The $30 Roku Express gets the job done

Jason Cipriani, CNN Underscored
Tue November 26, 2019

Streaming devices come in all shapes and sizes, with capabilities to match. I recently reviewed Roku's $99 Ultra streaming box and it offers the best experience you can get from a Roku device. It's fast, has 4K HDR, and has a remote that does it all.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the $30 Roku Express. The small device streams in 1080p, doesn't have expandable storage and has a barebones remote. But at the end of the day, both devices achieve the same thing -- allow you to stream your favorite TV shows and movies from virtually any streaming service available right now.

You can order the Express right now for $30.

Let's take a closer look at Roku's most affordable streaming device.

Design and setup

The Express doesn't look like a typical streaming device. It's a small rectangle, that almost resembles a dome when you look at it from the front. On the back are two ports, one for power and the other for an HDMI cable. There's a small reset button, as well. On the bottom is a spot for two-sided tape (there's some in the box) so you can mount the Express on a stand or your TV. You'll need to make sure the front of the Express is visible to receive commands from the simple remote that's included in the box. Also included are two AAA batteries, the power adapter and cable, along with an HDMI cable.

The Express is roughly the size of a pack of cards, but slightly thicker. I didn't want to mount the Express on my TV stand, so I placed it near the front of it in order to get the best experience with the remote.

Roku's simple remote doesn't have any sort of volume controls, or even a power button to control the TV for that matter. Nor does it have a 3.5mm headphone jack to plug in headphones and listen to whatever you're watching. It does, however, have the necessary controls for navigating the Roku's interface, along with controlling playback. There are also some shortcut buttons on the remote for Netflix, Sling, ESPN+, and Hulu.

The initial setup took just a few minutes and consisted of connecting the Express to power and the TV via an HDMI port, then following the setup guide displayed on my TV. I had to connect it to Wi-Fi, then link the device to my Roku account by signing in on my phone. Roku automatically restores the channels I have installed on my previous Roku devices, and then offers some more apps and services to install or begin a free trial with.

All told, the setup process was completed in about 10 minutes, most of that taken up by the Express installing the latest software updates.

Performance

Roku's approach to the Express is one that provides a straight-forward streaming experience, at an affordable price point, and it delivers on both of those promises.

Having just spent some time using the Ultra, there was a noticeable slowdown in overall speed when switching between channels or loading apps on the Express, but after a day or two of use, that lessened and waiting for a channel to load just became part of the experience.

I would love to see a device of this size and price offer 4K streaming, but even still, the picture quality at 1080p when streaming Apple TV's "The Morning Show" was crisp and clear. If I didn't know any better, I could have convinced myself it was streaming in 4K.

As streaming devices go, the Express does exactly what it's supposed to do. My sole gripe with the Express is the remote. Because it lacks any volume controls, I have to have two remotes nearby at all times -- one to control the Roku, and another to control my TV. I would much rather pay a little bit more for the Express and a remote that offers the ability to control basic TV functions. Browsing Roku's website, it doesn't look like you can purchase one of the company's more advanced remotes and use it with the Express.

Even though the remote doesn't include a headphone jack to listen to whatever you're watching, you can still use the Roku mobile app on your phone and a pair of headphones to watch a show without waking up your roommates or partner.

You could program a universal remote to work with the Express and control your TV, if lack of TV controls is a dealbreaker for you.

This isn't a fancy streaming device

But it doesn't have to be. For $30, you get a streaming device that will pump all of the Netflix, Disney+ or Apple TV+ through your TV that you can handle. And do so at 1080p.

The Express doesn't offer any of the frills that Roku's more expensive products like the Ultra do, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Roku's Express is an affordable streaming device that nails the basics, and at $30, it's affordable. If you want a device that offers 4K streaming or TV controls, Roku's Streaming Stick+ is $50 and it solves both of those problems.

You can't go wrong, either way.

Order the Roku Express right now for $30.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer's listed price at the time of publication.