2020 has been a fantastic year for streaming. With movie theaters closed, it’s been the best way for new content to be distributed to the masses. There’s no shortage of ways to stream, whether you have a dedicated streaming device or one of the best TVs with built-in smarts.
Despite all of the competition, Roku still makes my favorite streaming devices, and with the amount of streaming I’ve done this year my fondness for them has only grown.
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Roku is no small company by any means, but compared to the likes of Amazon, Apple, and Google, they’re still relatively unknown to the masses. Which doesn’t really make sense, because Roku has a heck of a lot going for it -- to the point where I couldn’t ever see myself going back to another company’s devices.
In fact, I have just purchased my third Roku device, and now have more of them than I do TVs.
Access all the content you want
There are plenty of reasons why I like Roku, and a big one is that they don’t fall within the lines of one of the other big tech companies. A lot of other streaming gadgets are produced by huge rivals, and they’ve been known to refuse to let competitors access their devices. Like Amazon and Google’s long-running spat that prevented YouTube from appearing on Fire TV sticks, and Prime Video on Chromecast until just last year.
Roku itself has claimed status as an unbiased partner, with no incentive to prioritise one service or another. In other words Roku devices typically have access to all major streaming services. There are exceptions, like the long-running standoff that stopped Roku users from being able to access HBO Max, but historically it’s rare for a service to be missing. And Roku and HBO Max recently struck a deal.
A clean interface (that doesn’t sell you stuff)
While Roku does operate its own free streaming channels, that “unbiased partner” status means the interface itself avoids pushing you towards any one service. There are static adverts in a small number of places (one of my colleagues says that's still too much), but for the majority of the time it’s content to let you watch what you want to watch .
Roku is not like Amazon’s Fire OS, which is constantly trying to push you towards Prime Video and other Amazon services. Some Fire TV sticks may offer more advanced features than comparably priced Rokus, such as built-in Alexa integration, but for me that’s not worth the trade-off.
For me the clean interface is the real selling point. Roku’s OS puts your content front and center, on the homepage as soon as you turn on your TV. There’s no making you navigate halfway down the page or hunt for your streaming apps, nor are you forced to beam anything from your phone or put up with any other nonsense that gets between you and the shows you want to watch.
What about Chromecast and Apple TV?
Roku isn’t the only company that does this. Google TV, being Android, lets you customize your home screen to suit your own tastes. Likewise, Apple TV lets you customise how app icons appear on the homepage. But Apple TV boxes are very expensive in comparison, and the Chromecast with Google TV has a home screen with a lot of suggested and promoted content.
Apple TV also has that god-awful touchpad remote that I’ve never been able to stand. It’s improved over the years, from what I’ve experienced, but it still sucks. For a company that prides itself on design, Apple makes some spectacularly dumb decisions by over-engineering things that don’t need it. Roku did not do that on the remote, but that’s not really a selling point considering every other streaming device does it the same way.
I could do without those annoying buttons for services I never use, though. Roku’s not alone in doing this, as Nvidia Shield TV and PS5 media remote owners will know. It would still be nice to either do away with them or let us customize what they do.
The value factor
All of that is pointless if a device isn’t affordable. The Apple TV has a lot going for it, but the cheapest one still costs $149 and that doesn’t even support 4K. If you want that you’ll have to pay at least $179. Roku’s cheapest device is $30 (Roku Express) and 4K support costs $40 (Roku Premiere), and the most expensive all-inclusive device is just $100 Roku (Roku Ultra). That’s assuming none of these devices are on sale, and Rokus often are. Especially at this time of year.
That’s roughly the same as Amazon’s Fire TV devices, whether we’re talking about the Fire TV Stick Lite, Fire TV Stick 4K or Fire TV Cube. The features aren’t identical, but the point is Rokus don’t cost too much.
Roku has some drawbacks
But Rokus do not have everything. For instance they spent years stubbornly ignoring Dolby Vision, and now only just included this standard in its most expensive device: the Roku Ultra. Meanwhile, Amazon’s 4K Fire TV Stick has included HDR10 and Dolby Vision from day one. And for half the price to boot.
If you have a Dolby Vision TV, that’s definitely going to put you off and Roku’s next set of 4K streaming devices should include support HDR10+ and Dolby Vision. Especially if Roku has plans to release more soundbars. If you’re going to the trouble of purchasing a soundbar to upgrade your living room setup, it would help to have the best possible features thrown in.
The truth is I am willing to overlook some of Roku’s minor shortcomings if I get something green in return. In my mind, a clean and easy-to-use interface is well worth the fact I don’t have an HDR feature I can’t even use right now. But come back to me in a few years, after I’ve upgraded my TV to something better than a basic 4K set, and see if I feel the same way.