Roku’s current lineup of dedicated streaming devices runs the gamut of price points and features. At one end, the low-priced option goes for about $30, while the top-end model has an asking price more than 3 times as much. But what’s the difference among these streamers? What features and capabilities are Roku bringing to the table to justify more expensive options? And conversely, what are you missing out on if you opt for a budget-focused streaming device?
Well, we’ve got four current Roku streaming devices in our studio, each representing four different price points, so we thought we’d take a closer look at how they’re similar and what sets them apart from each other. If you’ve been wondering about Roku’s lineup and which option might be best for your situation, this comparison might help.
Before we dive in, though, let’s get some fine print out of the way. These four streaming devices came to us directly from Roku, so shout out to them for that. However, we’re not required or obligated to feature them in a dedicated article. But since we have them in the studio, it makes a lot of sense to see how they compare to each other. So with that established, let’s talk about these streaming devices.
First up is the Roku Express, which generally retails for around $29.99, though you might see it on sale from time to time. It’s the cheapest option in our roundup and it maxes out at 1080p resolution and has no HDR, or high-dynamic range, support. It also packs Roku’s basic remote control, which it calls the Simple Remote. Compared to higher-end remotes, this one lack voice search, a TV power button, and volume controls. But it is easiest to replace if you lose it, coming in at $14.99 for a new one.
Next up the ladder, at an MSRP of $39.99, is the Roku Premiere. This one bumps up the max resolution to 4K and offers HDR support in the form of HDR10. And by the way, if you want to know more about either 4K video or HDR video, we published a couple videos that dive into those topics.
The Premier also comes with the Simple Remote, just like the Express. And like the Express, the Premier needs to have what’s called “line of sight” to your remote control. In other words, it needs to be able to “see” the signal coming from your remote and you need to point the control at the device for commands to register.
Both of these devices are very small and light. So small and light, in fact, that they come with adhesive strips to keep them in place.
At the $49.99 MSRP level, we have the Streaming Stick+. The form factor here is dramatically different compared to the previous models we talked about. Instead of a tiny streaming receiver that discreetly sits on your entertainment center, the Streaming Stick+ is, well, a stick with an HDMI connection on one end. So instead of using an HDMI cable, this one plugs directly into the back of your TV. It also supports 4K and HDR. And since it’s so small and doesn’t require a separate cable, it might make for a more portable and travel-friendly streaming option.
This one comes with the Voice Remote with TV Controls. And, as you might gather from the name, this remote adds a voice search button, plus TV and volume controls.
And then at the top of the heap, we have the $99.99 MSRP Roku Ultra. And as the name suggests, this is meant to be the top-tier experience, with more bells and whistles than other devices in Roku’s lineup.
It packs an Ethernet port if you don’t want to deal with a WiFi connection, 4K and HDR support, a microSD slot for memory expansion and Roku’s Enhanced Voice Remote.
On top of the regular Voice Remote’s controls, this fancier one offer a remote finder feature, personal shortcut buttons you can customize to load your favorite apps or frequent search terms, and a headphone jack for the included earbuds.
That last feature enables Private Listening mode, which pumps your TV’s audio wirelessly to your remote so you can listen via headphones. It’s a nifty trick that the other devices on our list don’t support out of the box.
However, if you are interested in Private Listening, you can achieve the same effect with non-Ultra devices via Roku’s smartphone app. Just connect your headphones to your mobile device and enable Private Listening via the app.
And here’s how these four devices stack up in handy chart form. One thing we should point out is that Roku has used some of these names for older devices in the past, so we’ve included the model numbers here of the most current versions available. And you might notice similarities as far as CPUs go, but there are clearly differences in the RAM department. Now, would having more available memory translate into better performance?
Well, we’d have to test them to find out. So let’s do that, shall we?
OK, here’s how our testing happened. We lined up a multi-app course for each device. And we timed how long it took for each device to fully load the home screens for the various apps. For each test run, we ran through 9 different apps and measured performance throughout. Then we reset the devices and ran the test again a total of three times per device. And since not all the devices in our test can support 4K resolutions, we opted to run these tests on a 1080p TV to level the playing field, so to speak.
In all, that’s 120 measurements and then we took the average performance of each device to come up with a final result. As for the apps we tested, we chose a mix of popular and common apps and we ran them in the same order each time. Starting with:
- Amazon Prime Video
- Pluto TV
- The Roku Channel
- The Roku Tips and Tricks Channel.
Lastly, we fired up Netflix one more time to see if the app loaded more quickly the second time around. And in case you’re wondering, yes, setting up streaming services, installing apps, and logging into accounts across multiple devices and then running over a hundred benchmarks did take a while. But on the bright side, I really, really remember my passwords right now.
So let’s see how that turned out.
As you can see from our results, having more RAM available came in handy as we switched from app to app. At the bottom of our leaderboard, the $29.99 Roku Express averaged 123.07 seconds to complete our 10-stage course. And you can see from the two Netflix scores on either end, that it couldn’t load the app significantly quicker the second time around. Whereas the other three devices we tested posted much, much quicker times for the second Netflix test.
We also noticed the Express needing to load apps into memory from time to time, which could add a few seconds to your overall wait. On the other end of the charts, the Ultra ran away with things, posting the best times in all 10 phases of the test and achieving the only sub-100-second total time.
And in case you’re wondering (because I was), we also tested the Ultra on a 4K TV using this same test and it scored broadly similar times. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise since its max resolution for menus and user interfaces is 1080p, but it’s nice to know it’s not struggling on more advanced displays.
So yes, you do indeed get faster performance for your money, at least from what our tests show. Beyond that, though, using the Ultra generally felt more responsive and smoother than the less expensive options. Overall, it does look like performance goes up as you climb the pricing ladder, but it’s definitely worth figuring out how much you value app-loading times over how much you value, say, money and other features.
After all, yes, the Express took measurably longer to load each app and had to juggle apps in and out of system memory during our course, but it still loaded them up just fine. It’s also, as we mentioned, less than a third the cost of the Ultra, so it’s up to you to decide if you can stand waiting a few more seconds for your favorite apps to load if it means saving considerable cash.
And if you’re looking to add a streaming device to your lineup, you should take into consideration where you’ll be using it. If it’s mainly for a secondary TV in a back room or garage or something, and if it’s a non-4K TV, then options like the Ultra might be overkill for that intended purpose.
Meanwhile, travel-friendly models like the Streaming Stick+ might be a good middle ground if you want more performance and 4K support, but don’t necessarily want all the options the Ultra provides. It also might make sense for, say, wall-mounted TVs where you might not have shelf space handy for a streaming device to sit.
Of course, if you do want Roku’s top-tier player, the Ultra’s performance might justify its higher price tag, especially if you find yourself frequently jumping between different streaming services and apps. It scrolls through menus more smoothly and switching between those apps is just more enjoyable. It also comes with a more fully featured remote, so it might make more sense for your main living room device, especially if you’re rocking a 4K TV with HDR support.
Hopefully, this gives you a better idea of how these different devices, at different price points, compare. If you were considering an Express and were wondering how much you’d miss out on by skipping the more expensive options, I hope this sheds more light on how it stacks up. Conversely, if you were eyeing the Ultra, but wanted to see how slightly cheaper options perform, well, again, I hope this was useful.
In the end, though, it’s really all about you, your personal streaming needs, and whether you can find a device that hits most, if not all, of the bullet points on your wish list. And if none of the options we discussed here, really fit the bill for you, what streaming devices have you turned to? Maybe you’re an HBO Max fan or Peacock subscriber and you’ve opted for a device that currently supports those services? Feel free to share you current go-to streaming device in the comments section below. And if you’d like us to compare some other options out there, let us know as well!
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