Roku 2 (2015) review: Faster Roku 2 masters the streaming universe

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he Roku Channel Store offers more than 2000 apps. David Katzmaier/CNET

Still more apps than anyone: Although pretty much every streaming device can access every major app, Roku still offers more apps than any other platform--more than 2,000 by its reckoning. I didn't count them up myself.

Yes, hundreds of those apps are for local churches, local TV news and small content providers with niche appeal. But that's fine, because Roku has nearly all of the mass market entertainment bases covered. You'll find pretty much everything big beyond HBO Now and Watch ABC; both of those are available on Apple TV, but that box is missing Amazon Instant, which you'll find on Roku. With Roku's track record I'll be very surprised if it (and Fire TV) don't get HBO Now as soon as Apple's three-month period of exclusivity ends. Then again, Roku's stable of major exclusive apps is pretty slim: CBS All Access and Time Warner Cable are the biggest names offered on Roku and no other streaming-box platform. (Note that CNET is a division of CBS.)

Check out the full, updated list of major apps available by platform here.

Unlike the old Roku 2, the new Roku 2 has the updated version of the Netflix app, the one that supports profiles for different users on the same account, as well as the latest YouTube app. It does lack the latest interface for a few apps, however, including Amazon Instant Video and HBO Go.

Meanwhile Roku's selection of minor and niche apps is second to none. You can get lost for hours browsing the channel store for esoterica, and can often discover some real gems, like the National Geographic Kids app my daughter convinced me to subscribe to.

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Sarah Tew / CNET

Roku makes finding new apps relatively easy, although there is a sort of firehose effect. A new addition to the software is a search window just for channels in the channel store; as always, you can also find apps from Roku's main search window.

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Sarah Tew / CNET

Coming soon to streaming: The main new addition to Roku's software across all of its devices, and something no other platform offers, is Roku Feed. If you want to watch a new movie that's not yet available to stream on a Roku channel -- for example, a film in theaters today -- you can "follow" it by adding it to your feed. You can check the feed for updates and you'll receive a notification for when the movie is available to stream, and how much it costs. If the price or availability changes, you'll be notified again.

It's a neat way to find out what's coming soon to streaming, but I do wish there were more than the 38-odd titles available at launch, that Feeds offered the same kind of specific information available at sites like, and that "coming soon" releases showed up in Roku's main search. The notifications should also have the option to be more prominent: appearing on Roku's home page, via email or even on your phone via Roku's app. For now you'll have to check the feed manually to see them.

For more details and comparisons between the various platforms, check out my Roku 3 review.

Feature breakdown

Streaming devices (and sticks) are mature enough that even the most basic ones will give you pretty much everything you need. But the boxes have some advantages over the sticks, especially in terms of connectivity.

Roku vs. the competition

Roku 3 Roku 2 Amazon Fire TV Apple TV Google Nexus Player
Price $99 $69 $99 $69 $99
Voice search from remote Yes No Yes No Yes
Voice search from app Yes Yes Yes No Yes
Ethernet Yes Yes Yes Yes No
Optical audio output No No Yes Yes No
Universal search 17 services 17 services 5 services No 2 services
Gaming Limited No Yes No Yes
Private listening Yes No Yes No No
Screen mirroring Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Captive portal No No Yes No No

I've omitted differences like RAM, storage and processor names/speeds because in my experience they really don't matter for apps like Netflix and other services, only for gaming. And If you care about gaming on your streaming box, skip Roku entirely and go with Fire TV or the Nexus Player.

If you'd rather connect via wired Ethernet than Wi-Fi -- something I do at home because it's simply more stable even though I have a great Wi-Fi router -- get a box (not the Nexus) and not a stick. If you have an older AV receiver that lacks HDMI inputs, you may want to go with a non-Roku device (not the Nexus) to get an optical digital audio output. They all have HDMI and output 1080p.

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The new Roku 2 (top) gets Ethernet, but loses the analog outputs now found only on the Roku 1 (bottom). Sarah Tew / CNET

All of the platforms offer dedicated apps for Android and iOS (with the exception of Google, which doesn't have an iOS version). All offer voice search and the ability to type in searches via text, and all are handy for when your physical remote goes missing. That's right: you can get voice search on your Roku 2 (and Roku 1 and Stick) using the app. I do like Roku's app best among the three, mainly because it offers the Play On Roku screen mirroring function to send photos and music to the box.

Full-fledged screen mirroring has been added to the new Roku 2, but it's more limited than on Apple TV (with AirPlay) or the Nexus Player (with the Cast feature). You still need to have an Android 4.2.2 or higher device or a PC running Windows 8.1 or higher to get full mirroring. The feature works very well in my experience. Roku 3 and the Roku Streaming Stick also support mirroring. Check out our full how-to for more.

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In the past Roku fell short of other players in its handling of local media from the network, but that's all changed. The basic Roku Media Player app works well for getting music, photo and video files on-screen, and if you want more robust support, Plex is available on Roku too. If you're a serious media hoarder, however, the WD TV is a better bet than Roku.

The final item is a killer app for travelers and available only on Amazon's Fire TV box and stick, known by the inscrutable name of captive portal. It allows access to guest Internet systems, common in hotels, dorms and apartment complexes, that force you to see a special web page to connect. Roku has announced nothing similar.

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The Roku 2 box will work with a headphone-capable Roku remote. Sarah Tew / CNET

Replacement remote options

One unique thing about the Roku 2 is that you can buy an older Roku remote separately if you want to get the headphone jack and volume control. They cost about $30.

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I was able to successfully pair the Roku 2 with all of the legacy "Roku enhanced remotes" that I tried, including the original remotes for both old and new Roku 3s, the old Roku 2 and the Roku Streaming Stick. All of the remotes' original functionality was preserved: the headphone jacks with volume control worked properly, muting the sound when I plugged in my headphones, and I no longer had to aim the clicker at the box.

Voice searches from the Roku 3 remote using the Roku 2 box also worked exactly like they did on the actual Roku 3. Unlike Amazon Fire TV however, Roku doesn't yet sell the voice-enabled Roku 3 remote separately.

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The verdict: Roku is the best platform, and Roku 2 is the best Roku for most users

The other streaming platforms have a few advantages over Roku, especially if you care about gaming, need captive portal access or must have an exclusive app. And if you're all in with Apple's or Amazon's ecosystem, you'll probably be happier sticking with one of those devices.

For almost everyone else, Roku's platform is the best. The main question is which Roku to buy. You can definitely save some money with an older Roku like the Streaming Stick or Roku 1, but I think its worth paying a bit more for a faster Roku. On the other hand, I don't think it's worth paying more for the Roku 3 over the Roku 2. The fancier remote is nice, but its extra features aren't must-haves for most people.

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