Roku

We're big fans of Roku here on Cordcutting.com, but if you click on one of our articles, you might find yourself with more basic questions than which Roku you should get or how the latest one performs. You might instead ask: what is Roku (or “a Roku,” or whatever), anyway? In fact, we know that you're asking this, because a bunch of you are asking us in person, on the internet, or indirectly through web searches. Good news: we're here to answer.

What is Roku?

Roku is a brand name, but – somewhat confusingly – it refers to a few different things at once:

  • Roku is the name of the company behind Roku products
  • Roku is the name of the streaming platform that runs on all Roku devices
  • Roku is the brand name of the devices themselves

That's a little weird, but we're going to break things down for you right here. We'll explain the difference between a streaming platform and a streaming device, and then we'll introduce you to all of the things you need to know about Roku – the platform and the devices, too!

How Does Roku Work?

The most important thing to understand about Roku is this: Roku devices exist to run the Roku platform.

So what is the Roku platform? How does Roku work? To explain, it might help to give a little history lesson.

A Brief History of Roku

Let's go way, way back in time to the late 2000s – 2007, to be exact. That was when Netflix made the fateful decision to introduce a new feature. Netflix – which was then a website that allowed subscribers to rent DVDs by mail – made some movies available to stream online throught their website. It was the first time any company had done such a thing.

Watching Netflix on a computer was cool, but most people prefer to watch movies on, you know, their TV. So an electronics company called Roku came up with a solution. They built a little box that you could plug into your TV. The box was basically a little computer, and it ran a simple platform – an operating system, basically – that could run applications. Netflix wrote an application for the platform, and voila: Roku made it a whole lot easier to watch Netflix on your TV, instead of just on your computer.

As time went by, both Netflix and Roku met with plenty of new competition. These days, Roku's platform plays host to apps for all sorts of services: Amazon, HBO, Hulu, Crackle, and a whole lot more. And there are other platforms that compete for your streaming dollars, too: you can watch Netflix and the rest on Fire TV devices instead of Roku ones if you want.

The Roku Platform

An important thing to remember here is that neither the Roku platform nor the Roku device is synonymous with Netflix. Netflix is a service that you can subscribe to; you can watch it on Roku in the same way that you can watch it on your computer or on your iPhone or on any number of other devices. Roku's role here is just to make it easy for you to access Netflix and watch it on your TV.

And Roku makes plenty of different devices, which it updates periodically with beefier hardware and new features (the platform itself gets upgraded from time to time, too). All of Roku's devices run the Roku platform, which looks pretty much the same on each of them. You can run the Roku platform on a tiny Roku Express, or on a Roku Ultra, or on a 55″ TCL Roku TV – it's all the same platform, and you can watch all the same services on the devices. The differences are in things like features and resolution (for instance, you won't get 4K picture quality out of a Roku Express).

If it helps, think of it this way: Roku's devices are like PCs, the Roku platform is like Windows, and the apps (Roku calls them “channels”) are like the individual software programs you can install on Windows. Roku doesn't run Netflix: it just sells devices that run a platform that Netflix (and a whole lot more) can, in turn, run on.

In a moment, we'll talk about what channels you can get on Roku – both in the sense of “apps” and of familiar network TV channels. But, first, let's talk about the other big thing that Roku (the company) uses Roku (the brand) for: hardware!

The Roku Devices

Read more about Roku devices on our Roku device page, which also has more information about Roku's streaming platform and other offerings!

What Channels Does Roku Have?

Roku calls its applications “channels” in a nod to the familiar terminology of cable TV. But Roku Channels are really just apps: they exist to help you access content from individual third-party providers (for the most part, anyway – nitpickers will note that Roku does have a couple of channels of its own that it uses to promote certain types of content it wants you to see).

So what channels does Roku have – what apps work on it? A whole bunch:

  • Subscription Video on Demand: Netflix, Amazon, HBO, Hulu, and the rest of the big dogs are here. Subscribe online (or on the channel on your Roku device) and start watching! Remember, Roku helps you manage and access these services, but they're independent of Roku.
  • Ad-supported Video on Demand: Crackle, Tubi TV, Popcornflix, and more. These services allow you to watch on-demand content for free – provided you don't mind viewing some ads during the program.
  • “Skinny bundles” or Live TV Streaming Services: Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, DirecTV Now, fuboTV, and more. These cable-like services offer you live access to network television – but they stream online, so they're able to offer the conent for less and slim down the bulky bundles you might be used to from cable.
  • Single-channel Solutions: CBS All Access, HBO (which is also sort of an SVOD service), and others allow you to subscribe directly to a specific channel's live and on-demand content.
  • League Streaming Services: Watch live out-of-market games on MLB.TV, NBA League Pass, and NHL.TV. MLS fans, your service is rolled into ESPN+.
  • TV Everywhere: Many network television channels offer on-demand streaming to folks who get their channel through a pay TV subscription. Look for an app for your favorite channel! Keep in mind that you'll have to validate these TV everywhere apps with a pay TV login. Fortunately, a skinny bundle login will often do just fine, so crawling back to cable isn't necessary.
  • Non-video Services: Want to stream music? Play basic games? Put on soothing screensavers? There is more than just video streaming available on Roku.
  • …and more! Roku's massive library is too large to cover in full here. Check out our catalog of Roku channels to search and discover more.

What Features Does Roku Have?

Roku's platforms and devices are very, very impressive. There's a reason that Roku's offerings routinely recieve high marks in our reviews, and there are plenty of reasons that we often describe ourselves as big fans of the company. We'll be the first to pounce when Roku makes a misstep, but it's hard not to be impressed with the features you'll find on this platform and these devices. Here are some highlights:

Use the App

We're on record as saying that the best Roku remote replacement is the Roku app. The mobile app has a built-in remote control and enables some functions – like private listening and voice control – that aren't available on the actual remotes that come with some cheaper Roku models. On top of that, there are content discovery features and other perks built right into the app.

Speak to Roku

Want to search for something on Roku? Want to launch an app? Use the voice controls built into many Roku models.

Roku Internet Requirements

By now, we've explained what Roku devices are for and how they work. Since these are streaming devices, you've no doubt inferred that you need an internet connection to use a Roku device. But there are other internet-related questions that are a bit less basic that “do you need internet to use Roku,” so let's take a moment to talk about Roku internet requirements.

In general, you'll have a more pleasant experience with Roku the faster your internet is. You'll also have a more pleasant experience the stronger (and faster) your home network connection is – a lightning-fast internet connection is only good if you can connect to it, so remember to pay attention to Wi-Fi issues, too!

Let's address these issues one at a time. First up: how fast does your internet have to be to stream on Roku?

Generally speaking, the same internet speed standards we talk about for streaming in general also apply to Roku devices in particular.

What does that mean? In a nutshell:

  • For on-demand streaming on Roku in standard definition, you'll need download speeds of at least 5 Mbps.
  • For on-demand streaming on Roku in 1080p or lower quality, you'll need download speeds of at least 10 Mbps
  • For 4K or live streaming, you'll want to be getting speeds that are more like 25 Mbps, at a minimum.
  • Don't forget to take other devices on your network into account. If you want to use multiple connected devices, add some more breathing room to these numbers. And if you want to stream on multiple devices at the same time, aim for at least 50 Mbps – or more, depending on how much you want to do on the internet at once!

These are just general guidelines, but they give a sense of what kind of internet speeds you'll need with Roku. Remember that faster, of course, is always better. The minimums here are tight fits for the kind of traffic we're talking about.

Don't forget about Wi-Fi, either! If you have a lousy Wi-Fi router, you could be experiencing Roku issues that are unrelated to the speed of the internet service you're getting from your modem. Using a wired connection (possible with the Roku Ultra) or improving your Wi-Fi signal by moving or upgrading your router could give you a better Roku experience. This is something to think about if you're debating Roku Streaming Stick vs. Roku Ultra: while similar in many ways (the Streaming Stick+ even has 4K streaming), one of the key differences between the two is the presence of an Ethernet jack on the Roku Ultra, which allows you to use a wired connection and not worry about any Wi-Fi issues at all.

Roku vs. Cable: Using Your Roku to Cut the Cord

Using Roku and cutting the cord are not at all synonymous: plenty of happy cable customers (if there is such a thing) are also Roku users, and you can even use Roku to watch live TV through some cable providers' Roku Channels (again, that's Roku's term for apps). But owning a Roku does make cutting the cord a whole lot easier, and we have a few suggestions for replacing cable content on the cheap with Roku.

Combining Roku Streaming With Free Over-the-Air TV

Longtime readers know that we love free over-the-air TV at least as much as we love Roku. Free OTA TV gives you access to live TV that is broadcast over the air, often including major network feeds from ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC. On a Roku TV, you can add OTA to your Roku interface simply by plugging an antenna in. But you can also turn OTA into streaming video in order to view it through an external Roku device. One great way to do so is to use Tablo and the Tablo Roku Channel.

Get a Skinny Bundle!

OTA TV will give you free broadcast channels, but the only way to get network TV channels – those are the opposite of broadcast channels, by the way – is to pay. But, fortunately, you don't have to pay cable prices to get these channels. You can instead opt to subscibe to a skinny bundle, which will make your live TV habit a whole lot more affordable.

Check out Those Free Roku Channels

There are a lot of great free Roku Channels. We don't just mean free to download – most Roku Channels are free that way. We mean free to actually use. Ad-supported video on demand services, Roku's own Roku Channel, and other great free channels are yours to discover, and they'll make parting with cable a whole lot easier.

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