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Roku Express review:

Is Roku's $30 streamer its best value yet? Not so fast

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The Good The Roku Express is cheap, easy to use and loaded with streaming apps.

The Bad It's slower, especially with Netflix, than alternatives that cost just a few bucks more.

The Bottom Line The Express delivers everything good about Roku for a rock-bottom price, but it's worth spending a bit extra on a faster streamer.

CNET Editors' Rating

7.8 Overall
  • Design 7.0
  • Ecosystem 10.0
  • Features 6.0
  • Performance 6.0
  • Value 8.0

Last year's best-selling TV streaming device was the $35 Google Chromecast. This year, Roku really wants to take back that crown with the Roku Express, an entry-level streamer with an asking price that's $5 less.

And in many ways Roku Express is a better product than Chromecast. It has an actual remote and on-screen display, which I find much easier to use than Chromecast's phone-based system. And along with all the other major apps like Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Sling TV and thousands more, it has an app for Amazon video, which Chromecast does not.

On the other hand, the Roku Express is simply not as good as Roku's own $50 Streaming Stick, our favorite streamer ever. It's slower to respond, especially with Netflix, its remote has to be aimed at the TV, and the box itself isn't as slick as the minimalist, no-cable-required Stick.

roku-express-59.jpg

The $30 Roku Express (top) and the $50 Roku Streaming Stick.

Sarah Tew/CNET

For those who just want to spend as little as possible on a streamer, the Roku Express will get the job done. But $20 isn't a lot to ask for an appreciably better experience, especially in a device you'll use every day. Unless you're really, really strapped for cash, skip the Express and spend the extra $20 to get the Roku Streaming Stick. And if you already have a recent Roku 2 or Roku 3, you already have a speedier box than the Express, too.

By the way, people who want to connect an older TV to Roku should check out the Roku Express+, the $40 version that features and analog audio/video output.

Just the basics

The Express isn't quite as minimalist as the Roku Stick or the Chromecast, but it's almost as small. It's smaller than the remote, in fact, and can be easily placed just about anywhere in your AV system that allows the remote's infrared beams can strike its front surface.

roku-express-add01.jpg
Sarah Tew/CNET

In an ingenious move, Roku includes a sticker so you can affix the Express to the bottom of your TV (see above), the cabinet, or wherever. Doing so allows it to blend in almost invisibly, and keeps the required cables from dragging it around. Of course, double-sided tape or velcro could do the trick too.

Also included in the box is one of the shortest HDMI cables I've ever seen. Its 2-foot length seems pitifully inadequate at first glance, but if you stick the little box close enough to the TV's input, it'll probably get the job done. Either way, credit to Roku for including it in a $30 device.

roku-express-52.jpg

Clockwise from the top: the Express, the power supply, sticker, HDMI cable and remote.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Other specs:

  • HDMI output (analog video available on the $40 Express+)
  • 1080p or 720p resolution
  • Stereo, Dolby Digital+ and DTS audio support
  • 2.4GHz Wi-Fi

As usual video quality was just as good as on any other non-4K streamer. Unlike the Stick and Chromecast, the Express can only connect to 2.4GHz Wi-Fi networks, not the faster (and often less crowded and therefore more reliable) 5GHz band. That said, I had no issues using the Express on my network in the crowded Wi-Fi environment at CNET's test lab.

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