Roku Express (2017) review: Crazy-cheap streamer is plenty fast enough to satisfy
Update: Winter 2018/2019
The Roku Express reviewed here was released in October 2017, and it remains our top pick for the best ultra-budget video streamer you can buy in the US.
That said, if you have an older analog TV that uses composite yellow/red/white AV inputs and not HDMI inputs, get the Roku Express Plus 2017. And if you can spend another $15 to $20, the Roku Streaming Stick 2017 is a better product overall and definitely worth the money, in my opinion.
Check out CNET's best media streamers for more information on competitive products.
The original review of the 2017 Roku Streaming Stick -- first published November 8, 2017, and otherwise mostly unchanged -- follows.
At just $30 in the US and £30 in the UK, the Roku Express is one of the least costly ways to add Netflix, Amazon Video, YouTube, Plex and scads of other streaming apps to your TV. If you just want to spend as little as possible on a streamer, it's your best bet this year.
On the other hand, a few bucks more for something like the 2017 Roku Streaming Stick or Amazon Fire TV stick gets you an even better experience. The Roku stick can control your TV's volume and power and has a voice search remote. Fire TV has the advantage of Alexa voice control via the remote or an Echo speaker.
But maybe you don't care about any of that, and all you want is a streamer that does the job very well for very little cash. That's the Roku Express.
Unlike last year's pokey version, the 2017 Roku Express is damn quick. Roku claims an operational speed that's 5x faster, and comparing the two, it felt pretty close to that at times.
Moving around Roku's menus, launching apps and loading videos happened with only minimal delays on my fast Wi-Fi networks at home and in CNET's lab. Even thumbnail-heavy, difficult apps like Netflix, Hulu (with the new design) and Sling TV sped along nicely, presenting images and videos without annoying pauses.
Clicking around frenetically didn't trip up the player and cause freezes, like it did last year. Netflix, which took forever to load on the old version, shows up within a few seconds. In short, the Express finally moves as quickly as its name implies.
I did run into more delays loading some apps compared to the more expensive Streaming Stick, but they didn't happen frequently enough to become frustrating. Netflix also loaded a bit faster on the Stick. In general, however, the Express' operational speed was very good, especially considering the price. Upgrading from an older Roku, other streamer or Smart TV, you'll notice the difference.
Here's where I mention that if you don't have good Wi-Fi, no streamer will work well.
Express with a bullet
- The Express isn't a streaming stick or dongle that hides behind your TV, it's a tiny box with an HDMI port that needs to be visible to work. Roku includes a 2-foot HDMI cable to plug into your TV.
- The Express uses a standard infrared remote, so you have to aim it at the little box. A streaming stick remote doesn't need to be aimed.
- There's a small double-sided sticker included, allowing you to affix the little box to the table, the TV stand or whatever.
- Power is supplied by an included USB adapter and cable. You can power the Express from a free USB port on your TV, but it will take longer to boot up.
- Unlike the Roku Streaming Stick and many other devices, the Express can't access less-crowded 5GHz Wi-Fi networks, just standard 2.4GHz ones.
- The Roku Streaming Stick offers voice search and select voice commands available by pressing a button on the remote. To search via voice on the Express, you have to use Roku's free mobile app.
- That mobile app also lets you listen privately by plugging headphones into your phone or tablet. Doing so automatically mutes the audio on your TV.
- I like Roku's platform better than any other. It has more apps, a simpler, more customizable interface and better search. The Express runs the same platform, and has the same (non-4K) video quality, as any other Roku device.
- The menus on some prominent apps, like PlayStation Vue, HBO Now and Watch ESPN, are better on Fire TV than on Roku, with a more updated interface and in some cases, more features. Many others, however, including Netflix, YouTube, Hulu and Sling TV, are basically the same on both, and Vue is getting a Roku update soon.
- The exclusive Roku Channel app has free on-demand movies (with ads). The selection is a lot better than you'd think, and the ads aren't that bad, although you might have to put up with some awkward breaks.
- Roku also sells the Express Plus for $40, which has an analog output and included cable for use with older TVs that lack HDMI. It's sold exclusively at Wal-Mart in the US and is not available in the UK.
Should you Express yourself?
For many people, the Roku Streaming Stick's point-anywhere, TV-control remote is worth the slightly steeper price. Heavy Alexa users might not mind the pushy Amazon menu system, and phone-centric (or Google Home-centric) people might prefer a $35 Chromecast. And I definitely recommend that people with a 4K HDR TV get a so-equipped streamer like the Roku Streaming Stick Plus. But if you're fine with a basic, bare-bones conduit to Netflix and all the rest, take the Express.