Roku Express and Premiere (2019 UK) Review

The fight for HDMI 2 is intense these days, with Roku, Apple, Amazon and Google all pushing their streaming devices into the slot. It’s a big market with 28% of “people who stream” using a connected device and with Christmas fast approaching, plenty of are going to be under the tree or in a stocking. The team at Roku have recently refreshed their product line for the UK, upgrading the Roku Express and introducing the Roku Premiere, though the Roku Streaming Stick+ remains unchanged. Let’s take a look at the two new models.

The overall style and function of both devices is broadly the same – in the picture above, the Express is on the left and the Premiere on the right. In the box, there’s a small streaming player, HDMI cable, IR remote control with batteries, USB power cable and an adhesive strip to stick the player to a convenient flat surface. The Roku Premiere also comes with a power adaptor, which may or may not be needed, but with the inclusion of batteries and HDMI cable, no-one’s likely to be disappointed when unwrapping their present.

Unlike the old hockey puck-sized Roku 2-series, the new Express and Premiere are less square and more rectangular, with the Express somewhat reminiscent of large fig roll. The front has the expected smoked plastic for the IR and round the back there’s the HDMI port, the microUSB socket for power and a reset hole (which I’ve never had to use in many years of Roku ownership). On the bottom there’s a smooth flat area that can be used with the adhesive strip. I’m slightly disappointed that the purple Roku tag is no longer on the streamers….

…but fortunately, the tag is still present on the remote control which is the same for both units and the same as last time, apart from some changes to the branding of the shortcut buttons. It’s an IR remote control so line of sight is needed when positioning the small streamers themselves.

So what’s the difference between the Express and the Premiere? Simplistically, the Express is the entry-level model and proves HD quality streaming, whereas the Premiere does HD and 4K with HDR.

Getting started is straightforward as there are only HDMI and micro USB connections. Use the supplied HDMI lead to connect to the TV and the micro USB for power, which the TV may also be able to supply. If not, a USB power supply will be needed: that’s included with the Premiere but not on the entry level Express. Finish off the installation by putting the batteries in the remote control.

Most TVs will switch to the relevant HDMI input when activity is detected – if not, switch over – and it’s now largely a case of following the prompts. The Roku will attempt to auto-detect the type of TV and connection, but you can tweak it if necessary though I had no trouble. Both the Express and the Premiere use 802.11bgn wireless for connectivity so no-one should have any problems, though if you have a long password or WiFi key, using the remote can get tedious. Still you only have to do it once.

Roku offers over 1,500 streaming entertainment channels which are great for followers of niche programming, whether travel, sport, kids, health & fitness or faith/religion. However, the vast majority of UK buyers will be interested in the offerings from the main terrestrial broadcasters plus the well known video-on-demand services. Naturally, Roku has them all. From the British terrestrial broadcasters, there’s BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4 and My 5. For programmes on demand, there’s Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play Movies, Disney+ and Apple TV+. And let’s not forget YouTube. For audio fans, there’s Spotify, Deezer, BBC Sounds, TuneIn and Vevo. Newshounds will like the BBC News and Sky News channels. I could keep going but in summary there’s lots there and no-one will ever be able to say, “There’s nothing on the TV”.

If you want to look up what’s available in your country, you can review Roku’s Channel Store on the web. The vast majority of the channels are free to add to your Roku, but some do require payment, either as a one-off, or else as a subscription, such as Netflix.

On the other hand, if you have your own media, the Roku Media Player will play from DLNA servers and a Plex client can be installed too. I streamed ripped movies from a NAS and while picture quality can be subject to network speeds, I had no problems at all and enjoyed HD footage without glitches from all the services that offered HD streaming. Unlike some earlier models of Roku, there’s no longer a USB port or memory card slot, so you can’t play media from local devices.

If you’re a real film buff, you’ll be interested in Roku’s Search and My Feed. The former searches through top channels by title, actor or director to find your favourite programming and the Roku Feed automatically updates you when new films become available for streaming (or if the price changes). Discoveries from Search are automatically incorporated into My Feed, so it’s a great way of keeping track of actors or films that you love.

The Roku’s main user interface is a simple menu-driven big button affair. It’s not nearly as complex as Amazon’s Fire, which combines media from multiple sources and can be tremendously confusing at times. Part of this is because the Roku doesn’t have the integrated cloud-based ecosystem behind it in the style of Amazon or Google, but part is to keep things straightforward and easy to use, much like an ordinary TV.

Frankly, I prefer the channel approach as you know what you are getting, e.g. BBC programming, Netflix’s catalogue, YouTube video. Channel or app sophistication varies hugely: most are good, especially from the big names like BBC or Netflix and the new Apple TV+ channel is very stylish as you’d expect from company.

The remote is easy to use with a directional pad falling easily under the thumb. Other buttons function as home, back and menu controls. There are four shortcut buttons for Netflix, Google Play, Rakuten TV and Spotify, which is great if you use those services, but a waste of space if you don’t. It’s a pity they aren’t more generically labelled, e.g. Films, Music, News, Sport, with a configuration option for each button. Even better would be to print and label your own buttons!

To play media from smartphones and tablets, Roku offers a complementary app (Android and iOS) which can be used to not only manage and control the Roku, but also cast media from the mobile device to the screen. It’s great to show the photos you’ve just taken on the TV. One of the app’s best features is private listening, which routes the Roku’s audio through your smartphone or tablet so you can listen on headphones.

Well, that wraps the review up – we’ve taken a look at the devices themselves and the channels available and it’s all good. The Roku Express and Premiere are both competent media streamers that offer a wide range of channels without being tied into anyone’s ecosystem. Really the only decision you have to make is whether HD on the Express is enough or whether to future-proof for 4K and get the Premiere.

Pricewise, the Express has an RRP of GB£29.99 and the Premiere costs GB£39.99.

If you want to see more of the Rokus, I’ve an unboxing and setup video below.

Thanks to Roku for providing the Roku Express and Premiere for review.