Roku’s line of streaming boxes are still the most popular, beating out Google’s Chromecast and the Apple TV. Roku recently refreshed their hardware, but there are still four different options to choose from — not the single option you get with competing devices.
Update: The Roku scene has changed a little bit, so check out our most recent Roku buying guide here for the most up-to-date info.
The choice here isn’t as simple as it seems. The Roku 2 and Roku 3 boxes now have identical internals — the only difference is the type of remote control these Rokus come with. And now the Roku 4 is on the scene with 4K Ultra HD support.
Roku Streaming Stick – $40
Other Roku devices are small boxes, but the Roku Streaming Stick is a little stick that plugs into your HDMI port — sort of like a Chromecast. Unlike a Chromecast, the Roku Streaming Stick comes with a remote control. This is a “point anywhere” remote control that connects to the Roku over Wi-Fi Direct.
Roku touts this device as “perfect for wall-mounted TVs,” it’s definitely the ideal device if you want a Roku that’s as small as possible — just plug it in, no additional box necessary. Roku devices are already small, so this really only matters if you’re mounting the TV on a wall and don’t want additional cables and boxes.
It’s also the cheapest Roku, and that’s useful. As a Chromecast is $30, you’re paying another $10 here for the convenience of having a remote. This device also offers support for Miracast screen-mirroring and DIAL send-to-TV functionality.
The Roku Streaming Stick’s main disadvantage is that it’s slower than the Roku 2 and 3. Due to its small size, it also lacks an Ethernet port (so no wired network — Wi-Fi only) and USB and microSD card slots for watching local video files.
Who Should Buy This: People who need a Roku for a wall-mounted TV, or bargain-hunters who want a Roku experience at the lowest price possible.
Roku 1 – $50
The Roku 1 has the oldest internals. It lacks modern features like Miracast screen-mirroring and DIAL send-to-TV functionality. It also has an older Netflix app without user profiles. Its processor is slower and it contains older Wi-Fi hardware. Despite being a larger form factor than the streaming stick, it also lacks Ethernet, USB, and microSD hardware.
Unlike the streaming stick, the Roku 1 has a remote control with an IR blaster — rather than pointing it anywhere, you have to point it directly at the Roku box, like you’d point a TV remote at the TV.
The single advantage of the Roku 1 is that it comes with the ability to output via composite cables (those old red, white, and yellow cables) as well as HDMI. If you want to connect a Roku to an older TV that doesn’t have HDMI ports, this is the only Roku to get. (You could potentially purchase an HDMI-to-composite converter instead, but most people aren’t going to do that.)
If your TV does have HDMI ports, you shouldn’t get this — the Roku Streaming Stick is cheaper and better, offering more modern conveniences.
Who Should Buy This: People who want to connect a Roku to an old TV without HDMI ports.
Roku 2 – $70
The Roku 2 and 3 are the most similar, and you’ll probably have the hardest time choosing between these two.
The refreshed Roku 2 is actually just as fast as the Roku 3 — the box itself has the same internals. You get all the features from the Roku Streaming Stick (screen-sharing, DIAL send-to-TV functionality, and a modern Netflix app). You also get a Roku box with Ethernet functionality for wired networking, and USB and microSD hardware for watching your own media files.
The Roku 2 has a faster processor than the streaming stick — the same one found in the Roku 3, which is the fastest processor you can get in a Roku. Like the Streaming Stick, the Roku 2 and 3 only support HDMI output.
The Roku 2’s remote control uses an IR blaster, which means it must be pointed directly at the Roku 2 box to function. The Roku 3 distinguishes itself from the Roku 2 by offering a fancier remote control with more powerful features. But, if you don’t care about the upgraded remote, this Roku otherwise has the same hardware and is the best value.
Who Should Buy This: Most people, unless they want to pay another $30 for the remote features found below.
Roku 3 – $100
The Roku 3 previously had faster hardware inside than the Roku 2, but it doesn’t anymore. Now, the only difference is the remote control the Roku 3 comes with. Everything else is the same as the Roku 2.
Where the Roku 2 has a remote that depends on an IR blaster, the Roku 3 has a remote that can be pointed anywhere — like the Roku Streaming Stick’s remote, it uses Wi-Fi Direct.
Unlike the Roku Streaming Stick’s remote, the Roku 3’s remote has other features. It has a built-in headphone jack, allowing you to easily connect headphones to it and watch TV without disturbing other people. It offers voice search, so you can press a button and speak to your remote to search for something to watch. It also offers motion control features which games can use. Roku games haven’t really taken off though, so these motion control features feel like a gimmick.
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The headphones jack and voice search are useful, but bear in mind that you can connect headphones to your TV in other ways and use Roku’s official smartphone app to perform voice searches on your TV. The point-anywhere nature of the remote is nice, but pointing the remote at the Roku may not be a big deal. It’s up to you whether these features are worth it for an extra $30.
Who Should Buy This: People who want a remote control with an integrated headphone jack and voice search.
New to the Roku line is the Roku 4, which is specifically made to support 4K Ultra HD content, and has a faster processor than the other Roku models. Feature-wise everything else is roughly the same as the Roku 3, so if you don’t have a 4K TV there’s no reason to pay the extra money right now.
If you do have a 4K TV, however, you might want to pay the extra $30 just to future proof yourself — but note that there isn’t a whole ton of 4K content right now, so don’t expect to have a lot of media to watch.
Who should buy this: People who have a 4K TV, want a remote control, and the latest and greatest Roku.
Most Roku-buyers should buy the Roku 2 or Roku 3. These are basically the same pieces of hardware and differ only in the remote controls they come with. The real question here is “Do you want to pay an extra $30 for some fancy remote-control features?” That’s up to you.
People who have old TVs should buy the Roku 1, and people with wall-mounted TVs should get a Roku Streaming Stick.
This is assuming you want to buy a Roku in the first place, of course. You have many other options these days, from the Chromecast to the Apple TV to the Amazon Fire TV.