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

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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.

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8.1

Roku 2 (2015)

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.

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.

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 the Starz, PlayStation Vue, and local file playback favorite Kodi.

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

Unlike the old Roku 2, the 2015 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.

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.

Sarah Tew / CNET

More ways to browse: Roku is also the best at presenting TV shows and movies across the different services. In addition to the "Follow" feature, which allows you to tag shows, films and even actors and receive notifications for when they're available to stream, there's a new feature available to all Roku devices with the latest software update. It shows the most popular TV shows and movies across all of the services Roku searches, updated four times a day. It's a great way to find new things to watch, although I do wish there were a "Show only stuff I can watch for free" option.

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.

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 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.

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.

Sarah Tew / CNET

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 Nvidia Shield is a better bet than Roku.

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.

Sarah Tew / CNET

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.

Sarah Tew / CNET

The verdict: Roku 2 is a great value, but the new Stick is an even better one

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.

Roku vs. Apple TV vs. Chromecast vs. Amazon Fire TV vs. Android TV: Which streamer should you buy?

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 Roku 1, but I think its worth paying a bit more for a faster Roku. Since the new Stick is just as fast as the Roku 2 and Roku 3, and costs less, it's my favorite Roku. But if you want Ethernet, and don't care about the Roku 3's fancy remote, the Roku 2 is the best buy of the bunch.

roku-2-2015-01.jpg
8.1

Roku 2 (2015)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Ecosystem 10Features 8Performance 9Value 7