Update: Roku 2 has to make some room on the shelf for its new, 4K Ultra-HD-capable older brother, the Roku 4. But, if you were thinking about or already bought a Roku 2, don’t worry. The Roku 2 is still your best bet if you have no interest in – or own – 4K equipment or have an interest in gaming on your video streaming device.
The Roku 2 has always been – and always will be – the middle child of the Roku family. At $69 (£59, about AU$90), it’s pricier than the Roku or Roku Streaming Stick, but comes in well under the cost of a $99 (£79, about AU$129) Roku 3. Likewise, it has more features and a landslide of better specs than its predecessor, the original Roku, but it’s not quite as feature rich as its video game-ready older brother, the Roku 3. But herein lies the magic of the middle child. By cutting out some of the features you may not want or need (e.g. a headphone jack or gaming functionality), you save money while keeping the things that matter, like a faster processor and plenty of ports. It’s hard to say anything bad about the refreshed 2015 Roku 2. While I was left struggling with a few nagging issues, the puck-shaped streamer kept impressing me long after the first set of credits rolled.
Externally, little has changed about the Roku 2. It’s still a small, hockey puck-shaped box and has one tiny, but incredibly iconic, purple tag. Like the Roku 3, it has one side USB 2.0 port and four essential slots on the back for Ethernet, HDMI, microSD and power.
The unit itself is slightly larger than the palm of your hand but is far from unsightly. At 3.5 x 3.5 x 1 inches or 88.9 x 88.9 x 25.4mm (W x D x H), it sits so low to the entertainment center it completely blends in with its surroundings. The Roku 2 also has integrated dual-band Wi-Fi (a/b/g/n compatible). However, the wired Ethernet option is hands-down the best choice when it comes to streaming. The microSD card slot, a carryover from earlier models, allows you to store excess channels, and comes in handy after you fill up the internal storage.
It’s also worth noting that the Roku 2 doesn’t have an actual “off” button. The player stays online (consuming less than 3.5w) and updates itself automatically. So then what exactly makes the re-designed Roku 2, well, redesigned? Roku made two changes to this year’s model: one good, one bad. The good is a markedly improved processor – the same kind that’s inside the Roku 3. I’ll touch on this more in a minute and while the change isn’t an external one, it vastly improves the overall product. The bad news is that the remote we loved from the original Roku 2 – the one with a headphone jack – is gone. It’s been replaced with a plasticky feeling replica that’s practical, but far from premium. It’s also worth noting that two of the buttons from the Roku 2’s remote, Blockbuster and MGo, have been replaced with Sling TV and Rdio.
Getting the Roku 2 ready is unbelievably easy. Plug the unit into the wall, run an HDMI cable to your TV and voila! You’re well on your way to watching the latest season of House of Cards. First-time users will need to create an account on Roku’s website, while veteran Rokuites will simply need to add the unit to their accounts via a short identification number.
While the whole setup takes a matter of minutes, you’ll need to provide Roku with a credit card – in case of any additional fees – and you won’t be able to use your new streamer until it receives a short firmware update. A bummer, I know.
Easily its biggest strength, the Roku 2 is an equal opportunity player. Netflix, Amazon, MGo, Google Play Store are on equal ground here; Roku makes it clear that it’s content first, platforms second. Roku has over 2,000 channels available to download with varying degrees of paid content, interesting shows and specificity. If you’re looking for a film noir alien channel or an ultra-specific ’90s country metal hybrid station, Roku’s storefront is the place to find it. Of course, while there are plenty of niche channels to pick from, the streaming staples are front and center. In the US, that includes Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, HBO Go, Google Play Store, Vimeo, DailyMotion and CBS Access. Folks in the UK will see Sky’s Now TV platform (Sky being a shareholder in Roku), the ubiquitous Netflix, BBC iPlayer, ITV, 4oD and Demand 5 as some of the most highly downloaded channels. Audio apps of note in both territories include Spotify, Rdio, Tunein and Vevo.
Cord cutters who live in the US will also have access to Sling TV, the new live TV cable alternative that’s bringing new life to the cord cutting movement. The stream was crisp and clear on Roku 2, just as it was when I tested it on Roku 3. (Obviously, your mileage may vary, as my home setup isn’t identical – or even necessarily in the same ballpark either way – as everyone else.) The amount of content available on Roku’s boxes is vast, and while the majority of the options are either too oddly niche to be concerned with or poor ports of YouTube channels, the additional options don’t detract from the experience. Plus, the ability to customize the contents and order of your home screen means you only ever have to see the channels you want to see.
Like I stated earlier, it’s difficult to complain about the 2015 hardware refresh. Overall, the performance is snappy and sharp, and recent additions to the home screen add considerable value rather than take anything away. In terms of loading times, gone are the days of 10 or 15-second waiting screens. You’ll hop between one channel to the next in a matter of seconds. And while content takes a second or two to populate, I never felt like I was waiting around, twiddling my thumbs like I would with the original Roku 2.
Assuming your service provider pumps you with enough bandwidth, the Roku 2 can provide video resolutions up to 1080p. While not all content will come in a native 1080p signal, the unit does a great job upscaling. It can’t parse 4K streams, however, but this leaves Roku room to explore UHD in the yet-unannounced Roku 4. The only feature that really should’ve been here is the built-in mic that comes inside the Roku 3’s remote. Sure, you can pick up your phone and tablet to access the dedicated Roku app, but having the function built straight into the remote would save us a lot of trouble.
In addition to the standard remote is the Roku app. This handy companion for iOS and Android devices allows you to navigate the Roku interface while the box is streaming a show or film. Just make sure your device is running at least iOS 6.0 or Android 2.3 Gingerbread. On it, you’ll be able to launch apps remotely, add and remove channels from your home screen and search for content here in lieu of a remote with a built-in mic. It also works as a remote when the IR controller is out of arm’s reach. It’s supplemental, certainly, rather than essential to the experience, but it’s something I was glad to have when I was restlessly looking for something new to watch.
Roku Feed and Movies Coming Soon
Roku Feed and Movies Coming Soon are two new features the company rolled out in April to help you to track down your favorite new films. It’s simple to setup and quite helpful once you’ve parsed the 40-or-so films in the Movies Coming Soon section of the home page. Add a film to your Roku Feed using the asterisk button, and your Roku will keep you up to date on which services the movie is on and how much it costs on each. It’s slightly barebones at the moment, with only a few dozen trackable movies. It’s something that I expect to grow with the system, however, and will be a neat feature once it matures down the road.
Roku 2 vs. Roku 3
At one time, the difference between the Roku 2 and its older brother was cut and dry. You could expect faster performance and better load times from the latter, along with the ability to play games and stream in 1080p. Thankfully, the long-overdue 2015 version of the Roku 2 shook up the lopsided contest. A faster processor closed the performance gap between the two systems, and while it still isn’t video game-ready, the Roku 2 no longer suffers from longer load times. The big draw to the Roku 3 is the premium remote with a built-in mic and headphone jack, as well as its ability to play motion-control games, like Angry Birds.
If you’re just in the market for streaming video, the Roku 2 is the cost-saving solution you’ve been looking for.
Roku 2 vs. Roku Streaming Stick
Besides the obvious difference in size and form factor, the Roku 2 has plenty of awesome silicon inside that blows away the Streaming Stick in terms of performance. You’ll notice that the Roku 2 not only loads channels faster, but doesn’t have as much problem holding a stream, thanks to its rear ethernet port. Both the Roku 2 and Streaming Stick come with a remote, however, and both work with the dedicated iOS and Android app.
Finally, while the Roku 2 plugs into your TV via an HDMI cable, the Roku Stick interfaces directly with the TV via HDMI and draws power from a small micro-USB port on its rear. Because the price difference is minimal (only about $20 or £10) it’s probably in your best interest to shell out a bit more to get the faster, more capable model.
Not caring about the promotion or survival of any given channel has liberated Roku to create a more egalitarian box. As a result, Roku’s movie and TV offering are some of the most expansive on the market, boasting more channels and apps than any other platform. The new Roku 2 is easily one of the best devices the purple-loving company has given us to date. And while it’s not blemish free (but really, what is?), it’s hard to complain much when the result is a better product with updated specs and an unchanged price tag. Whether you’ve yet to pick up a streaming set-top box or are in for an upgrade, now’s the time – and this is a fine place to start.