Review: Roku Express (2017) – A perfect solution for a streaming novice

Smart TV’s don’t exist in every household, with many people still using “dumb” TV’s on a day-to-day basis. Up until fairly recently, to get various streaming services (the likes of Netflix, Amazon Video, Google Movies, Now TV, YouTube etc.) onto the aforementioned “dumb” TV, you would have had to have hooked up a laptop/HTPC (Home¬†Theatre¬†PC) to your TV, or suffer poor performance from the streaming sticks of yore. Roku have a great, budget option for TV’s up to Full HD (1080p) resolution: the Roku Express.

Features

  • 720p/1080p output
  • 802.11 b/g/n compatible
  • Plugs in to any HDMI port
  • MicroUSB powered
  • Extremely simple setup process
  • Applications for every major streaming service and much more
  • Impressive search functionality
  • Control via smartphone app or via physical remote control

Roku Express design & build quality

Roku’s Express doesn’t follow the trend of the HDMI stick concept. Instead, Roku have opted for a small box (1.4″ x 3.3″ x 0.7″/3.6cm x 8.4cm x 1.8cm) which doubles as an IR receiver for the included remote. This isn’t the prettiest form factor, in my opinion, as for the remote to work it requires line of sight and therefore needs to be placed either on the top, bottom or side of your TV.

Roku Express - Rear IO ports

The majority of the Roku Express has a matte black plastic finish, with the front-side being constructed of a clear/glossy plastic finish, due to the fact that this area contains the IR receiver.

Moving on to the remote, once again the design is fairly simplistic. Constructed wholly out of plastic and powered by two AAA batteries, the remote is lightweight, fairly well balanced and not awful to look at. You have your basic navigation arrows, along with standard play/pause, fast forwards, rewind, back, home and settings. The most noticeable buttons, however, are the four quick launch buttons located at the bottom of the remote. Roku have included a button for Netflix, Redbull TV, Rakuten TV and Yupp TV on the remote. Unfortunately, these are not programmable so you’ll be stuck with these.

Setup, software and usability

Setup

Setting up a new Roku unit is an extremely straight forward affair. Roku have either an extremely simple 6 step Quick Guide, or a video on YouTube that you can follow along with. To give you an idea of how simple the setup process is though, it’s as simple as:

  1. Connect the Roku Express unit to your TV via a HDMI cable
  2. Connect the Roku Express unit to power (it’s advised to connect up to a plug socket, rather than a TV USB port)
  3. Make sure you position your Roku unit so that it will be able to receive the remote’s IR signal
  4. Power on your Roku and TV and switch to the correct HDMI input and stick some batteries in your Roku remote
  5. Follow the on-screen instructions to connect your Roku unit to your Wi-Fi network
  6. If you don’t have one already, setup a Roku account. If you do, just sign in using your existing details!
  7. Activate your Roku unit by typing in the link shown on your screen into a web browser
  8. Start streaming!!!

Performance

Overall, the Roku Express performs really well! Navigation is snappy and application launch speed is generally quite fast – especially for the mainstream services such as YouTube and Netflix – all thanks to the new quad core processor, that is apparently 5 x faster than the previous generation Express.

The only area in which the Roku Express is slow is the time that it takes the unit to power on/boot up. This isn’t going to be an issue if you’re powering the unit via a plug socket, but if you’re planning on using your TV’s USB port and your TV doesn’t provide power when turned off – expect a couple of minutes of waiting for the Roku Express to boot up.

Roku Express - Home Screen
Roku Express – Home Screen

Streaming performance is quick – during my usage, I’ve had absolutely no buffering issues and streams start up almost as soon as you click on them. Even if I move the Roku to the furthest corners of my house, I still find that streaming is stable and quick! One thing to bear in mind that the Roku Express can only connect to Wi-Fi that’s broadcasting on the 2.4GHz frequency.

Mobile app

Roku’s inclusion of a mobile app (iOS/Android) allows you to control your Roku Express without needing to touch the included remote is a welcome feature. As long as your phone is on the same wireless network as your Express, you can control all of the available Express functions via the mobile app. The app is very easy to use and any input is reflected on your Roku device immediately, with no significant/noticeable delay.

The mobile application can also make certain tasks much easier, such as logging into services. Rather than having to use the on-TV keyboard letter by letter, you can use your tablet/mobile device’s keyboard which generally provides a much easier method of inputting email addresses and passwords. However, it seems not all of the services support this method of input (such as Now TV) which is slightly annoying.

There were, however, a few minor things I found annoying about the app – but I’ll mention this in a moment.

Stand out features

Search

One of the features I was most impressed with on my Roku Express was the¬†extremely powerful search. Roku have built a search that allows you to search for actors, movies, TV shows, directors, services/”channels”. This is accessible via the Roku Express itself, or via the included mobile app. The mobile app takes things one step further as well, by allowing contextual voice search, such as “show me TV shows starring Matt Bomer” – and a list will appear.

Roku Express - Search

The search gives you a breakdown of ratings, descriptions and links to your activated services to watch whatever you’ve just searched for.

Screensavers and themes

Roku allow you to fully customize your Roku interface, with downloadable screensavers¬†and custom themes. Whilst not ground breaking functionality, it’s nice to be able to personalize your viewing experience, especially if this device is going to be your primary source of content consumption!

350,000+ “channels”

Perhaps the most significant “feature” is the sheer volume of services that are supported by Roku. You can find almost any “channel”, from the major players such as Amazon Video, Netflix, YouTube, BBC iPlayer all the way to smaller, niche providers. No matter what you’re looking for, chances are you can watch it via your Roku device!

Roku Express vs Google Chromecast

I’ve used a Google Chromecast for some time now (you can find my 2nd Gen Chromecast review here) and it had suited my requirements for some time – I didn’t need listed streaming services as I was using a Smart TV so had all of the apps I needed, I just wanted to be able to stream from my device on demand.

However when I installed a TV in my bedroom that doesn’t have “smart” features, a Chromecast didn’t quite fit the bill as it didn’t support all of the streaming services I used at the time. The Roku Express, however, has almost all available streaming services available for install! Not only that, but you can also just click and play, rather than having to stream from your phone.

In reality, the primary difference between the Roku Express and Google Chromecast in my experience is simply the device UI. The Roku Express is more geared towards and end-to-end, full streaming setup thanks to the 350,000 dedicated streaming services/applications you can choose from, whereas the Chromecast is more geared towards individual content streaming (such as streaming photos from your device, or¬†a video from YouTube/Netflix/Google Movies) rather than a full-fledged streaming solution. The other major difference is Roku’s inclusion of a remote control, untethering you from your mobile device.

Issues I’ve had

At first, I setup my Roku device on my main living room TV. Shortly after setup, I moved the Roku up stairs to my bedroom, however I noticed that when casting from apps like YouTube, the Roku Express was still displaying as “Front Room” as I had originally set it up. So off I went into the settings menu to try and change the device name – lo and behold I found this wasn’t possible! As it turns out, the only way to rename the device is to do so via your Roku account, then restarting the device. To make matters slightly more annoying, this can’t be done via the mobile application either! You have to log on to your account via a web browser.

As I noted further up the page, the quick launch buttons on the included remote are not re-programmable at all – at best I’ll use one of these buttons (Netflix in my case). I’d like to see Roku release a remote with programmable buttons, instead of presets.

One minor thing that annoyed me from time to time is that, in order to get to the main Roku Express settings menu, you first have to exit out of whatever you have open, to the device home screen first. This may be due to the fact that some apps have bespoke in-app settings screens and whilst it’s not a major issue, it seems like an unnecessary set of extra steps to me that could be handled better.

I didn’t use the app a huge amount, but when I did I found that the “What’s On” screen seemed to show content from loads of different services, even some I have never used before. In some cases, this lead to me clicking into a movie/TV show and finding either I couldn’t stream it via one of my standard set of services, or that it was also available from one of my services but at an extra cost (such as everything that’s non-original content on Amazon Video).

Whilst not actually an “issue”, I did just want to note that the Roku UI is relatively dated when compared to modern devices designs. If you compare the Roku UI with the like of Amazon’s FireStick, or Google’s Chromecast or the Apple TV (yes I know, drastically different price points) – Roku’s design is noticeably less modern.

Summary

Overall, I’ve enjoyed using the Roku Express. It’s an extremely powerful, simple to use streaming solution for TV’s that have up to a 1080p (Full HD) resolution. To get setup, you don’t need extensive technical experience or fancy setup processes (such as scanning QR codes). Streaming quality is above average and I had no buffering issues when connected up to my NETGEAR router.

Whilst the Express could do with a software overhaul/redesign, this shouldn’t be considered a blocker as the device is still really easy to use.

I love that Roku included a remote control, however I’d like to see Roku move away from IR in future generations, to avoid needing line-of-sight. This would then mean you don’t have to stick a little black box to the side of your TV – which let’s be honest, isn’t pretty.

The Roku Express undercuts all of it’s competitors in terms of price and whilst some trade-offs may have been made to achieve this price point, the Express is by no means a bad product. If you’re looking for cheap and cheerful, the Roku Express is great! If you’re looking for 4K or sleek, modern design… you need to be looking at a higher price point than ¬£30/$30 (currently: ¬£29.99).

Useful links

Roku’s website:¬†https://www.roku.com/

Roku Express product page:https://www.roku.com/products/roku-express

Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Roku-Express-Streaming-Player-Black/dp/B076F7D71R/

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Roku-Express-more-powerful-Streaming/dp/B075XN1NZC/

Disclaimer

Please note: I was sent a Roku Express unit exchange for an honest and unbiased review. This review is 100% honest and the fact that the product was sent to me has not influenced or swayed any of my opinions or findings.

I have worked with many companies previously (both large and small) and the first thing I mention to any company requesting a review is that anything I find will be noted in my review, whether it be positive and negative.

Will Stocks

As a career "IT person" and technology enthusiast, I've been around technology for over 8 years now. From enterprise-grade hardware to consumer equipment, IT Support to Systems Administrator - I'm passionate about all forms of tech, learning how it works, integrates and the scenarios in which different people would use them. I started willstocks.co.uk in 2017 and have also contributed to other websites around the Internet.

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