Roku streaming devices are definitely core components to the cord-cutting lifestyle. Roku offers vast content accessibility with its inexpensive hardware, making it a fantastic option for upgrading each television in your home. Beyond providing access to gobs of high definition video, the interface is extremely simple to use and the setup process is minimal.
The usefulness of the hardware isn’t limited to the content on the public channels available within the Roku Channel Store, however. In addition to a somewhat hidden batch of private channels that can be installed on the device, video content can be streamed to a Roku from a laptop or computer via your wireless network. Music and photos can be streamed from a mobile device using the free Roku app, which also supports screen mirroring from Android, and Windows 8 & 10. If you’ve just started using a Roku, or simply want to become more of a power user, here are several tips and tricks that will get your value-packed streamer humming at full throttle.
Beef up your wireless network for HD or 4K streaming
Before we get started, a simple but often overlooked first step is raising your wireless speed. While a wired connection to a home’s router is the best possible solution for streaming HD or Ultra HD content, that’s not an option for some rooms. In addition, only the Roku Premiere+ and Roku Ultra (or the older Roku 3 and Roku XS) come with an Ethernet port for a wired connection to your router. The less expensive models in the Roku line rely exclusively on wireless b/g/n/ac compatibility to play streaming video and audio content.
If you’ve bought a router at any point in the last two years, it’s probably more than up to the task of streaming full-HD video. But 4K Ultra HD, supported on the newest Roku models, might not fare as well. If that’s the case in your home, consider upgrading to a router that can support the latest Wi-Fi flavor: 802.11 AC. It offers faster speeds than 802.11 n, and it’s also more robust in terms of maintaining a strong link. Check out our router reviews, including the Portal, a Digital Trends’ Editor’s Choice. You may also want to check with your internet service provider to view the bandwidth available under your current plan — 25 Mbps or faster is recommended for 4K content. A third party verification tool like SpeedTest.net provides good metrics to use before deciding to upgrade to a more expensive option.
Browse and install hidden, private channels
Separate from the public channels listed within the Roku Channel Store, there are a collection of private channels that simply haven’t been officially approved by Roku.
Private channels can range from applications developed by those who don’t want to go through the approval process to applications still in a beta-testing phase. The majority of these applications are free, but there are some private channels that require a premium subscription or purchase.
A number of resources exist for finding these hidden channels including: rokuchannels.tv and mkvXStream. To add a private channel to your Roku device, log into the Roku site and look for the “Add a Private Channel” link within the account profile menu. Simply enter the access code and the channel will be added to your Roku devices. For reviews on private channels, check out Streamfree.tv as well as RokuGuide.com. One of our favorites is the selection of curated content found on Nowhere.TV. Keep in mind that private channels aren’t supported by Roku officially, thus buggy performance could occur during operation.
Enable Screen Mirroring for more streaming action
With the latest version of the Roku software, you can cast your entire smartphone, tablet, or PC screen to your TV. While not supported on iOS or MacOS yet, this feature is a great way to get around any services you can’t find on the Roku Channel Store (whether public or private) as long as you have the app on your device. Simply enable Screen Mirroring from the Roku settings menu, then select your Roku device from your smartphone or tablet within the Settings > Screen > Casting menu.
Setup Plex for a local-streaming smorgasbord
If you have a bevy of video content on a personal laptop or desktop computer, look into adding Plex Media Server to your computer or NAS as well as the official Plex application (channel) from the Roku channel store.
Plex Media Server will index all of your movies, music, and photos on your computer and (via the Plex Roku Channel) give you an easy way to browse and play those files on your TV. It’s like creating your own private Netflix.
While the Plex software can automatically transcode video formats that aren’t supported by Roku hardware, it’s best to utilize video formats like MP4 and MOV in order to get the fastest streaming experience. Using a free, open source solution like Handbrake is probably the simplest solution for converting video files into those streaming-friendly formats.
In addition to streaming video files stored on your home network, the Plex software also allows you to continue accessing certain private channels that were closed down or removed for any reason. For instance, a few years ago there was a gap between HGTV removing its private Roku channel and releasing its official version. During that time, you could still access HGTV video via the HGTV channel on Plex. While the interface can be somewhat complex at times, the ability to continue watching that content is invaluable for cord cutters.
Use the Roku smartphone app for private listening, voice search, and more
Available for free on iOS and Android devices, the official Roku app gives you a wealth of options, including: full remote control of any Roku in your home; the ability to browse, add and delete channels from your account; and the ability to stream music, videos, and photos located on your device.
Music fans will appreciate the ability to shuffle tracks as well as the ability to create playlists within the application. For your photos, you can adjust the transition style and tweak the speed of the photo slideshows as well as stream a specific song from the mobile device during the slideshow.
Voice search, which was previously only available to Roku 3 or Roku Ultra users via the included wireless remote, is now available to all Roku users via the app. It’s a great way to avoid the hunt-and-tap method for text entry.
But perhaps the coolest addition to the Roku app is Private Listening. Supported by all of the latest Roku hardware, this feature lets you listen to whatever content is on your Roku via the headphones plugged into your phone or tablet. It’s also smart enough to know when you unplug your earphones, turning the volume back on for the TV accordingly.
What did she say?
The Roku remote has a handy instant replay (or skip back) feature that lets you rewind your video by 10 seconds each time you use it. But for a truly helpful instant replay — one that helps you figure out muddy dialogue or thick accents — turn on the closed-captioning for instant replays, which can be done in the Captions Mode setting on your Roku.
Protect your Roku from unauthorized purchases
While the Roku doesn’t have universal parental controls, users do have the ability to restrict specific actions using a four digit PIN code. After logging into the user account on the Roku site, a custom four digit PIN can be selected within the menu.
In addition, you can choose to specifically request the PIN before authorizing a purchase or even before installing any free application on the device.
By using this PIN, parents can avoid situations where a child may unknowingly purchase games like Angry Birds or You Don’t Know Jack. This only applies when attempting to add channels or games from the Roku device. Users can still add public and private channels through the Web portal without having to enter the PIN.
Upgrade channel storage capacity with a MicroSD card
While the Roku hardware comes with internal flash storage for installing channel applications, if you own a Roku Premiere+ or a Roku Ultra (or the older Roku XS or Roku 3), there is a small MicroSD port on the back of these units which expands storage capacity significantly.
If you are installing tons of channels and games on the Roku device, using a MicroSD card will help you avoid re-installing applications on the internal flash storage. Without a MicroSD card, this process can significantly slow down the process of launching applications.
It’s important to note that the MicroSD slot cannot be used to store video files or other content. Once the card is installed in the Roku hardware, the flash card is automatically formatted in preparation for applications installed from the Roku Channel Store. If the card is removed for any reason, all applications will have to be installed again once the card is re-inserted. Roku specifically recommends using a MicroSD card with at least 2GB of memory and a class 2 rating.
For anyone unfamiliar with memory card class ratings, that’s a measurement of how fast data can be accessed from the card. For instance, a class 4 MicroSD card can transfer data around 4MB/sec while a class 10 MicroSD card can transfer data up to 20MB/sec. Class 10 MicroSD cards in the 16GB range can be purchased on Amazon for as little as $6-7.
Pro Tip: Hidden menus can help de-bug problems
If you are having issues, such as stuttering HD streaming over a wireless network, there are a number of hidden menus that can accessed through button-press combinations on the remote..
For video stuttering issues, the Quality Settings menus might be the answer. Access this particular menu by pressing the Home button five times, Rewind button three times, and the Fast Forward button two times with about a half second between each button press. Labeled “bit rate override” in the top right corner, look for the menu option regarding playback debugging and enable it.
When video loads in most applications, an overlay image will appear prior to the start of a video and tell the user the speed of the connection. This will give you an idea of how strong the Wi-Fi signal is within the vicinity of the Roku. Within the same “bit rate override” menu, you can choose a minimum bit rate to play video, assuming it’s supported by the Wi-Fi connection and internet speed. By default, the Roku will choose the best available bit rate.
Never miss a movie with My Feed
Finally, make sure to leverage the My Feed service which can be accessed from the main menu on your Roku. It gives you a way to identify movies you’re interested in watching, even if they aren’t available on any Roku channels currently. My Feed will keep tabs on the movie for you, alerting you as soon as it’s available, as well as every time its price changes — very handy for Netflix subscribers. It’s the perfect companion to the Universal Search function. Be sure to check out the Roku Channel Store every couple of months to look for new applications. You can also check out the official Roku blog for content suggestions as well as announcements about new channels, new versions of the app and the Roku software itself, and of course, revisions to the hardware.