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What is Roku? What you need to know about the popular streaming devices

Couple at home watching television together on sofa
10'000 Hours / Getty Images

A recent CBS News poll found that only 45% of Americans still watch TV using cable or satellite. If you're looking to cut the pay TV cord too, consider a Roku streaming media player.

Here's what you need to know before you buy.

What does Roku do?

Functioning similar to the Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV 4K, Roku devices are small streaming boxes or streaming sticks that connect to your television. They put streaming content from Netflix, Spotify, Hulu, Disney+ and more (subscriptions required) in one easy-to-search place on a TV screen. They offer access to plenty of free content as well, including more than 190 streaming channels available for free on the Roku Channel and more than 250 channels available free through Pluto TV.

(Note: CBS Essentials and Pluto TV are both subsidiaries of ViacomCBS.)

How does Roku work?

Roku delivers streaming content via your home internet connection, so you'll need broadband speeds of at least 1.5 Mbps for standard definition and 3.0 Mbps for HD content at a minimum.

Roku boxes and streaming sticks are controlled with the included, easy-to-use Roku remote. Some Roku remotes support for voice commands and feature a headphone jack. And if the Roku remote gets misplaced, there are no worries -- Roku devices can be controlled via the Roku app on your phone or tablet, too.

The Roku interface is one of the easiest to use, and can be customized to feature the streaming apps that are used the most at the very top of the menu. Roku

Who should get a Roku?

Roku is a popular cost-saving option among those looking to cut the pay TV cable cord -- there's no monthly cost to use the device (aside from any premium streaming subscription you pay for anyway, such as Netflix).

Roku boxes and streaming sticks are popular for people looking to make a high-tech upgrade to older TVs, as well as with those just looking for an easier interface. Some smart TVs come with the Roku tech already built in.

What Roku is best for me?

Choosing the best Roku device for you depends on what kind of TV you're looking to upgrade. Older TVs won't require advanced features such as 4K support -- a basic Roku device will do. For newer televisions, you'll want to look for features such as 4K support, wired ethernet (for optimum streaming performance) and Dolby Vision/Dolby Atmos. More expensive Roku devices typically feature a more advanced Roku remote, as well.

Roku makes a number of different models, so choosing the right one isn't always easy. But that's where CBS Essentials comes in. If you're looking to give Roku a try, here are the most popular Roku models available right now.

Roku Express 4K+

Roku via Amazon

Enjoy 4K picture quality and voice control via a Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant that lets you search across channels, turn on captions and more with the affordable Express 4K+ streaming box. It features dual-band wireless for a smooth streaming experience, and a premium HDMI cable is included to connect the Roku to the TV. The Roku Express 4K+ does not require a smart TV to work, but it does require a TV with an HDMI input. While some Roku devices support older TVs with an A/V input, this one does not.

"I can finally have the apps I want and not worry about storage running out on my TV," reviewer Lotte says. "It's very easy to set up and use. The remote is very simple and easy to learn."

Roku Ultra

Roku via Amazon

With a new quad-core processor, the Roku Ultra is the fastest and most powerful media player the company makes. It has all of the features of the Express 4K+, plus support for Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. It works both wirelessly and with an ethernet port, and it and comes with headphones for private listening. If you lose your remote, you can press a button on the streaming device, and your remote will play a sound. You can play music, podcasts and more on your TV with a connected Bluetooth streaming device.

"I have found that Dolby Vision (offered on many Netflix originals) is superior to standard HDR," reviewer Gary says. "If you're not as fussy as I am about getting maximum picture quality, getting Dolby Vision might not matter to you."

Roku Streambar

Roku via Amazon

The Streambar is a Roku streaming device and sound bar all in one. The sound uses Dolby Audio tech, which automatically lowers the volume of loud commercials and boosts the volume of quiet conversations. It also has a long-range wireless receiver. Roku makes an add-on wireless subwoofer and wireless speakers that pair with the Streambar for an upgraded surround sound experience.

"I purchased [the Roku Streambar] because of its compact design and the audio mix coming from my LG TV made watching movies impossible," an Amazon customer says. "The Streambar solved my audio problem. I can now watch movies without turning the volume up for dialogue and down for action sequences. I also like the upgradeability of this device with wireless speakers and a subwoofer, which I'm sure I'll take advantage of over time."

Roku Streaming Stick+

Roku via Amazon

The Roku Streaming Stick+ has a long-range wireless receiver and allows Bluetooth streaming, plus includes all the features of the Roku Express 4K+ in a smaller, easier-to-conceal device. Instead of connecting to a television via wires, it connects directly to an HDMI port. Note that the Roku Streaming Stick+ still needs to be connected to a power source -- either via a TV USB input or a wall outlet.

"It doesn't have the same bells and whistles that my Roku Ultras have...but then again, I also paid nearly twice as much for those," reviewer K. Krueger says. "This Stick+ is much cheaper and provides basically the same user interface and playback performance."

Roku Express

Roku via Amazon

The Roku Express is an affordable option for people with older TVs. It keeps things simple with HD picture quality; a standard remote and HDMI cable; and standard wireless and connectivity. It still works with Alexa, Google Assistant and the Apple AirPlay and HomeKit.

"I finally decided to buy one to help keep my TV relevant," reviewer Mike T says. "Most of the apps from my 2011 model TV don't work anymore and it was limited in functionality. I wish I bought one of these years ago."

TCL 50-inch Class 4-Series 4K UHD Smart Roku LED TV

TCL via Amazon

Some TVs have Roku already built in. Pick from 45-inch, 50-inch, 55-inch, 65-inch, 75-inch and 85-inch sizes in this 4K smart Roku TV, for example, which comes with a super-simple remote. The 85-inch model can be purchased in combination with TCL sound bars for an upgraded sound experience.

"I have no complaints considering the price," reviewer Ross K. says. "The sound, picture quality, ease-of-setup, digital antenna and all other advertised features are above my expectations."

TCL Roku TVs are currently on discount at Amazon.

50-inch TCL Roku TV

55-inch TCL Roku TV

75-inch TCL Roku TV

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