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TV Streaming: How to Find the Right Roku Player

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With the Express, Express 4K, Streaming Stick 4K and the Streambar, Roku offers good products for domestic streaming. But you have to be careful that you buy the right one.

Many (especially older) televisions have a software problem. Leaving aside LG with webOS and Android TV/ Google TV, software on TVs is often an afterthought. Not maintaining the software also means that built-in apps (Netflix, YouTube, etc.) will stop working at a certain point.

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So far, the best solution to this problem has been a Fire TV Stick or similar product with Android TV. Often they have their own advantages and disadvantages . Other providers of streaming services are now also represented in the hardware market. The WaipuTV stick is probably the most well-known representative in Germany.

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However, there is also the grandfather of streaming, who was only active in the USA for a long time and only came to the European market late – Roku. Its hardware not only offers the usual streaming services such as Netflix, Disney +, Prime Video and Apple TV +, but also wants to score points with its software, which is not as overwhelming as, for example, the Fire TV stick or Android TV.

Software – Simple tiles & a very good app

At first glance, Roku’s software interface is a dream. On the left are the menu items: home page, search, streaming channels and settings and on the right are the large tiles with the streaming providers. Everything is self-explanatory, which is especially helpful if you’re buying a stick for people who aren’t that tech-savvy.

But as soon as you right-click to select a streaming service, the whole interface shifts. The tiles for Netflix, Prime Video and Co. move to the left edge of the screen and the advertising is revealed on the right side. These are “posters” for current series on various streaming platforms. 

Stranger Things on Netflix, Lord of the Rings on Prime Video, She-Hulk on Disney+, etc. Depending on which streaming service is trying to promote a series. The advertising is independent of whether you have also subscribed to the streaming service. The positioning isn’t exactly subtle, but as a whole it still beats the FireTV Stick’s cluttered interface.

A real highlight, however, is the Roku app for iOS and Android . At first glance, it does exactly what you expect – it can be used as a second remote control. This makes searching for content much faster than using the virtual keyboard on the TV and the control pad on the remote control. You can also swipe through the app faster and select content (and your own photos, videos, etc.) from there, which is then played on the TV. All normal features as you would expect today, but there’s more.

The Roku app also gives you a second option for the audio output of your series and films – your smartphone and the Bluetooth headphones connected to it. So you can use the app to say that the image signal should be output on the TV, while audio is output via headphones – big picture, private sound. Anyone who has ever wanted to watch an action movie at night while the whole house is asleep will understand what a great feature this is.

Remote control – simply built up, well (enough) processed

All Roku streaming players share the same basic remote control. However, only the two most expensive also have a remote control for operation via voice and buttons for controlling your TV. Voice search works as well as it does on other streaming sticks – so good enough to use.

There are even plus points for the volume rocker and mute buttons, as they are positioned on the side of the remote control. Especially in a dark room, being able to feel these keys blindly is a huge advantage. This is functional design.

The processing quality of the remote control, on the other hand, is only “okay”. Nothing creaks or rattles, but the plastic just feels a bit more premium on the competition. But now we come to the actual streaming sticks and dare to compare them to the competition from Amazon.

Roku Express – Full HD entry

As the cheapest entry, the Roku Express positions itself against the FireTV Stick Lite. Both sticks have the same price at just under 30€. Both are basically targeting the same target group. This means people who are buying a streaming stick for the first time or who want a small software update for their second TV.

The main difference lies in the remote control. The basic Fire TV Stick comes with an Alexa voice remote, while the Roku Express comes without a microphone. But Amazon also has a personal interest in you using Alexa. So this is not a gift. You have to decide for yourself which solution you like better. Personally I prefer not to have a microphone in the bedroom.

You have to live with a few limitations when choosing Roku’s cheapest streaming player. The user experience is not quite as smooth as the more expensive streaming players and the maximum resolution is Full HD (1080p), which is achieved by upscaling to 720p. An infrared remote control is also used. So you can’t install the small box hidden.

Both sticks lack HDR support. In addition, the small stick from Roku only works in the 2.4 GHz network. However, this is also sufficient for the maximum resolution and is only mentioned here for the sake of completeness. The software experience is meanwhile identical to the more expensive brothers, even with the small stick – apart from the performance.

Roku Express 4K – more pixels, same experience

As the name suggests, the Roku Express 4K can now also drive 4K TVs in the native resolution. There is also support for HDR content (HDR10/10+, HLG, but no Doly Vision). Thanks to the built-in dual-band WiFi (2.4 and 5GHz), the WiFi speed also matches the planned resolution.

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Beyond that, the Roku Express 4K is targeting the same audiences as its little brother. Instead of making your old 1080p TV in the guest room/bedroom fit for modern everyday streaming, it is now the old 4K TV that is taken care of.

The actual performance is comparable to the normal Roku Express. There’s still minimal input lag, but it’s perfectly adequate for a second TV that’s only used occasionally. Here, too, there is no voice remote control included in the scope of delivery and I also find that very good here.

With a surcharge of just €40 or €10, it is definitely preferable to the normal Roku Express – if only because it is future-proof. If we take a look at the Fire TV Sticks, it also becomes clear that the Roku Express 4K has the edge. The normal Fire TV Stick (€40) does not support 4K resolution and the Fire TV Stick 4K costs €60 directly. However, both have the advantage that they can also control your TV directly, which in turn makes a remote control superfluous. With Roku, this is only available with the next most expensive stick.

Roku Streaming Stick 4K – The stick you should buy

That brings us to the streaming stick that you should probably buy. In addition to the 4K resolution, the Streaming Stick 4K masters another HDR standard – Dolby Vision. Among the HDR standards, this is the most widespread at the moment.

In addition, we are now also talking about a real stick with a slim design that can easily disappear behind your television. This is particularly important if it is mounted on the wall, for example.

Otherwise you get all the small comfort functions that the Express 4K already offered for just under €60. But now with a hardware button to control the volume on your TV and now also with a voice remote control.

The performance is significantly better, which makes it more convenient to use. Navigating between the tiles just feels smoother. The Roku Streaming Stick 4K is comparable to a Fire TV Stick 4K Max, although the latter is €5 more expensive.

Roku Streambar – if you want sound as well as images

The Streambar is one of those products that made me think: “TV speakers are usually really bad, old TVs don’t have apps (anymore) – why hasn’t anyone had the idea of ​​a soundbar with an integrated streaming stick before to build?”. The answer may be obvious to many of you: It is very likely that the sound would not be good enough or the price would explode.

So Roku’s goal had to be to find a middle ground. The price had to stay well under €200 (you can find the Sonos Ray for €260 online), but it had to sound significantly better than most TVs and offer good streaming performance. Not an easy task, but having had the Roku Streambar on my bedroom TV for three months now, I can say you’ve nailed it.

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The sound does not come close to a Sonos Beam or even Sonos Ray. It wasn’t designed for that. The speakers still sound better than most TV speakers and their positioning even creates a bit of breadth in the sound image. Thanks to support for 4K resolution and HDR (no Dolby Vision), the Roku Streambar is also suitable for breathing new life into older UHD televisions or simply improving the sound in your own living room. At IFA 2022, Roku presented a wireless subwoofer called Wireless Bass, which has not yet been released in Germany.

The Roku Streambar can be connected to your TV either via HDMI-eARC or via optical audio. For the latter, a suitable cable is included in the scope of delivery. I like it when a manufacturer thinks along with you and doesn’t just expect you to already have something lying around at home. For 150€ you get a lot with the Roku Streambar and among all the Roku hardware it is by far my favorite product. Amazon has no comparable device in its range.

Conclusion – good alternative to Fire TV

Many of us have working televisions at home and simply don’t want/need a new television at the moment. The display panels are often still good, even if the software support has long been discontinued. This is exactly where streaming sticks come into play.

All three of Roku’s streaming sticks do the same basic job, but target different audiences. The Roku Express (4K) in particular is really intended for devices that are not used regularly. The performance cuts are simply nothing to be bothered with on a day-to-day basis.

For everyday use I would use the Roku Streaming Stick 4K. It has the most modern technology of all three sticks and the best user experience. This means that the stick may be in use longer than the TV to which it is connected. If you are dissatisfied with the sound of your television at the same time and do not attach great importance to HDR, I highly recommend the Roku Streambar, as it basically fulfills the same functions as the Streaming Stick 4K and at the same time enhances the sound.

Roku also announced a partnership with TCL at IFA 2022. Soon, the in-house operating system will not only be used via additional hardware, but also in TCL televisions ex works. This positions Roku directly against Alphabet/ Google and its Android TV/ Google TV. We’ll see where Roku goes in the future, but the US giant’s debut in Europe is well thought out and should lure some customers away from their Fire TV Sticks.

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A full time tech enthusiast with a passion for writing. Religiously follow everything new happening in the tech world and share my two cents with my audience here.

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