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.
Just the basics
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.
- HDMI output (analog video available on the $40 Express+)
- 1080p or 720p resolution
- Stereo, Dolby Digital+ and DTS audio support
- 2.4GHz Wi-Fi
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.