Which Roku streamer should you buy?

Need help choosing between the Roku Streaming Stick, Roku 1, Roku 2 and Roku 3? This guide lays out the pros and cons of each device, so you can decide which is the best for your needs.

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Jason Jenkins/CNET

Tech giants like Google, Amazon, and Apple all have their own compelling living room devices, but Roku remains my favorite overall streaming platform. Note that none of these products are available directly within Australia, but can, in some cases, be shipped from international vendors.

Roku has far more apps (1,200+) than any other streaming device, including all the important ones like Netflix, HBO Go, Amazon Instant, YouTube, Pandora, Hulu Plus, MLB.TV, Vudu, Showtime Anytime -- the list goes on. The user interface is dead simple, plus there's universal search that combs through all the major services to find where the content you want is available. And the fact that Roku isn't owned by one of the tech titans is sometimes actually an advantage, since there's no incentive for Roku favor its own media services over others.

If you're settled on Roku, you still need to figure out which of the company's four mainstream streamers is right for you. This guide is for anyone's that already sold on the Roku platform; if you need more general advice picking a media streamer, see CNET's list of best media streamers or read our specs-based comparison of the Amazon Fire TV vs. Chromecast vs. Roku vs. Apple TV.

Roku 3: The best overall choice

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The Roku 3 ($100, £80) is the flagship model and it's been my favorite media streaming device since it was released in March of 2013.

It's main advantage over other Roku boxes is speed. It loads apps faster and zipping around menus feels effortless, which makes you a lot more likely to use features like universal search. The Roku 3 also maintains its zippiness with the latest, fanciest versions of the Netflix and YouTube apps, which can slow other Roku streamers down to a crawl. And those new apps also let you "cast" directly from Netflix and YouTube apps on your mobile device, similar to the functionality offered on Google's Chromecast.

Roku 3 remote with earbuds
Sarah Tew/CNET

The other big plus about the Roku 3 is its remote includes a built-in headphone jack. That lets you listen to whatever's streaming without disturbing anyone else in the room, which is perfect late night listening sessions or simply keeping the peace with roommates. The only other Roku box with this features is the Roku 2, but that box lacks the speed and other extras of the Roku 3.

The Roku 3's other features are nice, but not essential. There's a USB port, which can be used for playing back music, videos and photos from an attached drive. The SD card slot can be used to install more apps if you run out of internal memory, although I've never needed extra space. The neat remote also has motion control and gaming capabilities, but there really aren't compelling applications for either. And there's an Ethernet port, if the dual-band wireless isn't reliable enough for you.

The biggest downside is its cost; entry-level boxes like the Streaming Stick and Roku 1 get you the vast majority of the benefits of the Roku platform at half the price. But I think most buyers, especially heavy streamers, would be wise to pay the extra for the Roku 3's bells-and-whistles. The most compelling endorsement I can give is that I bought a Roku 3 the day I published my review, and it's held up exceptionally well in over a year of near-daily use.

Read the full Roku 3 review.

Roku Streaming Stick: Value packed, but a little slow

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The best reason to go with the Streaming Stick ($50, £50) are its size and the price.

The Streaming Stick manages to squeeze the entire Roku experience into a compact device that lives behind your TV. It works with any TV that has an HDMI port and the included remote works via Wi-Fi Direct, rather than IR, so it still works even when the Streaming Stick is hidden behind your TV.

It all sounds nearly perfect, but the big catch is the Stick can be surprisingly slow to boot up Netflix and YouTube, especially compared to the speedy Roku 3. It would be easy to overlook if the sluggishness if it were any other app, but Netflix remains the most important streaming service by far.

There are some other small drawbacks. The remote's reliance on Wi-Fi Direct means it won't work well with traditional, IR-based remotes, like the Harmony 650. And note that if you use your TV's USB port for power, the Streaming Stick will need to completely boot-up each time you turn your TV on, which can take a while.

None of that is enough to sink the Streaming Stick -- for its price, you're getting a ton of value and it's still a better value than the $35 (£30) Chromecast in my book. Just be aware that it's a noticeable step-down from the Roku 3 experience.

Read the full Roku Streaming Stick (HDMI Version) review.

Roku 2: Remote with a headphone jack on a budget

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The Roku 2 ($70, £60) is all about getting the cool remote with a headphone jack without paying the full price of the Roku 3.

What are you giving up? For the most part, it's the extras you don't need; there's no USB port, SD card slot, Ethernet jack, motion control or gaming functionality. And on the plus side, you're gaining analog video output jacks, it will work even with older TVs.

But the biggest drawback, again, is speed. The Roku 2 just doesn't feel as responsive when navigating through menus, especially when using cross-platform search. The speed isn't as much of a problem when using Netflix, like it is on the Streaming Stick, but that's because the Roku 2 uses an an older version of the interface, which not only looks a little outdated, but also means you can't use "cast"-style control with Netflix.

Still, if you really want that remote with a headphone jack and you're on a tight budget, the Roku 2 is a great little box.

Read our Roku 2 mini-review.

Roku 1: Cheap and straightforward

Roku 1
Sarah Tew/CNET

If you only want to spend less on a streaming box and don't want to deal with the quirks of the Streaming Stick, the Roku 1 ($50, £40) is your box.

It offers the full Roku platform with nearly all the extras stripped away: no headphone jack remote, bonus ports, or fancy supersmall design. It even loses dual-band Wi-Fi, so its wireless connection may not be quite as robust as the other boxes, if you have a compatible router.

But what the Roku 1 has some practical advantages over the identically-priced Streaming Stick. For one, it works perfectly fine with IR-based universal remotes, so you don't have to worry about integrating it with a Harmony. Like the Roku 2, the Roku 1 also features the older version of the Netflix interface, but that means it loads up quickly, even if you lose the ability to "cast" from the Netflix app. And finally, the Roku 1 also sports analog video jacks on the back, which means it will work with virtually any TV.

The Roku 1 certainly isn't the company's most exciting streaming device, but it's practical, cheap, and gets the job done.

Read our Roku 1 mini-review.

Curveball: Streaming Stick (MHL edition)

Last and least, Roku also still sells the original Streaming Stick (MHL version). It's largely the same as the new Streaming Stick, except it only works with MHL ports, which are still relatively uncommon. Roku itself is barely pushing this model, so you're only likely to run into it if its packaged with a Roku Ready TV.

The future: Expect your Roku to last

Every product has a lifecycle and it's fair to ask whether now's a good time to buy a Roku -- especially the Roku 3, now that it's over a year old. It's always frustrating to buy a new gadget, only to see a new model come out next month for the same price.

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Roku

Roku hasn't given any indication that there's a new flagship streamer on the way, so unfortunately there's no way to know if there's something better on the horizon. But Roku has an excellent track record of updating its boxes over the years, with older boxes getting new benefits like the redesigned user interface and steady stream of new apps.

That doesn't mean there won't be a new Roku with a killer feature in the next few months, but even so, it's unlikely your Roku box is going to feel outdated anytime soon.

 

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