Beginner’s Guide: What Is Roku and How Does It Work?

If you've wondered, "What is Roku," then this beginner's guide is for you. In this article, we explain everything, from how Rokus work to the various devices and their prices.

By Sandra PattisonAssistant Editor
— Last Updated:
2020-10-26T11:36:20+00:00

Although the first Roku device came out in the late 2000s, your interest in it might have just recently been piqued. If that’s the case, you’re probably wondering: what is Roku and how does it work? We’ve put together this Roku beginner’s guide to give you all the information you need about streaming on Roku devices.

We’ll go through everything from how a Roku works, the various Roku device options and even the pricing — because it varies considerably. By the end of the guide, you should have a good grasp of everything Roku, and we’d be surprised if you haven’t already put in an order for one.

Roku Guide: What Is Roku?

Roku is basically a device that can stream shows, movies and music straight to your TV. The streaming device gives you access to a wide range of TV channels and streaming channels, making Roku cost-effective and an easy way to watch what you want, when you want.

entertainment on roku
Entertainment on Roku

You can stream anything from the latest movies to your favorite series, or even live TV. In fact, there are thousands of movies and TV episodes to choose from, as well as sports, news, kids’ TV and music channels.

All of that content is spread across both free and paid channels, allowing you to subscribe to individual services or cut the cord completely. Plus, if you already subscribe to services such as Netflix, Disney+ or Amazon Prime Video, you can access all of those on a Roku, giving you an all-in-one home theater.

There’s also The Roku Channel, which is free and gives you access to a dynamic selection of shows, movies, children’s entertainment and more.

Read our Roku pricing guide to learn more about how much it all costs.

How Does Roku Work?

Rokus are simple to set up. All they require is power, an internet connection and an HDMI port to display it on your TV. Once you’ve got all of that sorted, all you need to do is set up your Roku account and search for what you want to watch.

Roku makes that easy, too, with a search function that allows you to find content by actor, title or even director. Just hit “search” and Roku does the hard work for you.

search feature on roku
The search feature on Roku

There’s more, though. Roku will not only tell you what channels you can watch the chosen content on, but also the cost (if any) for each option. Once you know which channels and services are your favorites, you can easily add them to your home screen for easy access and subscription management.

Roku users are also able to watch hidden adult channels. If you’re in the mood for some X-rated viewing, you should head straight to our dedicated guide on how to watch porn on Roku.

Roku devices aren’t just for watching TV channels and streaming movies, though. You can also cast to Roku.

cast to roku
Cast content to Roku

Let’s say you’re flicking through YouTube or Netflix on your mobile device, but you want to display it on the big screen. You can click the casting icon to launch it on your Roku. You just need to make sure your mobile device and Roku are connected to the same network and have the same channel or service app installed.

Plus, you can display your own photos, videos and songs. Some Rokus allow local playback via USB. If you want to show them straight from your mobile, you’ll need to install the free Roku mobile app. From there, you can use the “play on Roku” feature.

Screen mirroring is also possible, but only with compatible Android and Windows devices. If you have any issues, you can turn to the troubleshooting guide or Roku support. One thing you don’t need to worry about, though, is updating your device, as software updates are automatic.

The Many Roku Devices

When it comes to buying a Roku device, it’s a little more involved than just picking one up and paying for it. You can read more about each player’s details in our Roku buyer’s guide, but here’s a quick list of the current Roku devices.

  • Roku Express: ($24.00) Cheapest option, up to HD 1080p (all the other models stream in 4K & HDR). Find it on Amazon.com
  • Roku Premiere: ($39.00) Same as Express, but can stream in 4K & HDR. Find it on Amazon.com
  • Roku Streaming Stick+: ($49.00) Best Roku for portability; device plugs right into an HDMI port. Features long-range wireless & includes Enhanced Voice remote. Find it on Amazon.com
  • Roku Ultra LT: ($79.99) Extended wireless & Ethernet port, expandable channel storage, Enhanced Voice remote. HDMI cable not included (all other models include this). Find it on Roku.com
  • Roku Ultra: ($99.00) Best performance & wireless, includes Ethernet port, compatible with Dolby Vision, Bluetooth capability & USB local playback. Find it on Amazon.com
  • Roku TV: ($139.99) TV with built-in Roku player & Simple remote. Find it on Amazon.com
  • Roku Smart Soundbar: ($179.99) Dolby Audio, sound modes & speech clarity, Bluetooth capability. Find it on Amazon.com
  • Roku Streambar: ($129.99) Same as Smart Soundbar, but more compact. Find it on Amazon.com

There’s a budget-friendly option, a portable stick, Rokus in speakers, a stand-alone Roku TV and a device that outdoes them all: the Roku Ultra.

Roku Ultra 2020

If you’re after the most powerful Roku player, then the Ultra is what you need. Although the first Ultra came out in 2016, we’re talking about the newest release, the Ultra 4800R.

Roku Ultra 2020 | Streaming Media Player | To be released in October 2020

It streams in HD, 4K, HDR and Dolby Vision, the latter of which was Roku’s downfall in earlier Roku vs Firestick comparisons. The Ultra is also the fastest Roku, has the best wireless range, includes Bluetooth connectivity, features a USB port for local playback and much more.

Roku Accessories 

On top of those, there are also Roku accessories. First and foremost is the remote control. There are three choices:

  • Simple remote: Basic remote with popular streaming channel shortcut buttons (Netflix, Disney+, Hulu and Sling TV).
  • Voice remote: Includes TV power, volume and mute buttons. You can also use your voice for commands and search.
  • Enhanced Voice remote: Includes TV controls and voice controls as above, as well as customizable shortcut buttons. It also has a headphone jack for personal listening and includes a set of earbuds.

Each Roku player comes with one of these remotes, but if you don’t get the one you want, you can buy them separately, though you should check compatibility first. 

After that, there’s the Roku TV Wireless Speakers and the Roku Wireless Subwoofer; they don’t include a Roku player, though, and can only connect with certain models.

Roku Pricing

Roku pricing varies widely, from the $24.00 Express all the way up to a stand-alone Roku TV costing hundreds of dollars. However, choosing a device based solely on its price might not get you the features you want. 

For instance, the Express can’t stream in 4K, so if you want your Roku experience to include Ultra HD, the Express won’t cut it. On the other hand, the ability to stream in 4K doesn’t require the most expensive option, either.

If you’re looking to upgrade your TV anyway, a Roku TV could be a good option, and if you’re looking for a new sound system, consider one of the soundbars. 

The Basics of Roku

To give you a better look at Roku’s features and what you can watch on your device, we’ll give a breakdown on each section. Through this, you’ll see just how much is possible with Roku as your primary entertainment system.

Features

Although Roku players aren’t huge in size, the company has managed to pack a lot of features inside. Roku’s main features depend on the model you choose, but you can benefit from the following:

  • A small and portable device
  • Easy setup and a user friendly interface
  • A customizable home page
  • Ability to stream in HD, 4K Ultra HD, HDR and even Dolby Vision
  • Voice search
  • A headphone jack for private listening
  • WiFi connectivity (some include an Ethernet port, too)
  • Bluetooth connectivity
  • Local playback ability
  • Remote finder
  • Extra accessories (available separately)

Aside from the main features, there are also some extras. For instance, you can now use voice search or control your Roku device — or multiple devices — through Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. You can also use the free Roku app for voice search, as well as access pretty much everything else on your device. It can also double as a second remote.

As we previously stated, the Roku searches through different apps and tells you where you can watch your desired content and whether it’s free or paid. Plus, Roku has something called “my feed,” which allows you to follow a show or series and get notifications when new episodes are released.

Roku’s private listening is great for noisy situations or when you don’t want to disturb others. It’s only available if you have the Enhanced Voice remote — that is, unless you put the mobile app to good use. Connect your headphones to the remote or your phone and you’re good to go. The Roku app also accommodates wireless headphones.

Channels

Roku users can get access to thousands of channels, although what’s available will depend on your region. Some TV shows and channels are geoblocked, meaning they can only be shown in certain countries, but you can read our geoblocking guide for more information on that.

You can watch both free and paid channels, including live TV and on-demand content. As an example, Pluto TV has channels that include sports, news and live TV, as well as a large library of movies and episodes you can watch on demand.

Here’s a small sample of some of the Roku channels:

  • Netflix
  • Amazon Prime Video
  • Disney Plus
  • Hulu
  • ESPN
  • Apple TV
  • Pandora
  • Spotify
  • fuboTV
  • Apple TV

There’s also The Roku Channel, which provides users with hundreds of movies and shows for free. It is ad-supported, but it’s a small inconvenience when you’re getting the content for free.

the roku channel
The Roku Channel

The Roku Channel includes live TV, news, movies, sports, shows and kids’ movies, and the selection is always changing.

Subscriptions

On top of the huge number of Roku channels available, you can also keep all your subscriptions in one place. This includes channels like ESPN or Showtime, which require paid subscriptions. You can also subscribe to streaming services including Netflix, Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Sling TV and many more.

roku subscriptions
Paid Channels on Roku

Roku makes it easy to manage your subscriptions, too. You can link a payment method to your account and easily purchase a subscription via the Roku Channel Store, or cancel subscriptions and free trials. 

Roku’s customizable home screen makes it easy to organize your subscriptions, too. Plus, if you search for a particular show or movie, your device will search through each app to see if it’s already included.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve been on the fence about getting a Roku, we hope our beginner’s guide has helped you understand what Roku is and how it works, as well as its features and benefits. There are lots of devices to choose from, and once you’ve made the initial investment, you’ll have thousands of Roku TV channels and subscription services to choose from.

Regardless of which option you choose, Roku is a great addition to family TVs and home theaters, as well as a great option for on-the-go entertainment. All you need to do is power it up, connect to the internet and an HDMI port, sit back and start streaming. It’s that simple.

Do you already own a Roku streaming player? If so, which one? Let us know in the comments below, along with any tips you have or issues you’ve found along the way. As always, thank you for reading.

FAQ

  • Does Roku Require Internet?

    The simple answer is yes. Your Roku device needs to be connected to the internet in order to access streaming content. If your Roku model has a USB connection, you can play videos from a USB drive without the internet, but you won’t have access to any TV channels or streaming channels like Netflix.

  • What Is a Roku Channel?

    Roku allows you to add both free and paid channels to your Roku account. Simply find the channel you want and add it -- paid channels will prompt you for payment. New channels are then added to your library for easy access. Channels can include streaming services and stand-alone channels.

  • What Is the Newest Roku?

    Roku has released two new devices for 2020. That includes the Roku Ultra, which is the most powerful Roku available and includes more features than Roku’s other devices. Plus, there’s the Roku Streambar, which is a newer and smaller version of the Roku Smart Soundbar.