Roku Ultra Roku Ultra is the best Roku box you can buy. ($99 or less on Amazon.

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Long before Amazon Fire TV, long before Apple TV and Android TV — there was Roku. A simple black box that made it easy to stream what little content was streamable back then. Don't worry about the year. It doesn't matter. It was just early game of what became cord cutting.

Several generations later — and with the addition of some serious competition — Roku remains an excellent option for anyone looking to stream video on a TV. Or play games. Or listen to music. Or get the news. Roku pretty much does it all.

And what really stands out is that Roku doesn't break the bank. The top-end Roku box sells for less than $100. The bottom end hits at $35. So there's something for everyone. The only real question is what features do you want — and how much hardware do you want to put behind it. (Hint: More is always better.) But either way, none of it is too expensive.

What is Roku?

Roku is an interesting hybrid. It is, first and foremost, a line of streaming hardware.

The current lineup comprises two entries that can handle 4K video, with the rest meant for displays that top out at 1080p. Roku Ultra is the big box in the bunch (OK, about the size of a couple decks of cards), and it's the Roku we recommend you buy. Roku has a couple of HDMI sticks, and it rounds things out with a sort of mini box on the low end.

Rokus also come with their own remote controls — and decent ones, at that. They're not the slimmest or most space-age remotes out there, but they work, and they work well. And at the high end you get the ability for private listening via a headphone jack built into the remote. Very cool.

Hardware is just half of the coin. And while Roku has all the standard streaming apps you'd expect to find, it also has its own stable of paid entries. They call 'em Channels, but you basically can think of them as apps, too.

If don't want to bother with services like Netflix and Hulu and the like, Roku has its own stores for movies and TV shows, powered by Fandango.

Roku also has a plethora of basic games, screensavers and more — some of which are free, and some that require purchase.

What are these 'private' channels I've heard about?

Again, Roku calls things like Netflix and YouTube TV and Hulu — and all the other content sources you're used to — "channels." And they're all listed (and searchable) from the Roku home screen, just like you'd expect.

But you also have the ability to load third-party channels. It's really meant as a sort of beta or developer thing. But in the past it absolutely was a way to load up other content that simply wasn't hosted by Roku.

And as you would expect, that included folks firing up content — illegal, adult-oriented, or both — that Roku didn't want responsibility for.

So in 2017 it started to crack down on these "private channels." You can still find any number of them, but frankly it's a long way to go for that sort of thing, given how easy it is to get that sort of thing on a phone or tablet and send it to a TV that way.


OK, fine. So what Roku should I get?

That's a fine question! And you have options. The most basic Roku — Roku Express — is a mere $35. We wouldn't get that one.

At the very least spend $50 and get the Roku Streaming Stick. It tops out at 1080p, though. So you'll need to bump up to the $70 Streaming Stick+ if you want 4K video.

But, really, we'd recommend just going whole hog and getting the $99 (or less, if it's on sale — and it often is) Roku Ultra.

More on why we'd pick Roku Ultra

Where should I buy a Roku?

Anywhere you can! But since you're here, and we're here, and we're all chatting things up, here's where you can buy a Roku.

Here's where to buy:

What's great about Roku

Roku has been a while. It's been there, done that. And it's really honed the overall user experience. You'll still need a Roku account, and you'll still log in to other apps and services and stuff. So it's not as simple as firing up a cable subscription.

But the Roku experience is just easy. The user interface is clean and intuitive. It's got access to pretty much every streaming service out there. The only real miss is not having access to anything you've bought on iTunes — but that's the case for anything that's not Apple TV.

If you don't want an Apple TV or the NVIDIA Shield Android TV, Roku — and specifically Roku Ultra — is an excellent option.

What's not so great about Roku

There's almost too much going on here. There are so many channels and so many options, it's almost a little overwhelming.

(On the other hand, that's where we come in.)

You sort of get the feeling that you're being nickeled and dimed, with all the cheap pay screensavers and apps and stuff. But then again, nobody's making you buy them.

And there's no real "smart assistant" integration like Siri or Google Assistant or Alexa. You do have some voice control, though — it's just not going to control anything outside of the Roku, for now.

And this one's a little more niche, but it's still important: If you're going to use HDHomerun as your over-the-air solution, know that it doesn't work with Roku. For that, you'll want something like Tablo.

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4.5 out of 5



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