see, even if your TV doesn’t have both 4K and HDR streaming, you might still want the extra functionality provided by the Roku Premier Plus.)

Roku Premier Plus ($100) features:
+ Works with BOTH 4K and HDR streams
+ WiFi and Ethernet connectivity (If you have a weak WiFi connection, you will NOT want the Roku Premier, it only allows for a wireless connection.)
+ Private headphone listening
+ Point-anywhere remote (The remote will still control the device even if it’s not aimed at the box. As a result, you can hide the box out of sight, yet still control it.)

Roku Ultra ($130) has all of the above features, plus:
+ Remote control ‘finder function’ so you can find it after you’ve lost it
+ Voice controlled remote, allowing you to search for content by voice
+ USB port so you can play your video/music files from other devices
+ Optical digital audio output (If you already have a sound bar or AV receiver, but it does not support 4K/HDR streaming, this feature will allow you to keep your current equipment so you don’t have to upgrade your audio as well.)

Roku Product Comparison

View larger table

Roku comparison chart

Don’t forget to check out the How-To Videos and User Reviews in the orange tabs above.

These two videos demo the Roku Streaming Stick.

This video discusses Roku boxes.

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