If you don’t have a smart TV but want to watch streaming services such as Netflix, iPlayer or Amazon Prime Video you’re going to need a set top box or streaming stick.
There’s a healthy number of options to suit all budgets on the market, including Amazon’s FireTV Stick, the Apple TV, various models from Sky’s NOW TV as well as YouView and Freeview Play set top boxes.
To this mix you can also add Roku.
If you’re not familiar with the brand, in the US they’re one of the major makers of streaming set top boxes and here in the UK their technology powers NOW TV’s boxes. So they have some serious pedigree.
In the UK the firm is currently selling two models – the high-end Roku Streaming Stick+ which will cost you around £79, and the more wallet-friendly Roku Express (reviewed here) with an RRP of £29.
Design and Connectivity
The Express is a compact device measuring just 1.4 x 3.3 x 0.7 inches which is designed to sit under, beside or on top of your TV rather than – as with the various stick models on sale – around the back.
However its tiny size means you’ll have no problem finding a space for it and the standard black, no-fuss design ensures it wont distract from your viewing.
The front of the unit has a single light to show when it’s in use while the rear has two simple inputs – one for power and the other to connect to your TV’s HDMI slot.
Internet connectivity is WiFi only which may not suit those with especially low wireless speeds but helps keep the size down and it’s probable that most users will prefer not to be trailing even more cables around the home.
Apps and Performance
Good design, compact sizes and wallet-friendly prices ultimately amount to nothing unless your chosen streamer offers a good selection of apps, and the good news is Roku delivers on this front.
All of the UK’s most popular catch-up services – BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All4, Demand5 and the STV Player – are available alongside big name paid-for services Amazon Prime Video, Netflix and NOW TV.
Between them, these three services offer all those must-see shows you’ve heard about but which aren’t available on Freeview or Freesat, making the Roku Express and its more expensive stablemate a perfect one-stop shop for all your streaming needs.
In addition to these major players Roku also supports TVPlayer, which includes a mix of free and paid-for channels, plus the Google Play Movies & TV store, Rakuten TV, music video service Vevo, BBC Sport and News apps and a host of lower tier services offering free and paid-for content.
The Roku Express is a speedy little device which, during the review period, held a consistent WiFi connection so there were no pauses or drop-outs during viewing.
However, while they work fast enough, some of the apps have a pretty dated and clunky design – most notably the Amazon Prime app which looks like it was last updated about 5 years ago.
While addressing this is primarily the responsibility of the app provider, it does mean the Roku lacks the more modern look and, in some cases, in-app functionality available on rival devices.
HD but no 4K
If you’re wanting to watch The Grand Tour or Netflix’s Ozark in 4K you’ll need to dig deeper and shell out for the Roku Streaming Stick+ as the Roku Express is HD only.
However, expecting 4K support at this price is unrealistic and, provided your broadband is up to the task, the Express delivers solidly good HD picture quality without any drop-outs or interruptions.
The Roku Express is a nicely designed, compact box which provides access to all the most popular apps and streaming service at a sensible, wallet-friendly price.
It lacks the voice search capability of rivals such as Amazon’s FireTV Stick but unless you have a desperate desire to be calling out the names of the shows you want to watch, we don’t see this is a real shortcoming.
If you’re looking to add smart functionality to an existing TV then the Roku Express deserves to be high up on your shortlist of options.