Picking the best Roku is as easy as it is difficult. For one thing — there seems to be an inordinate amount of choices, with seven Roku players listed on the company's website.
Looks can be deceiving, though. There may be seven models listed on the Roku site, but we can narrow your choices down to four. (And even then, really just two or three at the most.)
But let's start at the beginning. What is a Roku Player?
Roku is the most popular streaming platform in the United States. Its hardware is relatively inexpensive on the high end, and downright cheap on the low end. Roku has an ever-growing stable of free (as in ad-supported) content — and it's a great portal to all of the options for free online movies and shows. And it has most — but not all — of the major streaming services available for you to use.
1. Roku Ultra
2. Roku Streaming Stick Plus
3. Roku Premiere
4. Roku Express
Roku also has a few different kinds of hardware. There's Roku TV, which is exactly what it sounds like — the Roku operating system baked into a television. Roku also makes wireless speakers for its Roku TVs, and it now has a Roku Wireless Soundbar and the smaller Roku Streambar, both of which with the Roku operating system baked into them.
And then there is the venerable Roku player. These are the little devices — there's a stick, a puck and a slim box — that plug into your TV and let you do all things Roku.
Which should you get? Or No. 1 pick is clear. But we'll add this: When it comes to hardware that you're probably going to use every single day, don't skimp out. Maybe spend just a little more money than you thought you otherwise were going to spend, because this is something you're going to use a lot.
And the good news? When you're talking Roku players, you're not talking about a lot of money anyway.
Need more good news? You can now watch HBO Max on Roku, which means you can finally have all the major streaming services on Roku. So now is the perfect time to pick one up. Here are our favorites.
The best Roku to buy in 2021
The best specs and the most features at a great price
Max resolution: 4K | High dynamic range: HDR10 | Voice remote: Yes | Private listening mode: Yes, via headphone jack | Expandable storage: Yes, via USB and microSD | Networking: Wifi 802.11ac, Ethernet | Form factor: Set-top box
If you want the best Roku player, Roku Ultra is what we'd get, full stop. It's been Roku's top model for years. Roku Ultra retails for just $99, but you usually can get it for a few dollars less.
Why it's the best Roku player: Roku Ultra works just like all the other Roku devices. The operating system is nearly identical from one device to the next, so there's nothing to relearn if you move up or down in the lineup. What makes this one better than the rest is the more powerful processor (so it's faster), the included voice remote with private listening and premium earbuds (so you can watch TV without disturbing others), and the best networking options you can get in a Roku device, so your connection will always be the best it can be.
Resolution: Roku Ultra handles 4K video just fine. And if you have a 4K-capable TV, there's absolutely no excuse for not having a 4K-capable Roku player attached to it. (If your TV tops out at 1080p, Roku Ultra can handle that, too.) Roku Ultra also does high-dynamic range, with HDR10 as its standard. (No Roku players use the superior Dolby Vision HDR standard, which is a shame.)
Networking: Roku Ultra uses the 802.11ac Wifi standard — also known as Wifi 5. (You shouldn't buy a wireless device with less than the "ac" standard in 2020.) Roku Ultra also has a Ethernet port, which lets you hardwire your Roku into you router, ensuring the best (and fastest) connection possible. If you have the option to use ethernet, do it. It will always be faster and more stable than Wifi.
Remote control: Roku Ultra comes with a Roku voice remote — you can use your voice to control all kinds of things — and the new personal shortcuts, which are programmable buttons the allow you to do certain things a little bit faster. It also has a headphone jack built into the remote control, which allows you to use "private listening" via headphones, so that you don't disturb anyone else around you.
Extras: Roku Ultra also comes with a pair of premium JBL earbuds for you to use with that private listening mode — or use them with whatever else still has a headphone jack in your home. Roku Ultra also has a microSD card slot and a USB port, which you can use to play back video or show pictures locally.
The drawbacks: Roku Ultra is great, but it's not perfect. Roku doesn't yet support Dolby Vision, which is our preferred flavor if HDR, or high dynamic range, which is what lets colors pop significantly more than standard definition range. And on the software side, the Roku operating system still isn't anywhere near as sophisticated as what you get with Apple's tvOS, or Android TV. You still get a voice-remote, but no private listening and no included earbuds.
Missing services: And two major sticking points on the streaming TV side — Roku still does not have access to HBO Max, or Peacock from NBC Universal. If those services are important to you, you'll want to look elsewhere.
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Roku Streaming Stick Plus
Roku Streaming Stick+ also is an excellent option in the Roku ecosystem. It works just like Roku Ultra, but in a different body and with fewer bells and and whistles.
The basic specs are the the same. It supports 4K resolution at 60 frames per second, and it has HDR10 for high dynamic range.
Roku Streaming Stick+ only has half the RAM, though, which could lead to slightly slower operations. And it doesn't have a microSD card or USB port, so no expandable storage. And it doesn't have an ethernet port. But it still has 802.11ac Wifi, same as Roku Ultra.
The Roku Streaming Stick+ also costs about half as much as Roku Ultra. So there's that.
There's only a $10 different between Roku Streaming Stick+ and Roku Premiere, so you might be tempted to go with the less-expensive model, which changes the design up to a sort of matchbox-looking deal.
Don't let that price tempt you, though.
While Roku Premiere still handles 4K resolution and HDR10, it's wireless capabilities are capped at 802.11n — two full generations behind today's fastest standard. (Which Roku doesn't even support yet.)
Why does that matter? 802.11ac is going to be faster — like, three times as fast, theoretically — and have longer range.
So to recap, you've got a high-definition device with an older wireless standard. That's not a great combination, because 4K video requires you to move a lot more data around.
Roku Premiere also gives up the voice remote for a "simple" remote.
Basically, there's no reason to be buying an 802.11n device at this point. Spend the extra $10 on a Roku Streaming Stick+, instead.
Roku Express is the least expensive Roku in the lot. And for good reason.
It doesn't do 4K video, instead topping out at 1080p. And it also stops at 802.11n Wifi.
Other than that? It's a Roku. Just slower, less capable, and even less expensive.
The only reason to get this one is if you have an older television that's only 1080p. Otherwise, start at the top and read all this again.
If you want Roku built into your TV
The best all-around Roku TV
Resolution: 4K QLED, 55-, 65-inches | HDR: Dolby Vision and HDR10 | Surround Sound: Dolby Atmos | Refresh Rate: 120Hz | HDMI: 3 ports + ARC | Networking: Wireless + Ethernet | Remote control: Voice remote
Roku says that three out of every four smart TVs sold in the United States are using Roku as the built in operating system. And given how darn easy it is to have everything built in to one product, we can see why.
The TCL 6-Series is one step down from the manufacturer's top-of-the-line Roku TV, and it's an even better buy today. For a good bit less than $1,000 you get a large, 4K display that does both Dolby Vision and HDR10. It also supports Dolby Atmos for audio (if you have an Atmos-compatible setup).
It really is the easiest way to get most of the streaming you'd ever want. And if you still need to use some other hardware — say, an Xbox or PlayStation, or even another streaming device — it'll handle that just fine.
Our only real complaint about the 6-Series is that it occasionally struggles with the HDMI handshake with a non-Roku soundbar, but your mileage may well vary with that.
All in all, it's an incredible value for an easy-to-use product and is available in 55- or 65-inch models.
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