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Roku: My Number One Pick for Cable Cutters

By Brian Shim | Updated 
11/22/2021
Roku Ultra
Roku Ultra 2018

Roku is my #1 streaming player recommendation for cable-cutters looking for an easy way to watch content from the Internet on their TVs. While Amazon Fire TV is also great, Roku is probably the best choice for most people.

Disclosure: Some of the links on this page are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you. I test or research each product or service before endorsing. This site is not owned by any retailer or manufacturer. I own this site and the opinions expressed here are mine. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

What is a Roku?

Roku comes in several versions but basically, it is a small black box or stick that comes with a remote control and power adapter. Roku connects to the Internet through your home’s Wi-Fi network (some models also have Ethernet connector), so you need an Internet connection to use it.

Roku Ultra with accessories
Roku Ultra with accessories

Roku allows you to watch paid and free streaming services from the Internet such as Netflix, Sling, Disney+, HBO Max, Hulu, and YouTube on your TV.

When Roku first came out, there was a lot of misunderstanding as to what it was, with many folks thinking it was a free replacement for traditional cable TV. It is not an exact replacement for cable. It allows you to watch some free content from the Internet (like YouTube) on your TV, as well as subscription content such as HBO Max, Netflix, and Hulu. Much of this paid content is cheaper than a cable TV contract and usually requires no long-term commitment.

Also, understand that the Roku itself is not a DVR; it doesn’t record video, although there are some paid services on Roku that offer recording capability.

If you already have a “smart TV”, you might not need a Roku. Your smart TV already does a lot of what the Roku does.

All current Roku models only have HDMI output, so they won’t work with an old tube-type TV. See this article if you have an old tube TV that you want to use with Roku.

Trying Roku

Readers have asked me if they need to cancel their existing cable or satellite service to use a Roku. The answer is definitely "no"! Many people use cable/satellite along with a Roku.

Most TVs have several HDMI inputs. Just plug your Roku into an unused HDMI input and use your TV's remote control to switch between cable/satellite and Roku.

Content

Roku has the largest number of “channels” to choose from among all of the mainstream set-top boxes. Some offer free content, many offer content that you have to pay for. These are not the same as cable TV channels. Some of the content is on-demand rather than live, so it’s like renting from a video rental store.

Roku Channel
Roku Channels

Roku has a ton of channels with free content. Here are some free channels that I would recommend:

  • Pluto TV features over two hundred specialized channels of TV and movie content. While many of the other services are on-demand, Pluto resembles cable or broadcast TV in that the content is always streaming and you just watch what's playing at the moment. Just like cable and broadcast, there are commercials, but it’s one of the best sources of free video online.
  • Crackle offers a few “B-level” and mostly “C-level” older movies for free with ads. I already offer this channel on my Internet remote. It’s worth keeping.
  • Popcorn Flix is a free movie channel like Crackle (with ads), except that we’re talking about “C-level” and “D-level” movies here. I mean, I hadn’t even heard of any of them. They look like they went straight to video. Still, it’s free, so what the heck, I’ll keep it.
  • YouTube (the regular old free version, not to be confused with the pay version, YouTube TV) is my favorite source for free video content. It’s available on all current-generation Roku devices and some older models.

So, out of the box, you can watch tons of free content without paying a dime, as long as you know which channels to look for.

Setup

Physically hooking up your Roku is pretty easy. Plug in the power adapter to the wall, and connect the other end to your Roku. Then, plug in an HDMI cable (not included!) to your Roku and your TV.

Setting up your passwords is more of a pain. You will need to select your Wi-Fi network and enter your password using the dreaded letter-picker and remote control:

Roku letter picker
The dreaded letter-picker

Then you’ll have to create a Roku account if you don’t already have one. One annoying thing is that it asks for your credit card information, even if you never plan to purchase any paid programming.

Note: Carefully follow the step-by-step setup instructions. Do not Google "Roku setup" on your computer or phone and start registering at the first website that shows up. There are scammers out there collecting "registration" fees when it should be totally free!

For every streaming service that you have (such as Netflix, Hulu, and so forth), you’ll have to go through the drill of authorizing your account, usually by getting a code from the Roku and entering it on your computer or phone. But, it’s a one-time deal. You won’t have to do it again.

Voice Search

If you’ve ever had to use the cumbersome letter-picker to spell out the name of a movie you’re looking for, you know why voice search is so helpful. It lets you simply say what you’re looking for into the remote mic instead of having to select each letter with the remote control and the Roku will find out which streaming services it is on, i.e., Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc. Amazon Fire TV also has this feature.

Note, the Roku Express and Premiere models do not have remotes with built-in voice search microphone. But, if you don’t have a model with voice search, you can use the Roku app on your phone to and speak your commands into the app instead of the remote.

Roku gives search results without playing favorites to particular streaming services, while Amazon heavily emphasizes Amazon sources in its search results of course.

Roku search results
Roku searches give you results from a variety of content providers.

Remote Control Headphone Output

One feature unique to some Roku models (Roku Ultra) is headphone output in the remote control. This allows you to listen to the TV using headphones so you don’t disturb other people in the room, neighbors, etc. If you need this feature, it works well, and none of the other boxes have it! It does cause your remote to eat up batteries if you use it a lot though.

Recording

The Roku itself does not record video. However, many streaming apps such as YouTube TV, Sling, etc. have cloud-based DVR functionality.

If you really want to record streaming video from your Roku to your computer, check out PlayOn.tv. For about $40/year, you can record your favorite streaming shows to your computer.

Mirroring Your iOS or Android Device

In late 2020, Roku released a software update that enabled Apple AirPlay to work in select 4K Roku models such as the Roku Ultra. This feature allows you to mirror your iOS device's screen to your TV, enabling you to watch almost any content on your iPhone on your TV. It works great! These are the Roku models that support AirPlay:

  • Roku Ultra (I have tested the 2018 Ultra)
  • Roku Streambar
  • Roku Smart Soundbar
  • Roku Streaming Stick+
  • Roku Premiere
  • Roku TV (select models only)

Previously, AirPlay was pretty much the only reason I owned an Apple TV box. With this Roku software release, I'm packing up my Apple TV into my closet and solely using my Roku!

Roku can mirror the screen of Android devices More info on mirroring from Android or Windows to Roku here.

Streaming from USB Stick

Roku devices with standard USB ports, such as the Roku 3 and Roku Ultra, have the ability to play video, music, and photos from USB storage devices such as hard drives or flash sticks.  Simply plug in the USB storage device and the Roku Media Player app should appear (if not, you can download it).

Roku 3 playing from USB stick
Roku 3 playing from USB stick

This is great for viewing videos you already own.  Or, you can use it to show photos from your last vacation!

The one caveat is that the video file types that this will work are limited to .MKV, .M4V, .MP4, and .MOV. While many videos on the web are of these formats, many videos that you might have may not be (such as .MPG, DV-RMS video files from the old Windows Media Center and so on). 

So, if your files are in the right format, this could be a really cool and dead simple way to watch video that you already own on your Roku!

Using Roku as a Spare Cable / Satellite Box

Several readers with pay satellite or cable services have asked me if they can use a Roku to watch DirecTV, Xfinity, etc. on a second TV without having to rent another expensive decoder box from the provider.

As far as I can tell, for DirecTV, the answer is “no”. There is a DIRECTV NOW service with the Roku app, but that is separate from DirecTV, and DirecTV customers can’t use the app without subscribing.

Xfinity does have a beta Roku app that lacks some features but is still usable.

Spectrum TV does have a Roku app that allows you to watch your content using a Roku, but only when connected to your home’s Internet (i.e., you can’t use it in a hotel, for example). So in this case you could use it as a substitute for a cable box.

Since this site is about cutting cable and satellite, I don’t subscribe to any paid satellite or cable TV services, so anyone who does, please chime in on the comments below to correct or clarify anything I’ve said about this! 

Roku vs. Other Streaming Boxes

Roku advantages

  • Has the most channels out of all of the mainstream set-top boxes.
  • Roku Ultra has headphone output in remote control
  • Easy to use
  • Roku Express+ 2018 edition (note the “plus” and the 2018) will work with old tube TVs with composite video input
  • Select 4K Roku devices (like the Roku Ultra) have Apple AirPlay built in, allowing you to mirror your iOS device's screen to your TV

Roku disadvantages

  • No native web browser

For most people, Roku is my recommended streaming player. It has the most apps and is the easiest to use.  If you like using Alexa or need a web browser on your TV, then Amazon Fire TV might be best.

Which Roku Should I Get?

If you think Roku is right for you, you might be wondering, “Which one should I get?” It’s one of the most common questions people ask me, especially since Roku exploded their product lineup into a confusing mix of boxes and streaming sticks. Here are some guidelines:

  • If you have an old tube TV, the only Roku that will work for you is the Roku Express+ 2018 (note the plus at the end, and it MUST be the classic 2018 version! The newer version does not have analog outputs!) Your TV will need to have composite video inputs (round and usually colored yellow, white, and red).
  • I would avoid the regular Roku Express and Premiere, since those don’t have voice remote.
  • I would avoid the regular Roku Streaming Stick, because it can’t do 4K. Even if your TV doesn’t do 4K now, you could just get the Roku Premiere+ for the same cost, and that does support 4K.  So, that eliminates the Streaming Stick.
  • If you need headphones in the remote for private listening, go with the Roku Ultra.
  • If you need an Ethernet port (i.e., you don’t have WiFi), go with the Roku Ultra.

To summarize, my recommended Roku models are:

  • Express+ 2018 (not the latest version) if you have a tube TV. Look for the red, white, and yellow cables on the box.
  • Streaming Stick+ if you want a good mid-level solution and can’t afford an Ultra.
  • Roku Ultra if you can afford it.

Note, you will need a separate Roku box for each TV in your home.

If you’re ready to take the plunge, you can buy a Roku on Amazon:

Only the Roku Express+ 2018 edition will work with older TV’s because it has composite video output (look for the red, white, and yellow cables on the box):

Note, you'll have to look under "other sellers" on Amazon since this is an older model.

What do you think of your Roku? Questions? Please leave a comment below. – Brian

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Brian Shim, DisableMyCable.com
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Check out my other site, thefrugalnoodle.com, with ideas on saving money and living simply.

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If you have a question about this article, leave a comment below. I personally read and answer each one. If you want advice on TV reception, leave your zip code. 

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I'd also love to hear how you're saving money on TV. Tell me your story!  Thanks! - Brian
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disqus_nocmkvBMwY
disqus_nocmkvBMwY
2 years ago

It looks like Roku devices are pretty portable, especially the stick. Any problem with just buying one device and moving it around to multiple TVs?

Brian
2 years ago

That would work fine as long as you don't mind unplugging and plugging it back in, along with doing the same for power.

Best,
Brian

Tonya
Tonya
2 years ago

Do I need spectrum streaming to watch Roku free streaming channels? Or can I just eliminate the cable service and save money.I already have internet service.

Brian
2 years ago
Reply to  Tonya

Hi Tonya,

You don't need cable TV to use your Roku. All you need is Internet access.

(The one caveat is that some Roku channels require cable TV login, but there are plenty of other Roku channels that don't).

Bottom line, if you are satisfied with your Roku channels, you can get rid of the cable TV portion of your service.

Best,
Brian

rokucoms
2 years ago

Thanks for sharing relevant information about roku devices . with the help of roku you can connect your home application and if you want to connect your roku device then contact roku.com/link

casncats
casncats
2 years ago

Great article. When you say "free", I am assuming no subscription necessary.. but could you also indicate which are ad free or with ads. Some of these are free but there are just too many ads, repetitive ads, long duration ads that you can't enjoy the show.

Brian
2 years ago
Reply to  casncats

Hi Casncats,

You make a great point! I'll add info about commercials. Thank you for commenting!

Best,
Brian

Cheryl Davies
Cheryl Davies
2 years ago

I have a smart tv and wireless internet so what roku would be best fo me?

Brian
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Davies

Hi Cheryl,

Any current Roku model will work with your TV, but I recommend the Roku Ultra. If you want something a bit cheaper, then go for the Roku Streaming Stick+.

Best,
Brian

Cheryl Davies
Cheryl Davies
2 years ago

I have a smart tv so which roku should i get?

Mitchell Lawson
Mitchell Lawson
2 years ago

Great article

James Daniel
James Daniel
2 years ago

Hi Brian, Really appreciate the information you share related to roku and whole process to setup and programs it is offering i am spectrum user and really thinking to have some change it might be a good option to go for it. But for the app option in spectrum it is good one as well we will be able to get the TV channels specifically news on the go with the convenient of the app and on-demand programs and having app is more edge and more fun I was searching similar on the web and come across this which is worth to go through: Spectrum TV App On Your Phone

Heather Letecia Dube
Heather Letecia Dube
2 years ago

Nosey channel is free and gives you free shows to watch, Pluto TV gives you hundreds of good shows to watch with a guide and music channels and Tubi channel also gives you shows and movies to watch. Most are not even on Netflix and are good movies (new ones too) I hope you can revise your free channel listings on Roku because the public would be pleased with the content they can watch with just the channels I provided.

Brian
2 years ago

Hi Heather,

Thanks for the tips! Yes, I already watch Pluto and Tubi, so I'll definitely add them. I already have them here:
https://www.disablemycable.com/remote-control/

Thanks again!

Best,
Brian

yuki inu
yuki inu
2 years ago

I recently bought a 2018 Roku Ultra mostly to watch Japanese tv channels streamed over the net. I discovered my wi fi hotspot connected with wire to the Roku doesn't work. I am now thinking about spectrum internet with 400mbs for better streaming movies etc., @ $70 a month! Are there really enough free Japanese entertainment tv channels and other free American movie/entertainment channels to be paying a minimum of $2.50 everyday? I have had basic cable tv before with most of the channels (HBO, Discovery, etc.) and now just have OTA which meets my tv needs (I get NHK World) which is a great Japanese PBS like network, but not like other NHK entertainment channel in Japan. I can see that if you are paying several dollars a day to rent a movie that it can get very expensive before you know it, I am trying to avoid that. Thanks.

Brian
2 years ago
Reply to  yuki inu

Hi Yuki,

This is a hard question to answer for anyone but myself, but here it is for what it's worth.

For me, YouTube is the streaming service that I watch the most. There is so much great content on there, including Japanese content I would imagine. If I had to pick one free streaming service, that would be it.

I've compiled a list of other sites with free streaming video here:
https://www.disablemycable.com/remote-control/

I also take advantage of free trial offers. For example, I just watched Netflix for one month for free and binge-watched a ton of stuff on there. Next time there's something I want to watch on there, I'll just pay for one month, then cancel. It's very easy.

If you got home Internet, perhaps you could save money on your phone's data plan as well?

As I said, hard question to answer because it depends on your personal situation and taste. I personally think home internet is invaluable, but that is not the case for everyone.

Hope this helps,
Brian

Charles Nixon
Charles Nixon
2 years ago

Brian, quick question to follow on with Nadine's question a month ago. Wife and I are retired and just watch local and cable channels like CNN, MSNBC, MotorTrend, etc. never have streamed on our late model TV's. I am switching to Spectrum from ATT Uverse in three days and I have ordered only one Spectrum device to watch TV in our den. I was under the impression Roku would allow us to find Spectrum on our other 3 TV's and then click on the channels we watch. Having just now read the Roku info on their web site I am not sure it would be as easy as I thought. I may have to go ahead and rent the Spectrum modems, one for each TV and forgo Roku. Was trying to save money but not sure I can now. Can we get to the cable channels through Roku on each TV. I know this is 'disablemycable site' but you have been very helpful to others so I thought I would ask. Thanks in advance.

Brian
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Nixon

Hi Charles,

I haven't tried it myself, but it seems like the Spectrum app for Roku would do what you need.

I would get one Roku and see if you like using spectrum on it. I don't know how much it is to rent a cable box these days, but I think it would be worth the effort. Worst case you could return it.

Best,
Brian

Goat flyer
Goat flyer
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Nixon

Hi Charles
I have spectrum and it works fine without the next box for spare room.
I even moved to to kitchen just to test. They however require u to have one spectrum box in the house. I was personally hoping to go box free....oh well.

Moony
Moony
2 years ago

Roku just started making Starz, HBO, Cinemax, etc, available via subscriptions on the Roku Channel, for cheaper prices than Hulu. Had to pickup Starz finally and binge me some American Gods and Ash Vs Evil Dead!

Oh, and FYI - anyone who uses EBT or has Medicare/Medicaid via the ACA: you should be getting a code for dirt cheap Amazon Prime soon.

Brian
2 years ago
Reply to  Moony

Hi Moony,

Thanks for posting. Good to know!

Best,
Brian

dukeofurl
dukeofurl
2 years ago

While Roku does have a "channel" I sort of feel like the Roku is just a middleman, and that the individual services (Netflix, Prime, Hulu, etc) are the actual players.

Brian
2 years ago
Reply to  dukeofurl

Yes, totally agree!

Best,
Brian

Kingg Quee
Kingg Quee
2 years ago

I Have Direct Tv Cable But I Only Have One Cable Box In The Living Room, But I Have 2 Tvs. If I Purchase A Roku Device Will I Be Able To Get Every Channel I Get On The The Living Room Tv To The Other Tv If I Connect A Roku Device To It?

Brian
2 years ago
Reply to  Kingg Quee

Hi Kingg,

I don't have DirecTV (this site is about cutting cable and satellite TV), however, from what I can tell the answer is "no".

It's confusing because there is a DIRECTVNOW Roku app, but that is totally separate from DirecTV. Having a DirecTV subscription does not let you watch content on the DIRECTVNOW app.

If anyone has a better answer, please chime in!

Best,
Brian

Spock
Spock
2 years ago

Current 4k high speed Roku Ultra box requires an HDMI directional cable. However, ROKU nor anyone else can tell me which direction the cable goes. Cable is marked with arrows to denote which direction the signal is apparently going.

Brian
2 years ago
Reply to  Spock

Hi Spock,

I haven't heard of Roku requiring a directional HDMI cable. Where did you hear that? Can you provide a link?

If it does, wouldn't you want the arrow pointing to the TV?

Best,
Brian

Spock
Spock
2 years ago
Reply to  Brian

The new high speed cabling enables 4k/UHD signals for the most up to date TV's to pass. It has a directional arrow on both ends. Nowhere in the ROKU literature does it mention which way the arrow should point (toward or away from TV). Some bloggers have posted that they didn't have sound until they noticed the arrow - then changed its position which returned sound. My TV has sound and the picture is acceptable. I assume I have it correctly positioned (toward the ROKU box). A tech from ROKU was unaware of the requirement.

Make sure you have latest high speed cable (with arrow) that lists capability to transmit 4k/UHD etc with arrow. If you don't have sound, reverse the cable. Costco has 2 gold plated HDMI cables for $15. a good deal.

-Spock

Nadine Yanarella
Nadine Yanarella
2 years ago

I am totally clueless about all the tech stuff I'm reading about Roku. This is my dilemma: I have DirectTV right now and hate it. It has more than doubled in price in the last few years and goes out when we get the least little bit of rain. I have xfinity internet and can get a really good price on TV with the internet service. My husband and I watch cable channels (local news, Discovery, Animal Planet, HGTV, etc.) and don't watch show series or movies a lot, so from what I can tell, subscription services like Netflix, Sling, etc. are not what we want. We have 4 televisions and the problem with xfinity TV is that their boxes are so expensive per month. I'm thinking that I would get one xfinity box and a ROKU box for the other 3 TVs. Will we be able to access cable channels on any of our TVs if we do this?

Brian
2 years ago

Hi Nadine,

Discovery, Animal Planet, and HGTV are all available on the Philo TV streaming service (although it does not have the major networks).

Apparently, Xfinity does have a "beta" Roku app, but I have not tried it:
https://channelstore.roku.com/details/123132/xfinity-stream-beta

More info on it from Xfinity:
https://forums.xfinity.com/t5/TV/ANSWERED-What-is-Xfinity-Stream-on-Roku-and-how-does-it-work/ta-p/2940367

Looks like it doesn't have all of the features of regular Xfinity TV, but it might be enough.

Best,
Brian

Ivan Lund
Ivan Lund
3 years ago

Roku have a Nazi Germany policy in regards to the copyright and deletes all the apps they think are not legal. Had been a Roku user for many years and now I have to switch to the Chinese androids.

f_mcc@shaw.ca
f_mcc@shaw.ca
3 years ago

I have a 4 year old Roku 2. The functions, fast foreword etc, on Youtube are "clunky" but work fine on Netflix which are the only channels we watch. If we upgrade to a newer Roku,[ we are looking at a streaming stick,] should we expect the performance to increase on Youtube?

Brian
3 years ago
Reply to  f_mcc@shaw.ca

Yes, I had a Roku 2, and even just going to a Roku 3 the improvement was very significant. It should be better on the latest Roku models.

Best,
Brian

David Diener II
David Diener II
3 years ago

What's the best channel to watch live tv?

Brian
3 years ago

Hi David,

There are a few services to choose from, depending on which channels you want. Check out this article:
https://www.disablemycable.com/streaming-services/

Best,
Brian

Denise M. LePage
Denise M. LePage
3 years ago

I have roku but also have a bundle with Spectrum for phone internet and Tv. Can I cancel the Tv part and save $? What would I need to do then if this is possible to make Roku work. TV is older. Don't believe it is a smart one. My PC is in same room as TV but modem is in kitchen. Does this make sense, what I am saying? I am 64 and not tech. savvy.

Brian
3 years ago

Hi Denise,

Yes, you can cancel the TV part and just keep Internet and still use your Roku. You don't need your PC to use the Roku either.

Best,
Brian

Denise M. LePage
Denise M. LePage
3 years ago
Reply to  Brian

Thank you for your help!

1 2 3

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