For countless entertainment seekers, Roku serves as a gateway to video streaming. Whether it’s through a Roku media streaming device or Roku software directly built into your smart TV, Roku is the platform we go to in order to reach the video services we love. However, Roku also offers its own video streaming service, The Roku Channel, for free. It doesn’t surpass the best paid options, or even the free tier of Editors’ Choice pick Peacock, but the ad-supported service is worth checking out.
The Roku Channel has more than 10,000 free shows and movies. This puts it in line with competing free streaming services like Tubi (20,000 shows and movies) and Peacock (13,000 hours of content). The last time we checked Crackle, it only had around 1,000 free shows and movies. Free video services tend to have a more grab bag approach to entertainment, offering up whatever licenses the company can score. Although The Roku Channel spans decades and genres, its library feels random, whereas premium Editors’ Choice pick services, such as Netflix and Hulu, feel comprehensive.Our Experts Have Tested 34 Products in the Video Streaming Services Category in the Past YearSince 1982, PCMag has tested and rated thousands of products to help you make better buying decisions. (Read our editorial mission.)
TV shows range from 1950s Dennis the Menace and the original 1980s Miami Vice to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 2 Broke Girls, and Xena: Warrior Princess. You can watch Ace Ventura or the first two Shrek films on The Roku channel, and then put on Man on Fire or Snowpiercer when you’re in a serious mood. Its trashy reality hits include Hell’s Kitchen and some good, old-fashioned daytime court TV. You can even watch some dubbed anime, such as Bleach and Naruto, although RetroCrush and Editors’ Choice pick Crunchyroll are the better free anime streaming services.
Much of The Roku Channel’s acquired content feels a bit dated, but if you’re looking for something more recent that you’ve most likely never seen before, Roku also has original shows. The wild thing about these shows is that Roku actually purchased them from the ill-fated Quibi. That dead service spent a lot of money on serious star power to convince people they wanted to watch “quick bite” videos on their phone. As a result, these rechristened “Roku Originals” are surprisingly impressive, from the Punk’d and Reno 911 reboots to Will Smith’s stand-up comedy reality show to a show where Christoph Waltz hunts Liam Hemsworth for sport.
Still, as funny as it is to see Rachel Brosnahan talk about her precious golden arm on Roku, Editors’ Choice pick Peacock has a superior backlog, as well as more exciting original shows, like its Bel Air reboot featuring a deliciously evil Carlton.
Alongside its on-demand content, The Roku Channel provides free live TV. You have news channels like ABC and NBC. But you also have channels themed around Lifetime movies, Bob the Builder, Project Runway, or The Asylum’s glorious “mockbusters.” This is a nice perk to enjoy alongside the on-demand shows and movies, but if you’re primarily interested in free live TV, Pluto TV might carry the channels that you seek.
If you’re willing to pay for premium content, The Roku Channel sells paid channels from partners like AMC, BET, Starz, and Showtime. These networks also sell premium channels on other subscription services, like Amazon Prime Video or Apple TV+, or offer entirely standalone streaming subscriptions. You don’t need to go through Roku to get them, but it’s a nice option.
Aside from the optional premium channels (whose prices vary depending on the channel), TheRoku Channel is entirely free. You don’t even need to make an account to start viewing content. However, there is only one tier available: you must watch ads. Peacock provides a robust and worthwhile free tier, but customers can also pay $4.99 or $9.99 per month to get a better experience.
As you might expect, you can access The Roku Channel on anything with Roku’s name on it, including HDMI dongles, smart TVs, and Roku’s Android and iOS apps. You can even watch it through a browser or install it to your desktop. Non-Roku owners can view programming through Amazon Fire TV or select Samsung Smart TVs. However, unlike Tubi, there’s no Roku app for video game consoles.
Roku users will be familiar with the dark purple-and-black color scheme that dominates The Roku Channel. The website displays a big splash image for a featured program before listing other shows and movies in densely packed rows. The categories include whatever shows you’re already watching, as well as themed categories. Browse new trending shows or shows that are just about to leave the service. Catch movies that aren’t on Netflix. Get a free taste of premium channels. Or let Roku recommend content it thinks you’ll enjoy. You can also directly search for content, and save it to your list. Selecting a movie gives you a synopsis, the rating and genre, and cast photos. Shows also include a list of every episode in a given season.
The video player itself is okay. You can skip back 15 seconds and turn on picture-in-picture. However, you can’t adjust video quality (or even see what a stream's video quality). We understand free services not supporting 4K streams, but viewers should still know that information. The stream quality also depends on what you’re watching. If a show isn’t in widescreen, it’s also probably not HD. Although playback was largely satisfactory over my home Wi-Fi connection (60Mbps download), some shows would struggle at first before smoothing themselves out and improving picture quality. This happened a lot with live TV streams.
The mobile experience is largely the same, except you can choose between vague “Auto, Low, Mid, and High” video quality options. The real perk for mobile users is that the Roku app also serves as a remote for any Roku device. So, use your phone to control your TV, quickly type text searches, or issue voice commands. As a free service, Roku lets you simultaneously stream The Roku Channel to as many devices as you want without hitting a limit. However, you can’t download videos to your mobile device for offline viewing, something we appreciate about premium streaming services.
Free services are especially tough for parents to police because there’s virtually no barrier to entry. Any kid with an internet connection can watch whatever they want without spending money or even making an account. That said, The Roku Channel has ratings for all its shows and movies, and lets you create a PIN number to restrict access to mature content if you have an account.
As for accessibility, you can turn English subtitles on or off. You can also adjust several subtitle display options, such as text color, font size, and window opacity.
It’s one thing to watch a streaming service without paying money, but what if you could watch a streaming service without exposing your private life online? A VPN is a vital tool for online digital security, because they spoof your location to another part of the world. However, they tend to clash with streaming services and their regional licensing deals.
I tested The Roku Channel with a Windows PC connected to ProtonVPN servers, and the results were disappointing (but expected). I could stream video while connected to VPN's US-based servers, but I got locked out if I virtually went overseas. Oddly enough, live TV worked with the active VPN, but that might change in the future given how quickly streaming services move to block VPN traffic.
If you already have a Roku device, you might as well see what The Roku Channel has to offer. After all, it’s free. You could find a classic sitcom from your childhood, an old hit movie you never caught in theaters, breaking news, or a hidden original gem rescued from Quibi.
That said, Editors’ Choice pick Peacock is a more appealing free service that lets you upgrade to an even better paid subscription. If you’re willing to pay from the start, Hulu and Netflix are also Editors’ Choice picks for general streaming audiences.
For more on streaming, check out five reasons why you may want to ditch your video subscription and keep cable. In addition, you should read how streaming has ushered in a new trash TV golden age.
The Roku Channel won't replace your favorite premium video streaming service, but it offers free, ad-supported classic movies, original shows, and live TV.
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