All Images: Christina Warren/Gizmodo

When the very first Roku launched in 2008, the bulky box had a clunky interface that only played Netflix. How far we’ve come. That initial idea ended up spawning an entire genre of streaming devices and set-top boxes that have basically helped change the way we watch movies and TV at home. Roku has sold millions and millions of devices based on its ease of use and great content support for the video services you use. Now the Roku is more accessible than ever.

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Until now, a Roku has always cost at least $50. That changes with the new Roku Express. At just $30, the new cheaper Roku is finally approaching a price point so cheap that anyone can afford it. It’s not the best streaming device you can buy, and it’s got still competition in the budget space from Amazon and Google, but what it can do for just $30 is incredible.

Diminutive in size, the Roku Express is slightly larger than the Roku Streaming Stick and its designed to affix (with included tape) below your TV’s bezel or to sit on a TV stand. Even though it’s the same size as a streaming stick, it’s not; this is designed to be a tiny set-top box. It connects to your TV using an included HDMI cable. It also comes with a micro-USB port for connecting to power. If your TV has its own USB port, it can probably be used to power the Roku Express. Otherwise, you’ll need to be sure you’re near a power outlet.

The Roku Express is positively tiny. Look at how much smaller it is than an Apple TV 4 or an Amazon Fire TV.

For users who are still using TVs with composite cables—you know the red, white, and yellow wires—Roku is selling a Roku Express+ at Walmart stores. It includes ports that will connect to your old-school TV. If you’re using a TV that isn’t HD or doesn’t have a spare HDMI cable, you should buy the Roku Express+.

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The included remote uses IR, so you’ll need to have it in line of sight in order to use it. You can also use the Roku app for iOS or Android to control the Roku Express. This not only makes it easier to enter in text for app logins or search, it means you can use the included voice search feature to search for content across services.

The included remote works with IR. It also provides quick-access to apps like Netflix, Google Play, Hulu and Sling.

In terms of specs, the Roku Express is essentially the old Roku 2 from 2013 but in a much tinier box. That means it outputs 1080p video and works with 802.11b/g/n wireless. In practice, the technology inside the Roku Express does feel a little dated.

For one thing, the processor is slow. Navigating around apps and launching content takes significantly more time than it does on my old Roku 3. I compared using the Netflix app on the Roku Express, a Roku 3, the fourth-generation Apple TV, and the built-in Netflix app on my 4K Hisense TV. It took nearly twice as long to load content as on each of those other devices (the Apple TV was the fastest, followed by the Hisense, followed by the Roku 3).

The Roku interface isn’t the most advanced in the world, but it gets the job done.

The apps themselves can look dated too. The Netflix and Hulu apps are relatively modern (and look about the same as they do on other platforms), but some other apps, like Amazon Video, clearly haven’t had a UI update in years. The Roku 3 was a major speed bump when it was released a few years ago and going back to the speed of a Roku 2, while not a dealbreaker, definitely takes some getting used to. Moreover, controlling playback in apps (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon) isn’t as fluid as it is on other devices. I blame this on the age of some of the Roku apps.

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That said, the device does the job of playing content very well. And even if some of the apps look a little long in the tooth, it’s hard to argue with the selection of content. With the exception of iTunes, Roku’s channel section (not to mention private channels) is almost impossible to beat.

For $30, this really is a perfect stocking stuffer.

If Roku had released the Roku Express a year ago, I think the company would have had an unparalleled winner in the low-end streaming space. Cheaper than a Chromecast—and with a better content ecosystem—the little black box would be a no-brainer. But today, the market for low-end streaming boxes has evolved. Google is about to launch a new Chromecast, this time with 4K support. Moreover, Amazon’s new Fire TV Stick promises better performance and voice search for just $40. Amazon’s interface is also more modern.

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In the end, Roku has the best all-around content ecosystem and for a lot of users, that’s what will matter. Can you buy a better streaming box? Yes. The Roku Express is slow, to the point that I’d consider spending the extra $20 to get the Roku Streaming Stick. But that’s just me, the person who has owned a variation of almost every streaming device to hit the market in the last 8 years.

For the sort of person who just wants a cheap, basic streaming device, the Roku Express is a great buy at just $30. This is a terrific choice for a boat, vacation house, or kids room. It’s also not a bad gadget for a travel bag if you frequent hotels. Because at $30, it’s squarely in impulse buy territory. But unlike the bag of chips in the checkout aisle, you won’t regret the Roku Express.

README

  • Still the most versatile ecosystem of content apps
  • Incredibly tiny
  • Remote is IR, so it needs line of sight. But you can also use the Roku app to control your content.
  • Comes with HDMI cable, something the $150 Apple TV doesn’t even do
  • Slow. Much slower than the Roku Stick or competing devices from Google and Amazon
  • Uses the newer Netflix app, which supports user profiles and continuous play.
  • Interface looks dated for some apps
  • Voice search only possible on the phone app, but it works well
  • Won’t work on your fancy 5Ghz Wi-Fi
  • The adhesive that comes with the Express isn’t really reusable. Place once and leave.
  • It’s just $30