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If you've come to this review with the intention of spending the bare minimum on a streaming player then congratulations: You found what you're looking for.
The $30 Roku Express is the least-expensive streamer on the market and a great value. Its performance is excellent, it loads apps quickly and it gets you in the door with Roku, our favorite overall smart TV streaming system. Yet even at the measly price of $30, the Roku Express isn't the only solution, and neither is it necessarily the best value.
When you're shopping at the non-4K, ultra-budget level there's four main streaming options -- Roku Express, the Express Plus ($40), the Google Chromecast ($35) and the Amazon Fire TV Stick ($40). The Fire TV Stick is the best of the four in terms of features (with Alexa built-in) and speed, thanks in part to the new YouTube app. However, the Fire TV's interface isn't as easy to use as the Roku: Its search results and other areas of the menus push you more toward Amazon's own video content.
Both the Fire TV Stick and Express Plus offer voice remotes that can also control your TV's volume, mute and power, and in my book those extras are worth the extra $10 over the Express. But if you don't care about those extras and simply want to smartify a bedroom or second (or third) TV for the least amount of money possible, the Roku Express is the streamer to get.
The Roku Express isn't really a "box" and it's not a dongle either. It's a tiny device, just 1.5 inches across, which is designed to attach to your slim TV or on top of your AV unit with a sticky tab on the unit's bottom. Unlike some of the more expensive models in the Roku line that offer the voice remote, the Express needs a line of sight between the IR remote and the unit itself.
As the basic entry into the range the Roku Express streams in 1080p only; for 4K HDR streaming you'll need to step up to the Streaming Stick Plus.
At the back of the Express you have two ports -- one for the USB charger and one for HDMI -- and all the necessary cables are included in the box. If you want to, you can use the USB power port on your television, but this does mean you need to wait the 30 seconds or so for the Roku to boot up when you turn the set on. It's not an intolerable wait (see below), but using the included power pack means you'll be ready to go instantly.
Be aware that neither the Express nor any other 2019 Roku box offers analog outputs for older TVs. The original Express Plus with analog outputs is still on sale, however.
The Roku Express comes with the basic remote which is still delightful to use -- it's colorful, chunky and all of the buttons are within easy reach.
The only difference between the Express and the $40 Express Plus is that the Plus has the upgraded remote with voice search and TV volume and mute control. As with all Roku devices, the Roku app for phones and tablets lets you listen privately on a set of headphones or use the voice search. If you decide to upgrade to the Roku voice remote down the line, Roku will sell you one for $20.
Despite its budget nature, the Roku Express was responsive -- its speed wasn't an issue, and startup was fairly swift -- although loading YouTube took a little longer than on the Fire TV Stick. Here's how it fared against a number of other streamers:
|Roku Express||Amazon Fire TV Stick||Roku Streaming Stick Plus||Roku Ultra 2019|
The Amazon Fire TV Stick posted excellent YouTube times but that asterisk (*) is there for a reason. Its initial load time was slower than the others -- 15 seconds in the case of YouTube and about 17 for Netflix -- but both apps loaded almost instantaneously in subsequent openings.
The Roku Express offers the Roku experience at roughly the same speed level as the Streaming Stick Plus. It's somewhat slower than the 2019 Roku Ultra.
At $30, the value proposition of the Roku Express is high. It also has everything you need in a streamer. Whether you buy it or the Amazon Fire TV Stick is really a matter of preference. If you're an Amazon Prime member and entrenched in the Alexa ecosystem, for example, the Fire TV makes a whole lot of sense. The Fire TV's extra features are an advantage, but at $10 more it's not as ultra-budget as the Express. At least until Black Friday rolls around.