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

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The Good The Roku 2 is just as fast as the Roku 3. The best-in-class Roku platform delivers more apps than competitors, constant updates and doesn't favor one content provider over others. Its interface is lightning-quick, fully customizable and dead simple to use. Search is the best on the market, hitting numerous services and arranging results by price. It can be connected via Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet.

The Bad The 2016 Streaming Stick is a better value overall. The Roku 2 loses the analog outputs and headphone jack remote of the original Roku 2 and the voice search remote of the Roku 3. Some app interfaces are less polished than on rival devices.

The Bottom Line The Roku 2 is an excellent streamer, but unless you need an Ethernet port you should get the cheaper Streaming Stick instead.

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8.1 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Ecosystem 10
  • Features 8
  • Performance 9
  • Value 7

When it was first announced in 2015, the faster Roku 2 became our favorite streaming device. But now that the new Streaming Stick is available, it has lost some luster. The Roku 2 box is still an excellent streamer, but the Stick is better for most people.

Both the Stick and the Roku 2 offer all of the goodness of the Roku interface and app selection (including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, Vudu, Watch ESPN, HBO Go and Sling TV among its more than 2,000 channels), and the same lightning-quick response times as the Roku 3 (both new and old ), with none of the extra remote-based features you may not use.

The Roku 2 is more-expensive than the Stick, but the only major advantage it has is the presence of an Ethernet port. If you have spotty Wi-Fi, and an Ethernet cable near your TV, you might want the Roku 2 instead of the Stick.

If you want a headphone jack on the remote for private listening, or voice search from the remote, spend the extra $30 for the Roku 3. Meanwhile, if you're looking to add a streaming box to an old, pre-HD television and need those analog video outputs, the company continues to sell the analog-equipped Roku 1 unchanged.

Roku's interface, search and app selection still lead the pack, so unless you're a devotee of the Apple pantheon, or find yourself inescapably enmeshed in Amazon's jungle of media services, Roku is the best platform for streaming. And the Roku 2 is the best value among Rokus if you want that Ethernet port.

Update April 21, 2016: This review has been updated, its Editors' Choice award removed, and its rating reduced, based on the release of the 2016 Roku Streaming Stick.

Sarah Tew / CNET

Downgrade the remote...

The new Roku 2 remote is a step down from that used in the Stick, the old Roku 2 and the Roku 3. Those all operate via Wi-Fi Direct, rather than infrared or Bluetooth, so you didn't need line-of-sight to operate the box. It also allows the new Roku 3 remote to include voice search and that headphone jack.

The 2015 Roku 2 remote drops those hardware extras entirely. It's a standard infrared clicker you need to aim at the box, and you'll have to keep the box's IR sensor exposed to work, a requirement that eliminates some out-of-sight installations.

The new Roku 2 (left) lacks the analog outputs and headphone-capable remote of the old Roku 2 (right). Sarah Tew / CNET

Otherwise the clicker is dead-simple to use and I have no complaints. It's quite a bit slimmer than before, and its finish is matte instead of glossy, which I prefer for rejecting grime and fingerprints. I also prefer the "OK" button in the midst of the four-way cursor rather than below. And the presence of actual play/pause, rewind and fast-forward keys is highly preferable to their absence; the Apple TV and Nexus Player remotes lack those buttons entirely.

Sarah Tew / CNET

Compared to the Roku 3 remote, the Roku 2 remote is also missing the voice search button and the tiny mic hole, the A/B keys for gaming, and the volume controls for that absent headphone jack. Three of the four direct-app keys are the same, but the fourth is for Sling TV on the Roku 2 (and the latest Roku 1) and Hulu Plus on the Roku 3. Meanwhile the latest version of the Stick remote gets direct access to Google Play. Roku's little Chromecast jab, perhaps?

The Roku 2 box itself supports Wi-Fi direct, so you can actually pair it more capable Roku remote, to add headphone support for example (see below for details). And of course, if you're going to use a universal remote with your Roku anyway, there's no reason to get a Roku 3 instead of a Roku 2.

Note, however, that if you use Roku's free iOS or Android app, you can use voice search via your smartphone. The app's private listening feature is, for now at least, exclusive to the 2016 Stick.

...but pump the responsiveness

Operational speed is something I consider extremely important in a living room box you'll use every day. In my speed tests the Roku 3 (both the old 2013 and new 2015 versions), the 2016 Stick and the Roku 2 simply flew around the bases, responding equally fast to button presses, launching and navigating apps, populating thumbnails, grabbing search results and whizzing around the system menus. When it comes to getting your shows on-screen pronto, the new Rokus will outrun most cable boxes, disc players and Smart TV systems, not to mention your phone (that's my Chromecast jab).

Compared to the Apple TV, Google Nexus Player and Amazon Fire TV (both stick and box ), Roku hold its own perfectly well. Yes, Amazon did demonstrate an advantage launching Amazon's own content, but Roku got to it speedily enough. They're all fast enough in regular operation to satisfy most users.

Sarah Tew / CNET

Why Roku rules the roost

Three main reasons make Roku's platform better than the competition: an interface that treats all apps equally, the best universal search around, and the widest selection of apps, which Roku calls "channels."

It's easy to move and remove apps to customize the home screen. Sarah Tew / CNET

Equal-opportunity streaming: Roku doesn't sell content (yet), so unlike Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Android TV, its interface doesn't prioritize any source of content over another. You can freely move icons around to surface the ones you want, delete the icons you don't want, and even hide the branded items on the main menu -- Movie Store, TV Store (both by M-Go) and News (by AOL On). Apple TV comes closest to Roku's level of customization, while Amazon and Google lag far behind; their interfaces often seem little more than gateways to their respective content gardens.

Universal search finds savings: Roku's search currently queries 30 apps, including major services Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Crackle, Fox Now, FXNow, HBO Go, M-Go, Time Warner Cable and Vudu. Meanwhile Fire TV's and Android TV's cross-platform search catalogs are much more limited; both still omit Netflix and HBO Go results, among many others. The new Apple TV's search is much better, but it still lacks pay-per-title services beyond iTunes.

The inclusion of subscription services may actually save you money. If you're a Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus or HBO Go subscriber, for example, you'll see results for movies available there listed as "free" in addition to those available from pay-per-view services, with costs attached.

Roku's listings break down the prices of different content for each service to which you're subscribed, potentially saving you money. David Katzmaier/CNET

When I looked for "The Lego Movie" for example, Roku's search results told me I could watch it for free on HBO Go, $9.99 on Vudu, Amazon or M-Go, and $14.99 on CinemaNow. The same search of Amazon Fire TV only showed me a $17.99 HD version I could purchase from Amazon, even though the box has an HBO Go app of its own. Worse, there was no option I saw for the $9.99 SD version that I could buy using Roku's Amazon Instant Video app.

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