MEGATech Reviews: Roku Express (2017) Streaming Media Player
If you're not satisfied with your smart TV experience and you're looking for a budget-friendly smart media player alternative, it doesn't get much better (or much cheaper) than the 2017 iteration of the Roku Express.
Pros
  • Really affordable
  • Discreet, compact design
  • Pleasant Roku experience
Cons
  • Remote feels really cheap and hollow
  • Needs line of sight for IR remote
  • Cannot remap quick access buttons
8Overall Score

Whether or not you count yourself among the growing number of cord cutters, it's undeniable just how terrific streaming media has gotten over the years. If anything, you might be getting overwhelmed with just how many different sources of entertainment you have at your fingertips. And you want a convenient and robust way to access all of that. Thankfully, your wallet barely needs to break a sweat for you to land yourself the newly upgraded Roku Express for 2017, which is five times more powerful than the identically-named predecessor it replaces.

A Smart Media Player on a Budget

Positioned as the company's "best-priced player," the 2017 Roku Express aims to deliver (almost) everything that you'd want out of a little streaming box for as little money as possible. Roku is a very popular streaming platform and there are fancier models in the lineup, but this inexpensive offering ticks many of the most important boxes for the majority of users.

While it doesn't support 4K or HDR, it gladly streams up to full HD 1080p from the myriad of streaming "channels" you can access on the Roku platform. Roku says that it is five times more powerful than the last generation, though I'm not entirely sure what that means exactly, as they don't really provide any hard specs. What I can say is that you get built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, a bundled remote control with AAA batteries, and an included high-speed HDMI cable.

If you're looking for a device with a wealth of input and output options, you'll need to look elsewhere. They've kept this device, which is actually even smaller than the remote as simple as possible. There's HDMI for output, plus a microUSB port for power. You can use the provided cable to plug that into a USB port on your TV (provided it is at least 1.0A) or you can use the provided USB wall adapter for power if you prefer/require. And that's about it. Like other Roku devices, it never really turns off. It just goes into sleep mode, which explains why there's no power button on the remote either.

Point Your Remote Here

Something that I like about the remote that came with my Samsung smart TV is that, with the exception of power, I don't actually have to point it at the TV in order for it to work. That's not the case here, because the Roku Express comes with a more traditional infrared remote. It needs line of the sight to the front of the device and the setup guide even recommends that you don't place the Roku Express behind glass (as would be the case with many entertainment units).

Indeed, as you see in the photo above, the protective plastic film on the device itself even has "point remote here" printed on it. (You can and should remove that plastic, of course.) The Roku Express is small and discreet enough, though, that you can place it just about anywhere. Roku even includes some double-sided sticky tape if you want to mount the player somewhere.

Speaking of the remote, the layout is fundamentally identical to just about every other Roku I've ever seen. You have your back and home buttons at the top, the five-way navigator below that in signature purple, followed by some media controls and the menu button, followed by a series of four quick launch buttons. It's simple and functional. If you want to do more, particularly in terms of bringing up a usable keyboard, the Roku mobile app for Android and iOS can be used to control your player too. That's really convenient and it also eliminates the line of sight concern.

I had two main issues with this remote control, however. First, it really does feel cheap and hollow. I know that it's really a cheap plastic shell and they did what they could in terms of materials, but it's very clearly not a premium type thing. That's understandable, especially at this price point. The bigger issue is that I am unable to remap those four quick access buttons on the bottom. Personally, I'd use Netflix for sure, but I don't have much interest in the other three. I wish there were a way to change that.

Setting Up the Roku Express

The setup process is just as simple and as straightforward as you might expect, especially if you already have a Roku account. If you don't, it only takes a few moments to enter your email and password and such. Just plug in the HDMI cable on either end, plug in the USB cable (I used the port on the back of my TV), and wait for the screen above to appear. I didn't feel like testing my high school French, so I chose English.

After getting connected to my Wi-Fi access point of choice, the Roku proceeded to look for the latest software. The update took a couple minutes to download and to be applied. The player restarted on its own after the update was installed.

The setup wizard also goes through an automatic detection process for the HDMI connection and I had no reason not to go with the automatic settings it detected: full high definition (1080p) with 1080p content protection (HDCP 1.4).

The next step involved activating my Roku. You will need to have a computer or mobile device (like a smartphone or tablet) on hand for this, as you need to open up a webpage in a browser. Enter the code provided, link up to your existing Roku account (or create a new one), and it'll run you through a couple more steps with recommended streaming channels and the like.

The whole setup process sounds a lot more involving than it really is. You don't need any real technical expertise here at all, so long as you are reasonably comfortable with Wi-Fi passwords and making your way through a simple web-based wizard.

Well, This Feels Familiar

The new Roku Express for 2017 really doesn't reinvent the streaming media wheel for the company. The user interface is identical to what you'd find on every other Roku device, including how you go about adding more content through the "Channel Store." I found it was easier doing this from the web or app than on the TV, but that's entirely up to you.

Just like on the Roku 3 or on one of those integrated smart Roku TVs, the main menu is found along the left side and then you access the tile-based channels on the right side. The streaming channels (or "apps," if you prefer) range from Pokemon TV and YouTube to more obscure fitness and religious channels. There are even basic games (but I wouldn't really recommend those as a rule).

Performance will depend on your Internet connection and other factors, of course, but I experienced no real issues myself. HD videos streamed without a hitch and adding (and removing) channels was a reasonably straightforward affair. The search function for finding not only new channels, but specific movies, TV shows and actors was really convenient too.

MEGATechie Cheap and Cheerful or MEGATechie Express Failure?

If you're looking for a more advanced solution that supports higher-end features like HDR and 4K, you'll need to look elsewhere. If you like the idea of private listening through the remote or you want more I/O options, you'll want something else too. But for everyone else who just wants a simple and straightforward streaming solution on the big screen that accesses just about every major source you can think of, this tiny little plastic-clad wonder really impresses.

Considering that it retails at just $30 US, including a bundled high-speed HDMI cable, the Roku Express (2017) is easily one of the better deals in town. Some people might prefer the added simplicity of a streaming stick, and that's certainly an option. Depending on the placement of the HDMI ports on your TV, though, something like the Roku Express could be a better choice. And for thirty bucks, you can't lose.


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