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Why Roku beats every other streaming device

Roku Streambar review
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

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.

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

roku ultra

(Image credit: Roku)

 

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)

roku

(Image credit: Roku)

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?

Chromecast with Google TV is the best streaming device I’ve ever owned

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

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

roku express

(Image credit: Roku)

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

roku smart soundbar

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

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. 

Bottom line

 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.

Tom Pritchard

Tom covers a little bit of everything at Tom’s Guide, ranging from the latest electric cars all the way down to hot takes on why Christopher Nolan is wrong about everything. Appliances are also muscling their way into his routine, which is a pretty long way from his days as Editor at Gizmodo UK. He’s usually found trying to squeeze another giant Lego set onto the shelf, draining very large cups of coffee, or complaining that Ikea won’t let him buy the stuff he really needs online. 

  • oldetooles
    It’s kind of funny, I have had an Apple TV for about 4-5 years that my nephew gave me, and I got a Roku for free somehow this year, that I don’t remember how, but because I know the Apple cost over $100 and the Roku was only $25-$30, I never even tried it, I gave it to my brother... my bad!
    Anyhow I have had an argument with a friend who uses FireStick (actually 2 women insist this happens with FireStick) I’ve searched for any information of their claim... which is that they can be on the Netflix channel and click on a movie and it requires payment and steers them to Amazon. Once one of them said that it was HBO? I saw mentioned in the article about Roku this line: “Roku is not like Amazon’s Fire OS, which is constantly trying to push you towards Prime Video and other Amazon services.” I know for sure that it’s not Netflix trying to promote other streaming services and that all movies on Netflix are available for the monthly fee; there are no extra cost premium movies. So, my question is, does FireStick interject Amazon Prime movies (and maybe others since she once mentioned that it was an HBO channel movie) into your stream even if you are on the Netflix Channel?
    When I saw that sentence in the article, I thought that perhaps you could give me an answer and settle this argument, which it is, because she insists that it is Netflix doing it, and searching Google didn’t turn up anything aside from what I already know to be true, Netflix is pay one price depending on the tier you purchase. That doesn’t satisfy her; her FireStick is on Netflix, so she insists that Netflix has movies that you have to pay extra for.
    Reply
  • COLGeek
    oldetooles said:
    It’s kind of funny, I have had an Apple TV for about 4-5 years that my nephew gave me, and I got a Roku for free somehow this year, that I don’t remember how, but because I know the Apple cost over $100 and the Roku was only $25-$30, I never even tried it, I gave it to my brother... my bad!
    Anyhow I have had an argument with a friend who uses FireStick (actually 2 women insist this happens with FireStick) I’ve searched for any information of their claim... which is that they can be on the Netflix channel and click on a movie and it requires payment and steers them to Amazon. Once one of them said that it was HBO? I saw mentioned in the article about Roku this line: “Roku is not like Amazon’s Fire OS, which is constantly trying to push you towards Prime Video and other Amazon services.” I know for sure that it’s not Netflix trying to promote other streaming services and that all movies on Netflix are available for the monthly fee; there are no extra cost premium movies. So, my question is, does FireStick interject Amazon Prime movies (and maybe others since she once mentioned that it was an HBO channel movie) into your stream even if you are on the Netflix Channel?
    When I saw that sentence in the article, I thought that perhaps you could give me an answer and settle this argument, which it is, because she insists that it is Netflix doing it, and searching Google didn’t turn up anything aside from what I already know to be true, Netflix is pay one price depending on the tier you purchase. That doesn’t satisfy her; her FireStick is on Netflix, so she insists that Netflix has movies that you have to pay extra for.
    Netflix does not have "premium content" that requires additional $$$ to watch. All is available via your subscription.
    Reply
  • oldetooles
    COLGeek said:
    Netflix does not have "premium content" that requires additional $$$ to watch. All is available via your subscription.
    Thank you, but I know that. My question is does using the an Amazon FireStick allow other streaming services such as Amazon’s own Prime to post their own movies on your Netflix channel? For instance, last week she said “Walk The Line” came up on her Netflix, but when she chose it, it steered her to other streaming channels and she would have to pay for it. The week before it was the same thing with “Breakthrough”. I went to Netflix search and neither movie is available. She insists that she is on Netflix and these pay for choices are there. Does the Amazon FireStick hijack other channels and steer their viewers to Amazon Prime? Even if they did do that, I would think that they would have to be in a different format than the regular movies from Netflix.
    Reply
  • COLGeek
    oldetooles said:
    Thank you, but I know that. My question is does using the an Amazon FireStick allow other streaming services such as Amazon’s own Prime to post their own movies on your Netflix channel? For instance, last week she said “Walk The Line” came up on her Netflix, but when she chose it, it steered her to other streaming channels and she would have to pay for it. The week before it was the same thing with “Breakthrough”. I went to Netflix search and neither movie is available. She insists that she is on Netflix and these pay for choices are there. Does the Amazon FireStick hijack other channels and steer their viewers to Amazon Prime? Even if they did do that, I would think that they would have to be in a different format than the regular movies from Netflix.
    If that is happening, it has nothing to do with Netflix. Sounds like how some services (Apple TV and even Amazon Prime, for example) will allow you to link accounts to use their interface to access services on other platforms.
    Reply
  • oldetooles
    COLGeek said:
    If that is happening, it has nothing to do with Netflix. Sounds like how some services (Apple TV and even Amazon Prime, for example) will allow you to link accounts to use their interface to access services on other platforms.
    I have only used Apple TV. I have multiple streaming services with separate icons. But if I am on Netflix, as she claims she is with FireStick, I only can view Netflix choices. I have never had a movie that redirected me to pay someplace else, as she claims!
    I know that on Prime, and I think Hulu used to, you can pay extra for movies not included and buy other channels through them. I have CBS and I thought because I paid CBS through Apple, I could link my account in Prime, but they just wanted me to pay for it through them too! I couldn’t link my existing account.
    Thanks for hearing me, and trying to help. Maybe the author or someone who uses FireStick can explain how this supposedly happens to her?
    Reply
  • lost_n_austin
    I think an argument needs to be made for the Nvidia Shield 2019 as good value. Nothing else has machine learning AI upscaling, a feature that makes all other "Enhancement" and "Sharpening" settings obsolete. It works superbly well on most 1080p and 720p sources I've tried, and is hit or miss on lower-res such as 480p (depending on the lossiness). Of course Shield cost $50 more than a high end Roku, but on non-4K sources the AI quickly becomes an indispensable accessory.
    Reply
  • Uniblab
    Roku, more than others, started the streaming box tech effect. Since they got in sooner its no suprise that they have a knack on how to get the best out of the tech. What "is" suprising is to find out that Roku isnt considered as one of the best. Im kinda slow to the streaming wars but have always felt that the interface is the most important feature and roku's is the nicest. I have only interfaced with Android, Firestick and Samsung so my survey isnt complete. But going by folks comments, if you can get it cheaply, its the best streaming device - thus firestick which is supported by amazon is going to get the most votes. Its "not" a bad stick at all, pretty good, just that, like audiophiles and music equipment better versions exist that many folks dont get a chance to see. Hope roku gets its due respect, originators should always get their props
    Reply
  • Uniblab
    lost_n_austin said:
    I think an argument needs to be made for the Nvidia Shield 2019 as good value. Nothing else has machine learning AI upscaling, a feature that makes all other "Enhancement" and "Sharpening" settings obsolete. It works superbly well on most 1080p and 720p sources I've tried, and is hit or miss on lower-res such as 480p (depending on the lossiness). Of course Shield cost $50 more than a high end Roku, but on non-4K sources the AI quickly becomes an indispensable accessory.
    .....and is also at the top of a multifaceted streaming solution. Does more than just stream video. Plays games - including cloud based - and since its nvidia, clarity will be unchallenged. Worth the extra buy in for top tier performance.
    Reply
  • ScottBrown
    I too am a Roku Fan and have more Rokus than TVs. Sadly recently Roku pulled the Spectrum app from the Roku store. Current users are advised not to uninstall the app, otherwise you can not download it again. Current users can use it. This means any new Roku owners who got a Roku from Santa, are going to be a little upset, when they try to install the Spectrum app on their new shiny new Roku.
    Reply
  • sgtm7
    I am Roku fan as well. I have 5 of them. Once for every room that has a TV in it.
    Reply