Roku Express Plus (2017) review: The best way to get Netflix, YouTube and more onto an old TV

In fact, short of buying an old game console, it's one of the only ways.

Old TV, meet new Roku

If you're not familiar with Roku, it's our favorite streaming system for a few simple reasons. It's extremely easy to use and it supports more apps than any other competitor like Fire TV or Google Chromecast. In addition to big names like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and YouTube, it has thousands of smaller apps and niche services. Some of the best, like the exclusive Roku Channel, are free (although many have ads).

Despite their cheap prices, the newest Roku players like the Express Plus are quick satisfying to use -- provided you have good Wi-Fi. And no, the Express Plus doesn't work with wired Internet connections. 

News flash: Analog video looks terrible

David Katzmaier/CNET

Compared to HDMI the analog connection from a Roku Express Plus looks like junk, but that's not Roku's fault. It's because that yellow analog composite video signal is limited to 480i resolution, a format that has 80 percent fewer pixels than the 1080p high-def signal used by the HDMI output.

On our test 55-inch TV the graphics were blurry, smaller text was fuzzy bordering on unreadable at times, and image quality was soft as a 16-pack of Charmin. Movement caused color fringing, rainbows, jagged lines and breakup of text and on-screen objects. Colors were less saturated and washed out, and audio was stereo-only.

Of course that's par for the course on an old TV, and someone used to watching TV on a set without HDMI inputs is probably used to the picture and unlikely to complain. At least the lip-sync via the analog connection was good.

Plus more stuff to know

  • The Express Plus isn't a streaming stick or dongle that hides behind your TV; it's a tiny box that needs to be visible to work. 
  • It can also work with TVs that have HDMI, and Roku includes a 2-foot HDMI cable with the Express Plus.
  • The Express Plus 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. 
Roku Streaming Stick Plus
Sarah Tew/CNET
  • Unlike many other devices, the Express Plus can't access less-crowded 5GHz Wi-Fi networks, just standard 2.4GHz ones.
  • Roku's free phone app lets you listen privately by plugging headphones into your phone or tablet. Doing so automatically mutes the audio on your TV.
  • The Express Plus runs the same platform, and has the same (non-4K) video quality via its HDMI port, 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 best streamer for old TVs

If you or someone you know wants to get more use out of that ancient set that doesn't have HDMI, one of the only games in town -- and most likely the cheapest -- is the Express Plus. This little box is simple and effective, but again, there's no reason to buy it unless you have a set that needs it. Whenever possible you should watch via HDMI, but if that's not an option, get the Plus.