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Roku Express: Hands-on review

Thursday, April 26th 2018 by Phil Wilkinson-Jones

With a toddler and a new born baby at home the hardest part of testing the Roku Express, for me, was finding the time to do it.

Luckily for me, getting set up is pretty easy. Once you’ve plugged the device into the back of your telly and the other bit into the wall, instructions will appear on your screen, talking you through the simple installation process step by step.

The only difficulty is in remembering all of the passwords you’ll need to sign in to Netflix, Amazon Prime, NOW TV, BBC iPlayer and all the other apps you can add to your Roku account – but that’s a problem you’ll only encounter once and was probably caused more by my lack of sleep (and generally terrible memory) than anything else.

The home screen that greets you whenever you use the Roku Express is refreshingly simple. Flashy graphics and rotating carousels have been eschewed in favour of an interface that makes it easy to find what you’re looking for.

The remote, too, is free of unnecessary buttons and the purple ‘Roku’ tab its base is a genuinely helpful design feature as it helps it stand out from the growing number of remote controls that seem to be taking over our living rooms.

Shortcut buttons

Roku makes a point of the fact the remote has shortcut buttons to “popular streaming channels” and while it’s nice to be able to navigate to Netflix with just one click, the simple on-screen menu means it’s not exactly difficult to find the app anyway. There are also buttons for Rakuten TV, Asian streaming service Yupp TV and Red Bull TV, which is fine, but wouldn’t it make more sense to have NOW TV, Amazon Prime and iPlayer in those positions?

The Roku Express remote has shortcut buttons, but they're not necessarily for the most popular services

Flicking between apps and browsing Netflix looking for something to watch, I found the Roku Express to be very responsive – it’s certainly the equal of the Amazon Fire Stick in this regard, even if the interface doesn’t look quite as sleek.

One thing I did find strange is that there is no way of switching off the Roku Express, it just sits in a sort-of standby mode while you’re not using it. Roku says this feature “prevents confusion by enabling instant access to your player any time you turn on your TV or switch from another source” but seriously, how confusing is needing to switch something on if you want to use it?

Another minor gripe is that you actually need to point the remote at the Roku Express in order for it to work. This may sound petty, but neither my Virgin V6 box or Amazon Fire Stick requires me to do the same, so this just feels like a backward step.

Roku says the Express is perfect for first-time streamers, secondary TVs and easy gifting – but while it’s clearly not designed to be a premium product, I do think they’re being a touch modest.

Subscription apps and free-to-air stuff

The Roku Express is one of only a few ways you can watch NOW TV, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video through the same device – you can’t watch NOW TV through a Fire Stick, for example, and you can’t get the Amazon Prime app on Chromecast.

You can use the Roku Express to access the Sky Store, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, Demand 5, UKTV Play, YouTube and loads more – it’s a pretty good mix of free and subscription services, to be honest. There’s also thousands of lesser known apps, organised into categories, so if nothing on the mainstream services tickles your fancy you should still be able to find something to watch.

The Roku Express has a simple home screen, making it easy to find what you're looking for

Private listening

The free Roku app, available on the App Store and Google Play, lets you control your Roku player using your phone, cast photos, videos and music to your TV, and direct the sound from your telly straight to your headphones using the 'private listening' feature.

At £29.99, the Roku Express compares pretty well price-wise with its competitors – a Chromecast will set you back roughly the same amount and the latest version of Amazon’s Fire TV Stick costs a tenner more at £39.99. The recently-launched NOW TV Smart Stick, powered by Roku, is the cheapest of this particular bunch at £14.99.

If you’re looking for 4K Ultra HD picture quality then you won’t find it here – the Roku Streaming Stick+ might be more to your liking – but for a no-nonsense bit of kit that will turn a “dumb” TV into a smart one, with all the benefits that brings, you’ll be hard-pushed to do much better than the Roku Express.

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