While Roku’s app for Android may not be the first thing you think of when looking for a remote control application for your phone or tablet, there’s a good reason to look at Roku’s app as a great way to control your television. While there are plenty of applications on the Play Store that properly function as universal remotes for your television, cable box, Blu-Ray player, and more, you’ll need the proper hardware to support it, and unfortunately, phones that include IR blasters are becoming less and less frequent. The last mainstream phone released in the United States with an IR blaster included in the hardware was the LG V20 at the end of 2016, and since then, Huawei and ZTE have been the only manufacturers of compatible devices. Phones like Samsung’s Galaxy S-line (after the S5 and Note 4), Google’s Pixel series, and all of Motorola’s lineup of devices won’t work with a standard IR-compatible app.
This leads us to Roku’s own application for Android. While it isn’t what some users might be looking for in a mobile-friendly remote application for your phone, it’s the most accessible, user-friendly remote app on the market today. The only requirement to use it is a Roku player, and with their cheapest device starting at only $29, it’s easy to jump into the Roku ecosystem. Once you have your Roku device programmed, you’ll likely find controlling your television with Roku’s app is nearly flawless.
Roku’s app design has improved over the last several years, even if it’s nothing to write home about. Inoffensive is a good way to describe the purple-clad software, which features the Roku branding along the top of the application. With a bottom-based navigation system containing five separate tabs, it’s fairly easy to navigate through your content, though a refreshed app design that brings it closer to something like Google’s Home application would be welcomed. The main display features a full list of your device’s installed channels, like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Video. Whatever you add to your device is what you’ll find here, and each icon acts as a quick launch for the application, immediately waking your Roku and opening the app. The icons look good, each featuring the correct icon for the corresponding app.
Strangely, you’ll find a featured application taking up a large banner on your app regardless of whether you’ve properly downloaded the app. This is similar to the Roku home screen, which shows featured content to the right of your channels list, but considering the app isn’t listed as containing ads on Google Play, it’s strange to see these pop up here. Beyond the app screen, you’ll find the tabs below corresponding with features like the remote, the photo sharing service, and more. We’ll dive into the functionality of the remote below, but on a purely design level, it’s almost a complete mirror of the basic Roku remote that ships with their devices, rearranged slightly for an easier mobile experience. On its whole, Roku’s app isn’t the most attractive service we’ve seen, but it’s also not offensive or unusable in any way.
There are a ton of other features built into Roku’s remote application, but the remote options are the most important. The remote tab is in the bottom-center of the app, and launches in a full screen mode that makes it easy to use on any size device, from the Pixel 2 to a large, 10″ tablet. The D-Pad takes up the majority of the room on your virtual remote, with a large OK button in the center of the application that makes it easy to press. If your television has HDMI-CEC support, you can use the D-Pad to wake up your television by tapping on one of the buttons and waiting for your television to respond. Most modern televisions from manufacturers like Samsung or Vizio have HDMI-CEC support, but you’ll need to check with your television manufacturer.
Once your television is active, you can use the remote to control your Roku, just as you would with the physical remote included with the device. While the more premium devices sold by Roku include remotes with features like passthrough audio and voice search, more basic devices like the Roku Streaming Stick or Roku Express are designed to be as cheap as possible, including basic remotes without advanced features in the package. Roku’s Android app allows you to bypass some of the limitations of the cheaper devices by adding both passthrough audio and voice search to any compatible Roku device, which basically means any relatively modern Roku device can be given more advanced technology without having to pay additional cash for the more-advanced remote.
The only features that is included with the premium Roku remotes but left out by the mobile app is the addition of power and volume control on the higher-end Roku devices. Newer Roku boxes like the Roku Ultra, in addition to the audio passthrough feature and the voice search function, also include a power button on the top of the remote and volume rocker on the side of the device that can be used to control your television using HDMI-CEC. This, unfortunately, isn’t replicated in the mobile app. You can, as mentioned above, turn your display on, but turning off your television or controlling the volume will still have to be done with a universal remote, or the remote control that was included with your television. Overall, however, the remote function on Roku is a promising start—we’ll discuss our thoughts on the actual experience of using the remote below.
Outside of the general remote experience, this app is loaded with features, including everything from photo streaming to the ability to shop for apps directly from your device without having to use the standard Roku user interface. To get the most out of your device, you’ll want to make sure you log in with your Roku account, as even browsing the channel store is impossible without first logging into your device. Once logged in, you’ll be able to view a full list of the channel store, similar to browsing through the “Streaming Channels” on your Roku device. Each channel shows the description, a gallery of what the app will look like on your device, and a star rating from other Roku users who have reviewed the product. Tapping on “Add Channel” will display a loading screen, and your channel will be synced to your device. Testing Filmstruck, a streaming service that contains films from sources like the Criterion Collection, it took about twelve seconds between tapping on the “Install App” button and seeing the app appear on our television.
The What’s On tab is similar to Google’s Home app, which includes a display showing brand new content that you can watch based on your suggestions and preferences. The Roku app makes it easy to watch your content through any application, and since Roku doesn’t own their own streaming app (with one notable difference), you can price compare between services. Selecting Dunkirk from the New Releases category, for example, loads a display that gives you the star rating for the movie, a quick synopsis of that the film is about, the rating, runtime, director, genre, cast list, and finally, options to view the film. Dunkirk, in this example, can be purchased through Amazon Video for $14.99, but on Vudu and FandangoNOW, the other two video carriers providing the movie through Roku, it costs users a fee of $19.99 to own. Rentals work the same as purchasing, allowing you to view every priced listing. Also included in this tab are suggested movies for the season, recommended family shows, and free movies and TV shows that can be viewed through Roku’s own channel and other services. For example, Titantic can be watched for free on the Roku Channel, but 300 (also listed as a free film) is available through Crackle.
The Photos+ tab is more of a Chromecast-style app to allow you to stream content to your Roku box through your phone’s local storage. Everything from music saved on your device to your entire collection of photos and videos can be streamed. You’ll have to give the app permission to access your device’s storage, but once it can, you’ll be all set to start streaming. Everything works out of the box here with Roku; there’s no downloads or apps to install, and the app can even grab content that’s stored in the cloud in services like Google Photos. You can swipe through your content by using the left and right buttons on the bottom of the app, and play, pause, and stop are all listed as well. It’s not the prettiest interface, especially when playing music that you might have to start and stop often, but overall, it’s a decent way to stream material to to your television or sound system from a Roku.
Roku’s application is nearly perfect at recreating exactly what you would want from their remotes, and it’s the reason that their app, despite being designed for a specific piece of hardware, is our top pick for anyone looking to control their entertainment from their television. The D-pad on the remote is large and easy to use, and each button responds immediately, feeling only a tiny bit slower than its physical remote counterpart when used side by side. The advantage of using the remote on your phone is clear, however; since you aren’t pointing your phone at your television to hit an IR receptor on the device, your Roku can be hidden behind the television, and your remote application will still work. In another room? Hit pause or rewind without having to run back in. No issues whatsoever.
Voice search works well, though not as well as you might have hoped considering how well it works on other devices like the Fire Stick from Amazon. Instead of activating the voice search feature on your television, it brings the results up on your phone. When you tap on the icon in the upper-right corner, you’ll be prompted to speak your search. Once you’ve finished requesting your show, app, movie, or anything else, you need to tap on the button to stop the device from listening. The app will then search for your content, with each title having a year and a visual icon for the type of material next to it. Searching for The Santa Clause brings up Disney’s holiday trilogy, followed by Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Santa Clause: The Movie, The Year Without a Santa Claus, and more listings. Tapping on one of these loads back into the store interface we saw with Dunkirk above, with a full list of viewing options available.
Normally, this would be an excellent way to queue up your favorite movies to watch on the big screen, but there’s a small problem. For whatever reason, Netflix has difficult casting the content from your phone to your Roku automatically from the Roku app. Whereas searching for Brooklyn 99 on Hulu allowed us to launch the app immediately into playback, searching for The Santa Clause and selecting Netflix’s streaming option redirects you to the Netflix app, where the film begins playing on your mobile device. Since Roku supports Netflix’s DIAL standard, it’s not the biggest deal in the world, since you can tap on the cast icon and begin watching on your television while maintaining playback controls on your smartphone, but the service would be better if it launched directly into Netflix.
Audio passthrough is far more successful when it comes to comparing features. You can set your app’s settings menu to automatically switch to passthrough audio when you connect headphones to your device while the Roku app is active, and you can switch the feature on and off by command by tapping on the headphones icon on the bottom of the app. There’s no noticeable audio lag between the display and the app, and unplugging the headphones switches the audio back to the television automatically. We should also mention the keyboard entry field works well, using your phone’s default keyboard and allowing for direct input of usernames, passwords, and more without having to deal with using the D-pad on the remote. Our only complaint for Roku’s remote is simple: the remote should feature haptic feedback to make the touchscreen feel like a real remote.
Obviously, using a Roku device is not the first thing you think of when you look for a remote control application on Android. Believe us when we say, there are plenty of other IR sensor-based apps—including some on this list—that are able to be used for browsing your content, and if your phone still supports those devices, you should absolutely make the move to any of those apps. But with most major flagship devices now lacking the ability to use universal IR blasters, with LG having finally given up the ghost following 2016, it’s worth making the move to applications that use physical, web-enabled devices like the Roku to control your media landscape. Roku’s app isn’t perfect for this, considering it’s impossible to turn off your display or control the volume with your app. Still, the low cost of entry for the Roku hardware and the features presented by Roku’s remote application make it obvious: if you’ve moved to streaming your content from the web, a Roku is a must-have device for Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and so much more.