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The Roku lineup’s most junior member got a very serious upgrade this year. While the top dog of Roku’s lineup got a price drop and not much else, the lowly Express got five times more powerful. Let’s see what it can do! Here’s our review, which will cover both the Express and the Express+ (while the Streaming Stick and Stick+ are different enough to merit separate reviews, the Express and Express+ are pretty much identical, as I’ll explain below).

Roku Express/Express+ Review

Disclosure

Streaming companies sometimes send us products to review. When we get things for free, we let you know in a special disclosure section (that's what this is). We pledge not to profit off of these things in any way — we don't sell them or use them to promote the site — and we also never take money for reviews and never let free products sway our reviews.

Device

The Roku Express looks a whole lot like it did before. And by “a whole lot” I mean “EXACTLY,” because, in terms of form factor, nothing has changed.

Roku Express
Here's everything that's in the box: instructions, the remote, and (clockwise) the Roku Express, power adapter, mounting strip, power cable, and HDMI cable.

But don't let that fool you: the new Roku Express is a full five times faster than the previous generation. I know this because it says that on the box and Roku's PR team told me so, but also because I tested it and thought things like “hmm, yeah, that does seem faster,” and “yeah, I guess five times more powerful sounds about right.”

Just as the device looks familiar, so does the remote. But that's a heartbreaking thing in this case, because Roku's latest lineup unveiled their cool new universal remote, which can turn off your TV courtesy of the big red power button.

That big red power button is conspicuously missing on the Express, which is a real bummer, because I loved it (check out our reviews of the Roku Ultra, Roku Streaming Stick+, or Roku Streaming Stick to see me rave about it). Having a universal remote just makes things easier. And that just makes it kind of bewildering that it isn't on this one, especially in the case of the Roku Express+.

See, the Express+ is pretty much exactly the same device as the Express, but with composite cables. It's a device explicitly aimed at the Luddites among us who still use TVs without HDMI ports. Those are people who could use some help! My father struggles to find the right remote for his last-generation Roku Stick even though it has ROKU written on it, and he does have a TV with an HDMI port, so even he is too tech-savvy for the Express+. The Express+ is targeting people like my parent's parents, who use AOL and don't think iPads are intuitive. These are not people to trust with multiple remotes.

My guess is that Roku ditched the universal remote because the smooth auto-programming thing their remotes do isn't possible with composite cables, but there must be some way to replace that with a reasonably elegant remote-programming scheme, right? Come on.

User Experience

The first time I chatted with Roku's PR team (this is the price of review copies, but they're all very pleasant), they insisted repeatedly that they are a platform company, not a device company. That's at least partly true, as each of the Roku devices runs the same OS. I don't want to make readers read four identical sections on the Roku platform as they make their decision, so I'll just link you to the Roku Ultra review and let you read about it there. The short version, though, is that Roku's platform is the best in the streaming world.

Streaming Quality

The old Roku Express was a decent streaming device for the money. The new one is much better, and in my trials often felt on-par with the pricier Roku Streaming Stick (no-plus edition). The Express and Express+ top out at 1080p — you have to jump up at least as far as the Roku Streaming Stick+ to get 4K HDR — but it's smooth sailing and even does well with live streams (it will stop to load for a second or two at times while you're using a skinny bundle service, but I've yet to find a device that never does this).

Price

The Roku Express is $29.99, which is a good price. The Roku Express+ is $39.99 and a Walmart exclusive. For comparison, the next step up in Roku's line is the Streaming Stick at $49.99. The Fire TV Stick is $39.99 (the same price as the Express+), and the Chromecast is $35 (that's the 1080p Chromecast 2 — the 4K-capable Chromecast Ultra is $69).

Verdict

These two devices are similar enough to cover in one review, but ultimately different enough to get two different verdicts.

The Express+ is a nice idea: a streaming box for people with insanely outdated TVs. But I don't think it works in practice. The $10 price hike feels like a tax on tech illiteracy, the lack of a universal remote seems like the worst kind of omission, and at the end of the day, this is a Wi-Fi-only device aimed at people with TVs from the pre-HD era. Does your grandmother know her Wi-Fi password? I know mine doesn't. The Express+ seems less like a box designed to please Grandma than it does a box designed to get you to buy it for Grandma, who will never use it but will hand-write you a very nice thank-you note.

The Express is fine, though. At $30, it's a cheap way to get the best streaming platform in the biz. I think it's worth splurging on a better Roku for your main TV for a couple of reasons: 1) because I love the universal remote that comes with pricier models and 2) because (as I mentioned in my Roku Streaming Stick review) I think we're finally at the point where a streaming device you plan to use for more than a year needs to be 4K-ready. But the non-plus Express is a good option for that TV in your exercise room or as a device to toss in your suitcase before you head to that beach house you rented, just in case it rains. That's what it's for, and it fits the bill perfectly.

8 thoughts on “Roku Express Review

  1. Avatar Mitch Grunes says:

    1. The Express+ is not just available at Walmart. And AV cables to convert an Express to an Express+ are cheap elsewhere, but make sure you get the right one for Roku (and TiVo) boxes. Maybe it might let you record programs on an old SD VCR or DVD recorder (I haven’t tried).
    2. I love my Roku Express – much easier to use, configure and maintain than an Android TV or a PC (though I use a PC too) – but Rokus can’t use external keyboards – would be nice to be able type searches instead of using clumsy arrow keys; also the HDMI cable must connect direct to TV – if it has to power an LED in an HDMI switch, it fails, claims power source is bad.
    3. To avoid giving a credit card #, register the device at https://my.roku.com/signup/nocc – so can’t accidentally get unplanned charges, and is safer when giving a gift to kids.

    1. Avatar NLewis says:

      When trying to register my Device I had to call because I was having trouble, the person I reached on the phone was telling me I had to pay $99.99 to connect this device. I did not believe him so I hung up. Did you have to pay $99.99 ???

      1. Avatar Stephen Lovely says:

        I shouldn’t cost anything to set up a Roku!

  2. Avatar Barbara says:

    I just bought an Express+ for $22 at Walmart and have to disagree with your comments about people who use older TVs. I bought my Toshiba in 2006 and it works like a champ. It has a built-in DVD and VCR player and lets me still watch my older media, which is important to me. It fits perfectly in our entertainment center, which would not be the case with a new TV. Our den is a small room and a big TV would be visually overwhelming because we would be seated too close.

    Why in the world would we spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to replace things that are just perfect for us?

    Even though I am 69 and my husband is 83, we are tech savvy, know our passwords, can manage using two remotes and an A/B switch to toggle between cable and streaming. We can even use the third remote to use the DVD or VCR. We still have a turntable and Bose speakers for our hundreds of vinyl records, all in pristine condition. We have a tape player for our cassette media. All this is perfectly integrated in our entertainment center, which also has shelves for our poetry collection.

    We each have tablets, laptops, and cellphones and know how to use them. We have floor to ceiling bookcases in two rooms filled with books we have read, as well as one my husband has published.

    We needed a new Roku that would load things faster, but we don’t need your condescension or contempt.

    Over and out.

  3. Avatar Barbara says:

    You can use the mobile Roku app on your cellphone instead of the remote, for your Express. That allows you to type into the search box instead of navigating the individual letters with the remote. You can also plug headphones or earbuds into your cellphone to listen to a program, and the TV automatically mutes when you are doing this in the Roku app. So — you can get some of the great features of the more elaborate remotes, just by using your cellphone.

  4. Avatar jmt says:

    Help! I just purchase an Roku Express Plus. It’s installed on my old TV. Everything seems to be ok. BUTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTT the tv plays in color except for the Roku channels everything is the old black & white picture. I’ve tried several thing and none works.
    Any idea on how to fix this problem. Does anyone else have this problem? Or am I just
    lucky LOL.

    1. Avatar Stephen Lovely says:

      Yep, I think we can help you! It sounds like a very common cable mix-up.

      The Roku Express+ from 2018 (the one we reviewed here) has composite cables: the old red, white, and yellow ones that used to be on video game systems and VCRs and such. Composite cables carry regular old standard definition picture (yellow), plus stereo audio (red and white).

      But there’s another type of cable that looks very similar. Component (not composite!) cables have the same type of connections, but they’re different colors: red, green, and blue (not red, white, and yellow!). These carry HD video (all three colors are for video, and there’s no audio). These have pretty much been forgotten about in favor of HDMI, but they were common for a brief time, so TVs of a certain age have slots for them.

      If you put a composite (yellow, red, and white) cable into the slots meant for the component cables (red, green, blue), they’ll fit just fine but won’t do what they’re supposed to. You’ll end up with black and white video. So it sure sounds like that’s what’s going on here.

      Your best bet is to take another look at the back of your TV. Your TV might have two sets of slots: one composite set with red, white, and yellow ports, and one component with red, green, and blue ones. Make sure that each cable is in a port that matches its color. (The tricky one is red, since both types of cables have them, but you can usually tell which red port to use because it will be in the same row as the white and yellow ones. And if you’re getting sound, you may already have the red and/or white ones in the right spots.) The right slots are probably back there somewhere.

      Thanks for reading, and I hope this helps!

  5. Avatar Jeff Snodgrass says:

    I have three Roku Express devices purchased in May 2019. A couple of months ago they started loosing sound and required a power cycle to get the sound to come back. Looking at Roku’s customer pages, hundreds of others have this same problem and Roku’s only response is to power cycle the unit. I do not recommend purchasing anything Roku as customer support is non-existent.

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