Last year's best-selling TV streaming device was the $35 Google Chromecast. This year, Roku really wants to take back that crown with the Roku Express, an entry-level streamer with an asking price that's $5 less.
And in many ways Roku Express is a better product than Chromecast. It has an actual remote and on-screen display, which I find much easier to use than Chromecast's phone-based system. And along with all the other major apps like Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Sling TV and thousands more, it has an app for Amazon video, which Chromecast does not.
On the other hand, the Roku Express is simply not as good as Roku's own $50 Streaming Stick, our favorite streamer ever. It's slower to respond, especially with Netflix, its remote has to be aimed at the TV, and the box itself isn't as slick as the minimalist, no-cable-required Stick.
For those who just want to spend as little as possible on a streamer, the Roku Express will get the job done. But $20 isn't a lot to ask for an appreciably better experience, especially in a device you'll use every day. Unless you're really, really strapped for cash, skip the Express and spend the extra $20 to get the Roku Streaming Stick. And if you already have a recent Roku 2 or Roku 3, you already have a speedier box than the Express, too.
By the way, people who want to connect an older TV to Roku should check out the Roku Express+, the $40 version that features and analog audio/video output.
The Express isn't quite as minimalist as the Roku Stick or the Chromecast, but it's almost as small. It's smaller than the remote, in fact, and can be easily placed just about anywhere in your AV system that allows the remote's infrared beams can strike its front surface.
In an ingenious move, Roku includes a sticker so you can affix the Express to the bottom of your TV (see above), the cabinet, or wherever. Doing so allows it to blend in almost invisibly, and keeps the required cables from dragging it around. Of course, double-sided tape or velcro could do the trick too.
Also included in the box is one of the shortest HDMI cables I've ever seen. Its 2-foot length seems pitifully inadequate at first glance, but if you stick the little box close enough to the TV's input, it'll probably get the job done. Either way, credit to Roku for including it in a $30 device.
As usual video quality was just as good as on any other non-4K streamer. Unlike the Stick and Chromecast, the Express can only connect to 2.4GHz Wi-Fi networks, not the faster (and often less crowded and therefore more reliable) 5GHz band. That said, I had no issues using the Express on my network in the crowded Wi-Fi environment at CNET's test lab.
Roku's remote is simple and well-designed to use entirely by feel, with everything you need including basic transport (play/pause and fast-forward/rewind) keys. The version I got has shortcuts for Netflix, Hulu, Sling TV and Google Play Movies and TV, but yours may vary depending on where it was purchased.
The best part of the Express is that it's a Roku. That means full access to the largest selection of worthwhile apps of any streaming device, contained in a great interface. It's dead simple to understand, allows full customization so you can put apps wherever you want on the screen, and -- unlike Apple and Amazon streamers -- it doesn't prioritize any "preferred" service over any other. Search is equally agnostic, covering scads of apps and presenting results by price.
I could go on (and I have before) but suffice to say Roku is the best streaming platform in my book.
Roku's app for phones and tablets also controls the Express, and allows convenient options like voice search, playing photos from your phone on the TV and using your phone's keyboard to type in terms. It also gets the nifty headphone "private listening" feature that debuted on the Stick -- just plug a pair of headphones into your phone, hit the headphone icon in the app, and audio is muted on the TV and comes through the 'phones instead.
It mostly worked well. Audio was clear and and lip synch was good in my tests with wired headphones. I didn't test it with Bluetooth headphones this time around, but they caused lip sync issues when I tested this feature on the Stick. The feature didn't work, however, unless I had my headphones plugged in before the stream started. Roku hopes to have the issue resolved by the time the Express ships.
The worst part of the Express is the slow speed of navigating its on-screen menu. It's slower than most current streamers, including Roku's Stick, but the experience varies widely per app.
The most popular app, Netflix, is also the slowest, particularly with browsing. On the Roku stick and other fast devices you can blow through the rows of suggestions (e.g., TV Shows, Top Picks for David, Because you watched Beethoven's Treasure Tail, etc.) with alacrity until you alight on just the thumbnail you want ("Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2").
On the Express each downward click takes a bit longer to register and reveal the next line, and a few clicks in quick succession cause a cascading delay, where the scrolling continues without input from you, until you lose track and get annoyed. The only solution is to deliberately click through at a slower pace. Thumbnail images, which on a faster streamer would be kept filled with images of cute dogs (or whatever) as you scroll, load more slowly on the Express as well, creating rows of unpopulated gray boxes. No fun.
Browsing on many other apps was better. Hulu and YouTube were a step slower than on the Stick, but still better than Netflix. Amazon responded almost as quickly on the Express as on the Stick, as did Sling TV, PlayStation Vue and HBO Now.
Individual programs on Netflix also took longer to start playing once I selected them, even though I was on the same (very fast) 2.4GHz Wi-Fi network with both devices. Since the stream has to restart when you skip back or forward far enough, that longer load time can add up. Other apps varied; Hulu was slower to launch, but not as slow as Netflix, while Sling TV took about as long to launch a program, on the Stick as on the Express.
In many other speed tests, however, the Express was plenty quick. Apps launch quickly enough, scrolling through the home page's list of apps isn't too much slower than the Stick, and the two were about equal in other areas of Roku's menu, like the channel store and My Feed sections. It's also worth noting that the Express has the latest versions of Netflix (with separate profiles for each family member), YouTube, Hulu and Sling TV although many other apps, like HBO Now and PlayStation Vue, have the more generic Roku interfaces.
In sum, Roku's Stick is significantly faster than the Express with many functions, especially Netflix. That difference alone is worth the extra $20.