13 Hacks to Get the Most Out of Roku

Illustration: by Martin Gee

The Roku platform — whether accessed through one of the company’s smart TVs, streaming boxes, or Sticks — serves as the hub for countless different entertainment properties. It doesn’t matter if you’re watching H3H3 videos on YouTube, random baseball games on ESPN+, or a free movie on the Roku Channel — the venerable curatorial hardware has your back.

That said, Roku’s many features and options can be dense to the point of overwhelming newcomers; a lot of recent adopters may not know what their little box is capable of. We called up Paul Nangeroni, director of product management at Roku, who gladly took us behind the scenes on a few of his favorite oblique flourishes that don’t get the love that they deserve. Nangeroni alerted us to some vital perks in the Roku software and hardware that only a UX expert could pick apart. So to help you get the most out of your setup, here are 13 hacks to make your binges a little cozier and your Roku more navigable.

1. Roku’s Universal-Search Tool Is Your Friend

The streaming wars have subdivided our entertainment systems into countless niches and enclaves. It can be downright impossible to determine where a show is currently being hosted and how long it will be there. But Roku’s search bar, which can be found on the service’s main menu, does a surprisingly good job of paging through every player in the field — including Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Vudu — to determine where exactly you can stream or purchase When Harry Met Sally. It’s absolutely vital and honestly one of the primary reasons to purchase a Roku in the first place. Imagine renting The Big Lebowski for four bucks without knowing it was hosted on Netflix for free. A terrible fate.

2. Use Your Phone As a Remote

You’ve probably grown tired of the countless gadgets littering your living room. Thankfully, the Roku app allows anyone to consolidate the remote into their smartphone, tamping down the clutter a little bit. Once the app is downloaded, open it up to find a control pad, a pause button, a volume dial, and most important, a selection of channels for easy navigation. The app is perfect for any streaming disputes with your significant other, like when you’re on the couch and one of you wants to slyly switch over to Bridgerton without the other’s knowledge.

3. Use Your Phone to Search for Content

The single worst thing about the streaming revolution is how we are forced to type in whatever show we’re looking for with a big, clunky digital keyboard on the TV screen. Inching over from the “S” key to the “K” key feels terrible. But when you sync up your phone to your Roku, all those queries can be handled with the iPhone keypad, which is about a billion times more efficient.

4. Customize the Buttons on Your Remote

If you own a Roku, you know there are shortcuts to Netflix, Hulu, Sling, and Amazon on the bottom of the device. On the Voice Remote Pro, you’ll also find two mysterious buttons labeled “1” and “2,” which you can directly program to mobilize whatever content you like. Nangeroni believes most Roku users don’t know how modular this hardware can be.

He says most adopters use those buttons only as a shortcut to, say, Disney+ or YouTube TV or whatever. What people don’t understand is you can get way more specific. “You can map that button directly to a show that you’re watching. If you’re binge-watching a series, you can jump directly into the next episode,” he says. Anything within Roku’s voice-command dictionary can be assigned to the dial. A dedicated Game of Thrones button? Mom and Dad’s shortcut to Peppa Pig? The world is your oyster. And this function isn’t limited to content. Do you like to doze off to The Office but can’t stand the hot lights of the set? Consider mapping out the minimum-brightness setting to 2, matching your nocturnal mood with a click.

5. Take a Look at the Roku Channel

I’m still not sure exactly why the Roku Channel exists, but I do know that one lonely evening in quarantine, my girlfriend and I settled into You’ve Got Mail, which was inexplicably free on the app. For whatever reason, the Roku Channel uploads a handful of movies and TV shows to its in-house repository every couple of months for anyone who owns the hardware. You have to deal with some ads, but it’s certainly worth a look every now and then to see what’s new. This year, all of the Quibi-refugee content migrated to the channel, which is especially fascinating.

6. Check Your Wi-Fi Strength

Roku comes packaged with a number of secret menus intended for troubleshooting and diagnostics tests that are accessible only through video-game-like button combinations. But they can be pretty useful for everyday use as well. For instance, with your Roku remote, tap “Home” five times, then up, down, up, down, and you’ll bring up a page detailing the strength of the device’s Wi-Fi connection. A faint connection could be the reason you’re experiencing frequent buffering in your nightly binges, so go ahead and use the resource to position your Roku in the place where it receives the most fidelity.

7. Speed Everything Up Through the App

The TV keyboard, where we plod through each letter in “Mad Men” at an agonizingly slow pace, is one of the great inefficiencies of the global content apparatus. Nangeroni points out that using the app not just for searching but for browsing and voice commands will save you a significant amount of time and finger strain. “Being able to go through mobile and tag shows into your saved list or launch shows from your phone and see them pop up on the big screen — for me, as a mobile-savvy user, that’s a really great way to get to the things I care about quickly and not mess around with a lot of different clicks on the screen,” he says. The app contains all the browsing capabilities of the Roku within a more streamlined set of tools. Imagine a world with no search-breaking typos; it’s easy if you try.

8. Mirror Your Phone to the TV

Let’s say you want to watch the Logan Paul–Floyd Mayweather fight but would rather die than give either of those men money. (Totally understandable!) And let’s say one of your friends passed along a sketchy bootleg stream that you’re now piping through your Android. Want to bring it to the big screen? Well, the Roku has a screen-mirroring capability (available in its system options) that will allow anyone to cast their phone’s browser directly to the TV. Congratulations! You didn’t miss out on one of the most exasperating boxing matches of all time.

9. Turn on Closed-captioning, But Only After You Rewind

Let’s face it: You’re never going to catch everything being said in Peaky Blinders, but you tend to find closed-captioning annoying. That would be a tough bind, except Roku has generated an ingenious solution. In the “Captions Mode” menu, check the “Instant Replay” box and the dialogue will be annotated only after hitting the replay button. You’ll be teleported back 15 seconds, equipped with text at the bottom of the screen that reveals what those damn Blinders are up to this time. This is a must-have for all you BBC America addicts out there.

10. Don’t Forget About the Headphone Jack

You might miss it, but there’s a headphone jack on the left side of new Roku remotes. If you have an old-school pair of aux cans and you want to be considerate after your significant other nodded off during another episode of The Great British Bake Off, go ahead and plug in so Mary Berry won’t disturb their slumber.

11. Listen Privately Even in a Crowded Room

If you are the night owl in the household and you don’t want to awaken your partner, you’ve likely grown accustomed to snapping headphones into the remote’s jack. But Nangeroni says that’s just the tip of the iceberg. He notes users can sync their headphones to their Roku-enabled TV over Bluetooth using the company’s app. That’s a lot more powerful than one sad, lonely aux cord. Let’s say you and a buddy want to hear the dulcet tones of Al Michaels during Sunday Night Football while everyone else at the dinner party is crowded around the Wonderboom. (We’ve all been there, right? Right?) Don’t worry. The Roku app can support up to four different private-listening sessions at once.

And you shouldn’t have to sweat Bluetooth lag if you’re listening on wireless headphones. If you’re like me and suspicious of any esoteric Bluetooth connection because of those pesky latency issues, Nangeroni assures us they managed to fix most of them in September’s OS update, a process that took profiling “tons and tons” of different headphones as well as the latency between phones and TV sets. Something as simple as listening to an episode of New Girl through your Sony 1000XM3s requires an ingenious network of digital heuristics, all for our languid pleasure.

12. Reorder Your Channels

Let me guess. After taking home a fancy new Roku, you immediately plunged into the channel store and started adding weird niche media entities you had no intention of ever watching, didn’t you? It’s year two, and the Yacht Network is still the first thing you see booting up the TV. Little did you know that, by tapping the asterisk button on the remote when hovering over a channel, you can reorganize the Roku landing page into a catalogue that makes more utilitarian sense. Personally, I like to keep the digital fireplace front and center. It keeps me grounded.

13. Normalize the Sound Output

Tired of constantly turning the volume up and down on a scene-by-scene basis? (Seriously, Marvel, what’s the deal?) Open “Advanced Sound Settings” and you can select the “Leveling” option to normalize the sonic output across an entire episode; I tend to favor the “Night” variant, which bolsters the soft sequences and mollifies the loud set pieces. Regardless, this is an issue that transcends Roku. Can all the streaming giants get together and determine a volume equilibrium? I’m so tired of getting my face melted off by some random Netflix documentary at 2 a.m.

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13 Hacks to Get the Most Out of Roku