These days, if you want to take your entertainment a notch higher, you need to get yourself a media streaming stick. With a streaming media device, you can just plug it to your TV and you can watch your favorite TV shows, movies, and even browse the web.
When it comes to the brands of media streaming sticks that are available today, Roku is one of the most popular out there.
Today, we’re going to take a look at the ultra-affordable full HD streaming device, Roku Express. Is this budget streaming stick a good addition to Roku’s lineup? Or is this another case of “getting what you pay for?”
Let’s find out!
Technical Specs and Features
Before we proceed, let’s take a look at the technical specs and features of the Roku Express:
802.11 (b/g/n compatible) with WEP, WPA, and WPA2 support
Up-scaling 720p to 1080p on HD TVs
Digital stereo over HDMI®, DTS Digital Surround™ pass through over HDMI®
Less than 2.2W (typical) when streaming
5V – 1A
1.4 x 3.3 x 0.7 inches
Out of the Box
Although it’s supposedly an updated device, Roku didn’t make any changes to the packaging of the Express or any included accessories.
Once I got my hands on the Express, I was quite surprised by its size. The whole streaming stick is about as long as an index finger and about twice as thick. I was expecting it to be small but not this small. In fact, the included remote is larger than the Express itself. On a side note, the Express feels like the Joy-Con of the Nintendo Switch, minus the buttons.
While I am all for miniaturizing everything under the sun, the Roku’s small size and weight resulted in a slight annoyance. The Express is so light that I had to fidget and adjust the HDMI cable just to make sure that the device stays flat on a surface. Why is this necessary? I had to make the adjustments to make sure the device gets the optimal signal reception from the remote.
The Roku comes with an adhesive for affixing the device to the corner of your TV. However, I opted not to tape the Express because I like to keep my TV’s straight lines. At this point, I would prefer a streaming device like Chromecast that simply plugs behind the TV and out of sight.
The remote control is similar to the previous remotes you’ll find with any Roku package. You can find dedicated buttons for popular streaming devices like Netflix, Hulu, Sling TV, and Amazon Video. The remote’s layout is fairly basic with Home and Back buttons for navigation.
With such a slim device, there’s not much to expect from the Express when it comes to ports.
The only ports of the Roku Express are HDMI and microUSB 2.0. The USB port is used for drawing power from the television or you can use the included adapter. So this means that you have no access to Ethernet connectivity for a more stable connection and no VGA cables that you can use for other TVs. This issue is not worth raising if not for the fact that the $40 Roku Express+ included the VGA cables.
The Express’ wireless connectivity leaves much to be desired as it only comes with 802.11 connectivity. In comparison, the Roku stick features a faster dual-band 802.11ac chip.
Despite the underwhelming ports, the Express didn’t display any significant lag or slowdown in my setup. I do have a Comcast 100Mbps high-speed wireless connection and the router is fairly close to the TV.
Like with most media streaming sticks, the Express is a breeze to set up. Getting the device up and running is as simple as plugging it into the TV and following the on-screen instructions. The steps will guide you through connecting the Express to the Wi-Fi network and check for any available firmware updates.
- 1Power up your Roku device
- 2Plug into your TV
- 3Connect the Roku device to the internet
- 4Create a Roku account and activate your device
- 5Happy streaming!
At first, you’ll notice that the setup screen looks blurry, which is not a cause for concern. The device will run at 720p until after it checks your display and connection, and optimizes itself. During setup, my Express switched to 1080p automatically but if your connection is not as fast, you will have to settle with Roku’s recommendation. As mentioned, there’s no option to directly connect the Express via Ethernet.
After the initial setup is completed, you will be asked to register the device via Roku’s website. From here, you can download the six services that you want to have on your device. You can always add more apps later if you want. The app selection is quite extensive but still pales in comparison to what you can find on Amazon’s app store.
Unlike Amazon’s full-screen approach to the interface, Roku’s interface is far simpler.
From the left, you can eye a short on-screen menu and on the right, you can see the square thumbnails of the app library. I’ve always liked the playful purple background and you can drag-and-drop the homescreen icons to keep your favorites easily accessible.
Moving across the menu is how you access the apps and you will frequently see adverts from streaming services on the left of the screen. These adverts are supposedly catered to the user’s preference. Fortunately, there’s a way to stop Roku from showing these personalized adverts through the settings.
The Express’ interface is far from the most elegant I’ve seen but it’s clean, clear, and easy to navigate. However, many of the apps have a dated interface (I’m looking at you, Spotify and Amazon) that just pales in comparison to other streaming apps.
Performance and Features
As you might have concluded by now, the Express isn’t packing much power under the hood – at least, not when compared to other Roku products. The latest Express performs noticeably faster than its predecessor, with faster load times and an overall smoother browsing experience.
While the improvement is quite significant, it still falls short when compared to other competing products. The new Express has a bit of an input lag, which is more obvious when you’re using the analog search keyboard. Overall, scrolling lag has been minimized a lot with the new version of Express.
However, when you compare the loading and buffering times to pricier sticks, the Express still clearly lags behind. However, I won’t say that the device is downright sluggish. For a device, the performance is definitely serviceable.
In terms of picture quality, the Express doesn’t disappoint with its vibrant, sharp, and stable 1080p over wireless streaming. So far, I’ve yet to experience a drop in resolution or mid-watch buffering during our tests.
The included remote also does a great job for basic navigation. However, I’d also suggest that you get the Roku app to access more advanced functions. The app makes it more enjoyable to browse the Roku’s “My Feed” section and it even offers basic voice search. It’s not as intelligent as Amazon’s Alexa, but it’s definitely a nice feature to have.
Another interesting feature is the “private listening” mode which basically allows you to pull the audio from the TV into a pair of headphones. For this, we used a Bluetooth headset and experienced some syncing issues.
Overall, the Express works great. It’s not the fastest streaming media stick available, but it gets the job done reliably and offers plenty of features.
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On Amazon, the Roku Express is one of the cheapest media streaming devices that you can get in the market. For such a low price, you get a streaming device that works great and features the amazing and reliable Roku platform.
In comparison, the Google Chromecast is priced at $$ while the Amazon Fire Stick TV is available for around $$$. The Express is easily the most affordable option for streaming your favorite TV shows and movies.
The affordable price does come with several caveats like the lack of support for the less crowded 5GHz Wi-Fi networks and the lack of ports. The interface of many apps also look fairly dated on the Express.
The Express is far from perfect and is severely underpowered. However, if you don’t mind streaming in 1080p at best, the Express offers an amazing value.
Alternative Competing Products
If the Roku Express doesn’t exactly float your boat, there are similar streaming devices that you can consider within the same price range.
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The Chromecast is one of the most popular streaming dongles in the market, and for good reason.
For, Chromecast offers amazing value as it delivers 1080p streaming and now supports all your wireless networks, including the Wi-Fi 802.11ac. So this gives the Chromecast an edge over the Express.
With the enhanced Wi-Fi support, the Chromecast can now use the newer, more stable 5GHz frequency. The old model only supports the 2.4GHz frequency, which is why streaming can become choppy at times.
If you are still using the 1st-generation Chromecast, then you can probably skip the newer version. However, if you’re in the market for a new streaming dongle, the Chromecast is definitely worth a look.
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Amazon has also updated its popular Fire TV Stick, which is the company’s entry into the budget-friendly video streaming market.
Like the Chromecast, the Fire TV Stick now supports up to 802.11ac Wi-Fi for a faster and more stable streaming experience. With the Stick, you can straight up stream from Amazon Video or you can launch an app like Netflix and use its interface to watch your TV shows and movies. It’s also worth noting that the Stick now has a welcome boost of power with its quad-core CPU.
You also have access to hundreds of apps and games, thanks to Amazon’s amazing library. Like the Chromecast and Express, the Fire TV can stream Full HD 1080p videos. Plus, you also get to use the Alexa voice control feature, which is a great way to navigate content.
It’s more expensive than Express or Chromecast but it does offer more in terms of features and is more powerful.
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If you have an older television that uses a composite cable, the Roku Express+ is the only way to add apps like Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and more to your old TV.
However, if your TV does have an HDMI port, then it’s unnecessary to get a Roku Express+. For the most part, the Plus works exactly like the Express as it can stream up to 1080p resolutions and only compatible with 802.11 (b/g/n compatible) Wi-Fi networks.
For more or less $40, the Roku Express+ is great for resurrecting older TVs over at grandma’s. Otherwise, I recommend that you get the regular Express stick instead if you have a newer TV model.
Should You Go Express?
The Roku Express current model is the best version yet.
Last year’s Express did come with some serious performance issues, despite the amazing price point. Roku did a good job of smoothing out the issues to give way to a more enjoyable experience. However, it still lags behind its pricier competitors in terms of performance.
For $, it’s hard to deny the value that the Express offers. It comes with an extensive selection of apps, a simple and clean interface, and a neutral outlook. It also offers more features that can easily challenge Google and Amazon’s offerings.