Roku is one of the biggest streaming TV platforms available right now. Depending on when you’re reading this, Fire TV might be #1 or Roku. As the two tend to swap places quite a bit. Nevertheless, it is very popular. And for good reason.
It mostly keeps things very simple. Their interface has not really changed a whole lot in the past decade or more. Even as streaming TV has vastly changed in that time.
But there is a whole lot more to it than just streaming Netflix, YouTube or Sling. And we’re here to tell you everything you need to know about the Roku platform.
What is Roku?
Roku makes streaming devices, to allow you to cut the cord from Cable. It was one of the first to really jump into the streaming hardware game, and believe it or not, was founded way back in 2002. Way before any of us thought about streaming Netflix. The beginnings of Roku are pretty interesting, and included being part of Netflix. Reed Hastings, still the current CEO of Netflix, decided to nix the project, as it would hamper their ability to get onto competing products. Which back then, really only included smart TVs and their own operating systems.
Interestingly, Roku is the term used for “six” in Japanese. Which represents the sixth company that Anthony Wood founded.
Unlike some of the competitors in the space, like Apple TV, Android TV and Amazon’s Fire TV, Roku has always focused on keeping its hardware super simple. That also allowed Roku to keep its prices pretty low, and sell millions of units. It’s what also makes Roku appeal to those that are slightly tech-illiterate. As your grandma could use a Roku with almost no problems.
Fast-forward to 2021, Roku is now a publicly traded company, with a market cap of around $45 billion.
Is Roku a hardware or software?
Technically, Roku is both hardware and software.
Roku sells streaming players like the Roku Premiere, or the Streaming Stick+ at about the price it costs to make them. Where Roku makes its money is actually with the ads that it is able to sell on the apps on its platform. And from The Roku Channel, which we’ll talk about a bit more later.
Which means that the Roku OS is actually really important. And as mentioned before, Roku has kept the operating system super simple for years. In fact, it hasn’t really changed much since the first streaming player came out in the 2000s. And that’s because it didn’t really need to.
Roku also licenses out its operating system to partners like Hisense, TCL, Walmart (via its Onn brand) to use in their products. TCL has actually made a name for itself and become the fourth largest TV maker by going all-in with Roku on its TVs.
Is it free?
After you pay for the hardware, Roku is free. But you can pay for different things like HBO MAX, or Showtime through Roku. A bit like Amazon’s Prime Video Channels works. But there’s no subscription fee for Roku, thankfully. We have seen some scams going around trying to get people to pay for “customer support” from Roku. That is not real, and if you get that scam, make sure to report it and don’t fall for it.
Basically, you’ll pay for some of the apps and services on Roku, but you aren’t paying Roku itself. Roku makes its money from its partners.
Roku OS 10
Roku announced OS 10 on Tuesday, April 13. It includes a number of new features. Like the ability automatically adjust settings when you plug in a gaming console. So you can get the best experience when gaming on a Roku TV.
Roku OS 10 is also introducing Instant Resume. Allowing apps to instantly resume where you left off, the last time you were in it. Similar to the feature that the Xbox Series X|S have.
There is also a new “automatic WiFi detection” feature available. This will show you which WiFi network would be best. Particularly useful if you use both 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks in your home.
Roku will also let you customize the Live TV guide on your Roku TV, if you have an antenna plugged in. For Apple users, AirPlay2 and Homekit is also available on more devices with this update.
The Roku OS 10 update is beginning to roll out now to all supported devices.
How does Roku work?
No matter what Roku device you buy, the experience is mostly the same. Whether that’s a TV with Roku built-in, a Soundbar with it, or a set-top box. They all have an Ethernet jack, so you can go wired if your internet is not quite as powerful as you may need for 4K video. But there is also WiFi available with Roku’s devices.
The home screen uses a pretty easy to read grid, so you can go left to right, or up and down to find your favorite apps. You can also long-press on the apps to re-arrange them to your liking. For example, if your four most-used services are YouTube, HBO MAX, Netflix and Peacock, you can move those all to the top row. Making them easier to jump into.
On the left side, you’ll see different options for getting into the store, finding stuff to watch on The Roku Channel, jumping into settings and so forth. It’s all right there, making it super easy to use.
On Roku, it calls “Apps” as “Channels”, likely to make it feel more like a traditional TV. Instead of just a bunch of apps on your TV. It’s very simple to add channels to your device too. Just head into the Channel Store.
From there, you can search for your favorite channels. Like any app store, it also has different categories, which you’ll find on the left. And that includes games too.
Once you find a channel to add, just click on it, then click “add”. It will then be added to your Roku account, and it’ll appear on any Roku device you might have in your home. That’s particularly useful for those that might have a few Roku’s in your home, with each TV.
You can also search the Roku Channel Store on the web and add channels to your device that way.
Finding something to watch
Roku has more channels than all of its competitors, at nearly 3,000 right now. So there’s a ton of content to watch on Roku, but it can also be a bit difficult to find something to watch on Roku, because of that.
But, Roku does have a pretty impressive universal search feature, that will search for a title across all of the channels that are on your Roku device. Not only can you search for titles, but also actors/actresses, and even lines from a movie or TV show.
Matches for your search are then sorted by the price, and there will be icons beside the titles that indicate what it is. A channel, movie or TV show. You’ll also be able to click on it to learn more about the title.
Unlike Google TV, Roku does not yet have a stream of content available on your home screen with content it thinks you might want to watch, or live content if you have YouTube TV, Sling TV or Fubo TV. The home screen is still limited to just showing your channels.
This is one area where the simplicity of Roku actually counts against it. Because if you’re just browsing for something to watch, you need to open different apps to actually find something, instead of just scrolling down the home screen.
Using your voice (via Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa)
While Roku is not a huge tech company like Apple, Amazon or Google, it has done a great job of working with all of their products. Instead of building competitors, Roku wanted to make sure it supports everything. So newer devices support Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Google Cast and Apple AirPlay 2. Siri is not supported since it’s not really on third-party devices.
This means that you can use your voice to control your Roku device. Whether that is Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, both will work with the Roku.
You will need to give Roku access to your Google or Amazon account to use either of these voice assistants. Which can be done in the settings on your TV, or within the Roku app. This is needed because then your Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa won’t know who you are, or have access to your account. As you can do non-TV things on Roku too. Like asking about the Weather, or turning off the lights, etc.
It’s really smart of Roku to support both of the major voice assistants, so that people can use whichever one they want, and still use this set-top box.
Casting and AirPlay 2
As mentioned, Roku does also support Google Cast and Apple AirPlay 2. So depending on whether you are an iPhone user or an Android user, you can still mirror content on your Roku device. This means that you can easily throw a YouTube video from your phone onto the TV.
The only caveat here is that not all apps support this feature. For example, before HBO MAX made its way onto Roku officially, it did not support casting to your Roku device. That has since changed. As HBO MAX is now available on Roku.
There’s free content too
Almost all of the TV Everywhere apps are available on Roku. And those for the OTA channels that you’d get in your area too. Which are free. That includes ABC, NBC, The CW, as well as Pluto TV and Crackle. The Roku Channel is also available, which we’ll talk more about a bit later. These are all free, and supported by ads. So while you’re not paying you will need to sit through some ads.
The Roku Channel
One of the ways that Roku has decided to try and make some money lately, is through The Roku Channel. It houses free content, so you don’t need to pay for it, and it’s available on all of the Roku devices by default.
This channel will give you free content that is ad-supported. Though, usually the majority of this content is older. We’re talking at least a decade old. So you may not find a whole lot of content you want to watch right away on it. But hey, it’s free.
And Roku is continuing to add more content to this channel as well. So the content will continue to grow here. There is also 100 free live TV streaming channels available here. From news providers like ABC News Live, NowThis, Reuters, and USA Today.
The Roku app
The app isn’t a must-have, in our opinion. But it is still nice to have.
With the Roku app, you are able to find channels to install and add to your Roku device. You can also move your channels around and it’ll be reflected on your Roku device.
There is a dedicated tab for the Roku Channel as well. So you can see what’s playing, and of course have it start playing on your TV.
Perhaps the best feature of the app is that it can be used as a remote. So if you lost your physical remote, you can use the app to control your TV. It can also make it a whole lot easier to search for something to watch, as you have a touchscreen keyboard, instead of moving the cursor left to right to pick each letter on the TV.
Finally, you can enable private listening by pairing a pair of headphones to the app, and still play it on the TV. Which is pretty neat. And surprisingly, there’s no lag there either.
What Roku devices are available to buy?
Roku devices range from around $20 all the way up to $100. Each offering different features. For example, the cheapest ones do not offer up 4K HDR support, while the more expensive ones do. And the most expensive one also has Dolby Atmos support. You can check out the latest sales on Roku devices here.
This is the cheapest option currently available. It supports HD streaming, up to 1080p. Which is fine, since most of the streaming services cap at 1080p and the studios are still filming at 720p and if you’re lucky, 1080p. It’s very small, but definitely mighty. At just $30, it’s worth buying for a secondary TV in your home.
Roku Streaming Stick+
At $50 normally (though, it is almost always discounted to $40), you can get the Streaming Stick+. Which offers up to 4K HDR streaming, making it future proof for most people. This plugs into the back of your TV, so it does stay out of the way. But this may not be ideal for those that have their TV mounted on their wall.
This is the highest-end Roku available, coming in just a penny shy of $100. The Ultra is able to stream at up to 4K HDR quality, and also supports Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision, and Bluetooth streaming. It also includes a pair of headphones for private listening. Amazing how the remote has a headphone jack, yet your smartphone does not.
Is it worth it?
Roku is worth it for the sheer amount of channels that it offers. At 3,000 channels, it’s more than any of its competitors. And a big reason for this is because of how popular it is, and the fact that it has a lot of international channels. So you can watch foreign films and TV shows on your Roku device right there, without leaving the country.
Where Roku devices cost as little as $20, and sometimes cheaper during the holidays, it’s a no-brainer to pick one up. Or even get a TV with Roku built-in.