ith so many existing and upcoming streaming services battling it out these days, it makes sense the “Streaming Wars” will drag streaming devices like the Roku Express in as well. And indeed, the Amazon Fire TV, Google Chromecast, Apple TV and Roku, are all trying to be THE streamer for your living room in the UK – and that’s without even mentioning all those “Smart TVs”.
But sometimes, you don’t want the most advanced, complicated and expensive streamer out there. Sometimes you want something that’s simple, but works well – and is easy on your pocket. Maybe it’s your first streaming device, maybe it’s for the guest room in your house, either way – you want something decent and budget-friendly.
And that’s where the Roku Express (get it here) comes in – or at least tries to. It’s a tiny box that connects to your TV with an HDMI cable, it streams in HD, it has an easy to use interface with almost all the major UK streaming services, and the price is pretty good. So, is it the perfect streaming device at this price range?
Not always – and in this Roku Express (2019 Version) review, I’ll explain why.
Roku Express UK (2019) - Quick Look
Who Is It For: People looking for a cheap and easy to use, though somewhat underpowered, HD streaming device
Features And Specs
- Size: 1.5 x 0.75 x 3.0 inches
- Video Quality: Full HD (Up to 1080p)
- Audio: Digital Stereo / DTS Digital Surround, Dolby Audio, Dolby ATMOS – pass through over HDMI
- Processor: Undisclosed
- Storage: None (only for system-use)
- Apps: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, NOW TV, Google Play, Apple TV, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, Demand 5, YouTube and thousands more
- Connections: HDMI (MiniUSB for Power)
- Extra Features: Smartphone app can be used to control the device, and for private listening
A decent HD-only streaming device, with a very smooth and easy to use interface, and almost all the major UK streaming apps (more than any other streamer). The hardware, however, is a bit underpowered, and the price isn’t always low ENOUGH, considering the competition.
Table of Contents
Who Is The Roku Express For?
If you’re not very familiar with the name Roku, it might surprise you to learn that they’re the most popular streaming platform in the US. Yes, more than Amazon Fire TV, more than Apple TV, and more than Samsung’s own Smart TV operating system.
In the UK, however, things have been a bit slow – Roku’s streaming devices were sometimes late to launch here (or not even cross the pond at all), and Amazon’s Fire TV platform became quite dominant. (Although, Roku also powers NOW TV’s streaming devices – so if you have one of those, the interface might look familiar).
Recently, however, it looks like Roku are trying to make a bigger splash in the UK market – and in 2019, updated and localised models of three of Roku’s streaming devices have landed here:
- Roku Express – The cheap, entry-level streaming device.
- Roku Premiere – A tiny, mid-priced 4K streaming box.
- Roku Streaming Stick+ (See our review) – Roku’s premium 4K streaming stick.
In the US, Roku also sells the Roku Ultra, which is an even more powerful (and more expensive) streaming device, but alas, the Ultra never made it to the UK.
Going back to the Roku Express, we call it the 2019 version, to differentiate it from the 2017 Roku Express, which had a different (bigger) form factor, and lower specs.
The Express supports HD streaming (so no 4K), and is certainly under-powered when you compare it to its bigger brothers (or to some of the competition). But is it enough?
It’s All About The Roku OS
Streaming devices these days come in many shapes and sizes – but the main difference between them is the operating system. Some are easier to use than others, and some are so cluttered you might go blind (I’m looking at you, Amazon Fire TV!).
Roku’s interface, however, is a joy to use – and once you go through the initial setup, even your grandmother might be able to handle it.
As a device meant for first-time streamers, however (or perhaps as a second device in the house), Roku Express’ price point and specs are a bit confusing.
Back when the 2017 model launched, a price point of £29.99 was indeed quite cheap for a streaming device. These days, however, this price might be considered mid-level – with so much competition around.
In fact, if you manage to find a good deal, even some of the top-level streaming devices (like the Amazon 4K Fire Stick) reach this price level – or at least very close to it.
So now, an underpowered device that has some occasional connectivity issues (because of its single-band networking support), suddenly feels too expensive at its suggested retail price.
And so, it’s hard to pin-point the Express’ target audience, exactly.
Is The Roku Express Better Than My Smart TV?
In a word – yes. Smart TVs are becoming quite capable, I’ll give them that – and if you bought a TV in recent years, it most likely already has streaming apps.
But Smart TVs are usually painfully slow, their OS is sometimes buggy and doesn’t get updated enough (if at all), and the interface is usually the opposite of user-friendly.
Roku does everything right in that regard – their interface is fast and smooth, it’s easy to use, and it gets constantly updated and supported (which is why you keep getting new apps and channels).
No device is going to be supported forever (and in fact, Netflix recently discontinued support for some very old Roku devices), but it’s almost guaranteed that the Roku Express will get updates longer than your telly.
And due to its size, the Roku Express is quite portable – so you can take it with you when you go on holiday, to use at a hotel or at a relative’s house.
No Direct Tech Support For The Roku Express
This is one of the major downsides of the Roku Express model, and once which isn’t really mentioned anywhere when you buy the device: it’s not eligible for “agent-assisted” direct tech support from the manufacturer.
This means that if you have a technical question or issue, and you try to contact Roku’s support on their website – you’re told you’re not eligible because you bought the Express. (The Roku Premiere and Roku Streaming Stick+ ARE eligible for direct agent support).
Instead, you get sent to Roku’s “Frequently Asked Questions” section, or to the Roku Community Forum, where other members of the public might be able to help you. But because the Roku isn’t as popular in the UK (yet?), most of the issues presented in the forum are US-related, and it’s harder to find answers to UK-specific questions.
So, for example, while testing the Roku Express, I kept having issues with the subtitles on BBC iPlayer – they were out of sync. I never had this problem on other devices, so I assumed this was related directly to the Express (or to the BBC iPlayer app on the Express).
But without direct support – there’s no one to ask, other than – possibly – random people on the forum. (It also seems that Roku’s official representatives on the Roku subreddit sometimes offer direct support even for Roku Express users – but that’s just a workaround).
This is a disappointing aspect of the Roku Express. Especially when you consider that it’s marketed towards “First Time Streamers” – who are the most likely to have technical issues with it.
Granted, some of the competition isn’t any better with this (good luck contacting Google directly for any Chromecast support) – but Roku does offer tech support – just not for the Roku Express.
Setting Up The Roku Express
The first thing you’ll notice when you open the box, is how small the Roku Express is. Remember, this is not a stick – it’s still a box that you need to connect to your TV’s HDMI port with a cable – but it’s a really tiny box.
That might actually be a downside – it’s so small and light, that it’s bound to wobble and move around. And since the remote is IR-based, you have to point it directly at the front of the Roku Express – so if it moves, the remote’s not going to work.
That’s why Roku also gives you an adhesive patch that you can use to stick the Express to your TV cabinet or even to the TV itself. It’s not a perfect solution – but it works.
The back of the Roku Express has only two ports – HDMI and Mini-USB for the power. If your TV has a USB port (most new ones do), you connect it to the Roku Express with the supplied cable, and there’s no need for an additional power supply. Otherwise, you’ll need to connect the Mini-USB cable to a power socket with an adapter (which you don’t get in the box).
When you turn on the Roku for the first time, it will start by looking for a WiFi network. Once you connect it to the internet, it will immediately install software updates.
The next step is to sign-in to your Roku account. If you don’t have one yet, you’ll have to create it on your computer/phone.
It’s important to note that you can’t create a Roku account without supplying Roku with a working credit/debit card number. While this makes future content purchases and subscriptions easier, it might be a hurdle for people who aren’t too keen on giving their payment details before they have had a chance to see what the device does.
Once you sign in, Roku will install and update its “default” channels, such as Netflix, NOW TV, BBC iPlayer and a few others. If you had a Roku device before, the Express will “remember” channels you installed in the past and will install those as well.
And that’s it – you’re now ready to go, and the Roku Homescreen fills your TV screen.
Tinkerers will be glad to know the Homescreen is quite customisable – you can choose a screensaver, and can even change themes, which is something I haven’t seen on other devices:
Using The Roku Express
As I already mentioned, Roku’s interface is a joy to use. It’s really quick (despite the Express’ low-specs), thanks to it being highly optimised. It’s not as fast and instant as some more powerful devices (like the Roku Stick+ or the Fire TV 4K Stick), but unless you put them side by side, you won’t really notice it.
You’ll notice some app screens on the Roku interface have low-quality images and even some pixelisation – I assume that’s done to make the interface feel snappy on this relatively low-powered device. But once you actually stream content, you’ll get Full HD quality without issue.
The main Roku screen is completely under your control. Unlike Amazon, which pushes their own agenda (for lack of a better word) on the Fire TV devices (so Amazon Prime content is always front and centre, for example), Roku doesn’t play favourites – so you can move icons and channels around whichever way you want.
There is, however, an annoying banner that takes half the screen, with content and channel ads.
Once you install a new “channel” (remember, that’s Roku’s term for an app), it will show up at the bottom of the current channels list – and you can then move it to your desired position. There are literally thousands of channels on the Roku Channel Store, both free and paid.
Most channels are for video streaming, but you will also find some games (nothing to write home about), weather apps and even a very basic web browser.
There’s also a big market for “Uncertified Roku Channels” (also known as “Private Channels”), for channels that are either peculiar or sometimes a bit dodgy. There’s no VPN support, unfortunately, so that’s something to consider if a VPN is important to you (for example, to unblock geo-restrictions on Netflix…)
Apps (channels, that is) are sometimes a bit slow to load – which is, again, a sign of the Roku Express being a bit underpowered, but you won’t notice it too much.
Popular services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video work flawlessly, for the most part. The picture quality is excellent (HD only, obviously), and the interface for the apps works just as well as on any other device (even the more expensive ones.)
Global Search And Personal Feed
On the Roku’s Homescreen you’ll also find the “Global Search” option, which lets you search for anything from movie titles to actors to TV show names. The results are taken from the major streaming channels that you have installed, and are sorted according to price.
So if you search for Keanu Reeves, for example, you’ll get a list of all the content with Keanu that’s available on your installed channels. If there are movies you can watch for free (because you have a Netlifx subscription, for example – and the search knows that), these will be on top.
Then you’ll see movies that you can rent/buy – with the cheaper ones first.
The global search is pretty useful, but alas, it only works with the big streaming services (so Netflix, Prime Video, NOW TV, etc’) and doesn’t work with the public British broadcasters’ channels – such as BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, etc’ – so for now, this can’t be used as an alternative to FreeviewPlay’s search functions.
The Homescreen also shows you “My Feed”, which is a place where you can get updates on new movies and TV shows – including ones which you mark in advance. So, let’s say you want to get updates on “The Walking Dead” – you mark it, and will then get an update on the feed each time a new episode is available on one of your streaming services.
The Roku Express Remote
The remote is small and easy to hold and use. Despite being InfraRed based, it works very well – I rarely had to point it directly at the Roku box, since the IR beams bounce off walls (and even off my sofa, somehow).
In the UK, the remote has four shortcut buttons for Netflix, Google Play, Spotify and Rakuten TV (a service that lets you rent movies online) – a bit of an odd selection, so I would say this is one place where Roku DOES play favourites (for monetary reasons, I dare to speculate).
The remote doesn’t have any voice search capabilities, and unlike older models, it also doesn’t have a headphone jack. Instead, these two features were sent to the Roku App on your smartphone.
The Roku Smartphone App
Roku offers apps for both iOS and Android, and these apps complement the device nicely. Once you pair the app with the Roku Express, it can be used as a remote control, but also for voice search and simple voice commands. It’s not as good as Amazon’s Alexa, but it works.
The app also gives you the “Private Listening” feature, and it’s pretty cool – you connect headphones to your phone, and use the Roku app to direct the sound from your TV to the headphones. It works like magic, and despite my worries, I never noticed any lag or lipsync issues.
You can also use the smartphone app to “cast” photos and videos from your phone’s storage to the TV. It sounds good on paper, but it’s a bit lacking – sending photos is painfully slow, and videos are even worse. Plus, for some reason, it can’t handle landscape videos correctly.
Finally, you can use the app as a keyboard for the Roku Express – which is quite handy when you need to manually enter a password, for example. Unfortunately, the keyboard doesn’t always work, and some channels refused to recognise my keystrokes (through the phone), and I had to go back to using the physical remote.
WiFi Connectivity Issues
If I have to choose one major issue I’ve had with the Roku Express, it’s WiFi connectivity, and the problems this causes.
Unlike the more expensive Roku Stick+, which supports dual-band WiFi connectivity, the Roku Express only supports single-band. That in itself shouldn’t be a major issue, but for some reason I kept having some WiFi issues.
I first noticed this with Plex, which is a popular app for streaming video content from your desktop (or other servers on the internet). When I tried to watch Full-HD videos, Plex on the Roku Express was almost unusable – buffering took a few seconds, but would then have to re-buffer every couple of minutes.
Sometimes, playback simply stopped, and I got a Plex notice that my device’s WiFi connection isn’t fast enough to handle the stream – which is something that never happened to me on other modern streaming devices. (And thus the issue isn’t likely with my broadband router, which is close to the TV and is quite fast.)
This also manifested itself on Netflix, occasionally, when the stream’s quality was downgraded for a few seconds as Netflix was trying to keep up with the buffering.
It seems that while the Roku Express’ CPU can handle most of what I throw at it without stuttering to much – it’s the WiFi connectivity that can become a bottleneck. And without any way to connect the Roku Express via Ethernet, this is a pesky issue.
Bottom Line: Is The Roku Express For Me?
The Roku Express is a cheap(ish) and cheerful device, with a smooth interface and (mostly) good performance (other than the WiFi issues).
If you’re looking for a robust streaming device that you will use every day as your main device, you’re probably better off buying something a bit more powerful, and preferably with 4K support (So Roku’s Stick+, for example – or the Amazon Fire TV 4K Stick).
But if you’re still testing the waters with this streaming and cord cutting thing, if you need an additional, simple streaming device for another room in your house – or if you’re looking to buy a gift for a family member who’s still new to all this – the Roku Express is a decent choice.
Note: The Roku Express was supplied by the manufacturer for this review. As always, this did not influence my unbiased opinion of the product.