What is Roku? What you need to know about the popular streaming stick

Couple at home watching television together on sofa
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A recent CBS News poll found that only 45% of Americans still watch TV using cable or satellite. If you’re looking to cut the cord too, consider Roku.

Roku devices are small streaming boxes or streaming sticks that connect to your television. They put streaming content from Netflix, Spotify, Hulu, Disney+ and more (subscriptions required) in one easy-to-search place on a TV screen. They offer access to plenty of free content as well, including more than 150 channels available for free on the Roku Channel and more than 250 channels available free through Pluto TV.

(Note: CBS Essentials and Pluto TV are both subsidiaries of ViacomCBS.)

Roku boxes and streaming sticks are popular for people looking to make a high-tech upgrade to older TVs, as well as with those just looking for an easier interface. Some televisions even come with the Roku tech already built in.

Roku makes a number of different models, so choosing the right one isn’t always easy. But that’s where CBS Essentials comes in. If you’re looking to give Roku a try, here’s how to pick the best streaming box, streaming stick or Roku-ready TV for your needs.

Roku Express 4K+

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Roku via Amazon

Enjoy 4K picture quality and voice control via a Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant that lets you search across channels, turn on captions and more with the affordable Express 4K+ streaming box. It features dual-band wireless for a smooth streaming experience, and a premium HDMI cable is included to connect the Roku to the TV. The Roku Express 4K+ does not require a smart TV to work, but it does require a TV with an HDMI input. While some Roku devices support older TVs with an A/V input, this one does not.

“I can finally have the apps I want and not worry about storage running out on my TV,” reviewer Lotte says. “It’s very easy to set up and use. The remote is very simple and easy to learn.”

Roku Ultra

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Roku via Amazon

With a new quad-core processor, the Roku Ultra is the fastest and most powerful media player the company makes. It has all of the features of the Express 4K+, plus support for Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. It works both wirelessly and with an ethernet port, and it and comes with headphones for private listening. If you lose your remote, you can press a button on the streaming device, and your remote will play a sound. You can play music, podcasts and more on your TV with a connected Bluetooth streaming device.

“I have found that Dolby Vision (offered on many Netflix originals) is superior to standard HDR,” reviewer Gary says. “If you’re not as fussy as I am about getting maximum picture quality, getting Dolby Vision might not matter to you.”

Roku Streambar

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Roku via Amazon

The Streambar is a Roku streaming device and sound bar all in one. The sound uses Dolby Audio tech, which automatically lowers the volume of loud commercials and boosts the volume of quiet conversations. It also has a long-range wireless receiver. Roku makes an add-on wireless subwoofer and wireless speakers that pair with the Streambar for an upgraded surround sound experience.

“I purchased [the Roku Streambar] because of its compact design and the audio mix coming from my LG TV made watching movies impossible,” an Amazon customer says. “The Streambar solved my audio problem. I can now watch movies without turning the volume up for dialogue and down for action sequences. I also like the upgradeability of this device with wireless speakers and a subwoofer, which I’m sure I’ll take advantage of over time.”

Roku Streaming Stick+

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Roku via Amazon

The Roku Streaming Stick+ has a long-range wireless receiver and allows Bluetooth streaming, plus includes all the features of the Roku Express 4K+ in a smaller, easier-to-conceal device. Instead of connecting to a television via wires, it connects directly to an HDMI port. Note that the Roku Streaming Stick+ still needs to be connected to a power source — either via a TV USB input or a wall outlet.

“It doesn’t have the same bells and whistles that my Roku Ultras have…but then again, I also paid nearly twice as much for those,” reviewer K. Krueger says. “This Stick+ is much cheaper and provides basically the same user interface and playback performance.”

Roku Express

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Roku via Amazon

The Roku Express is an affordable option for people with older TVs. It keeps things simple with HD picture quality; a standard remote and HDMI cable; and standard wireless and connectivity. It still works with Alexa, Google Assistant and the Apple AirPlay and HomeKit.

“I finally decided to buy one to help keep my TV relevant,” reviewer Mike T says. “Most of the apps from my 2011 model TV don’t work anymore and it was limited in functionality. I wish I bought one of these years ago.”

TCL 50-inch Class 4-Series 4K UHD Smart Roku LED TV

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TCL via Amazon

Some TVs have Roku already built in. Pick from 45-inch, 50-inch, 55-inch, 65-inch, 75-inch and 85-inch sizes in this 4K smart Roku TV, for example, which comes with a super-simple remote. The 85-inch model can be purchased in combination with TCL sound bars for an upgraded sound experience.

“I have no complaints considering the price,” reviewer Ross K. says. “The sound, picture quality, ease-of-setup, digital antenna and all other advertised features are above my expectations.”