Roku recently released the much-anticipated follow-up to its popular Roku 3 streaming media player. The biggest addition to the new Roku 4 is its support for 4K sources, with internal HEVC and VP9 decoders to stream 4K content from the likes of Netflix, Amazon Video, M-GO, VUDU, and YouTube.
Other noteworthy upgrades include a faster quad-core processor, a jump to 802.11ac dual-band Wi-Fi, and the addition of an optical digital audio output to improve compatibility with a wider range of audio systems. Roku recently released a new operating system, OS 7, that adds features to the platform, as well as a newly upgraded mobile app.
Of course, the new box retains all of the features that have made Roku the top-selling streaming media platform in the country for several years running: a simple, speedy, and stable user interface; a channel store with almost 3,000 channels (apps) to choose from; and a service-agnostic platform that makes it easy to search for content (via text or voice), no matter which major streaming service you prefer to use.
The new Roku 4 carries an asking price of $129.99, which is just $30 more than the 1080p Roku 3.
That's the big-picture overview. Now let's dive in to the specifics of the Roku 4's features, user experience, and performance.
In comparing the Roku 4 with its predecessor, the first thing that will jump out at you is the size difference (see right). Roku has moved away from the petite, hockey-puck style of past players and housed everything in a notably bigger, albeit thinner, box. The Roku 4 measures 6.5 by 6.5 by 0.8 inches and weighs 0.9 pounds.
The HDMI output has been upgraded to HDMI 2.0 with HDCP 2.2 copy protection in place. The Roku 4 supports an Ultra HD output resolution of 3840x2160p/60; you don't have the option to set a 2160p/24 output instead. The player also supports 10-bit color output; however, as of this writing, it does not support HDMI 2.0a to pass High Dynamic Range content from the likes of Amazon or VUDU--although Roku confirms that could be added via firmware update at a later date. For my tests, I mated the Roku 4 with a Samsung UN65HU8550 UHD TV.
As I mentioned, the biggest addition to the connection panel is an optical digital audio output, which is good news for anyone who owns a non-HDMI-equipped soundbar or audio receiver and doesn't want to have to route audio through their TV's HDMI ports. The player can pass up to Dolby Digital Plus 7.1-channel soundtracks and basic DTS via HDMI or optical digital, but it doesn't support passage of Dolby TrueHD or DTS HD Master Audio over HDMI.
For network connectivity, you can choose between 802.11ac Wi-Fi or wired 10/100 Ethernet; I went with the latter to ensure the best, most stable UHD streaming experience. The box also has a single Type A USB port on its side panel to connect external drives for storage or playback of personal media files, including 4K content with supported file types. A microSD slot is also available specifically to store more game/channel apps. Unlike 4K players like the Nvidia Shield, Sony FMP-X10, or new Amazon Fire TV, the Roku 4 does not have an internal hard drive for storage of AV files.
One final addition to the box itself is a discreet remote-finder button that, when you press it, makes the remote chirp so that you can locate it.
Speaking of the remote, its size and shape are similar to previous models, and it retains the popular headphone output that allows for private listening to any Roku content (a set of earphones is included in the package), as well as motion control for gaming. Its button layout is also similar to past models (see photo to the right, comparing the Roku 4 and Roku 3 remotes) in terms of general navigation, but Roku has added direct buttons to instantly launch Netflix, Amazon, Rdio, and Sling. Back in April, Roku added voice-search capability to the Roku player remote control, replacing the "step back" button with a search button. This was my first go-round with the new remote, and it took me longer than I probably should admit to figure out which button enables voice search, since I was looking for a microphone icon instead of a magnifying glass.
The Wi-Fi-Direct-based remote does not need line-of-sight with the player, but Roku has included an IR receiver on the player itself so that it will work with IR-based universal remotes.
Initial setup is fairly straightforward. Once you power up the unit, the onscreen interface walks you through the selection of language, network type, and display resolution. Then you're directed to go to Roku.com on a computer or mobile device to activate the player with a passcode and either create a new Roku account or sign in to your existing one. Through the web interface, you might want to go ahead and add a bunch of channels like Amazon, Rdio, etc, and sign in to them so that you don't have to use the onscreen keyboard to do so. After that, you're ready to start browsing and watching.
As I mentioned, the free iOS/Android mobile app has received some updates. It still works as a remote control and offers a virtual keyboard that actually works with many of the big-name apps, including Netflix, Amazon, and more (not YouTube, though). Many of these app-based keyboards are restricted to just a few apps or Web browsers, so this is a great perk--and makes it so much less painful to sign into the many different apps/channels at your disposal.
Voice search is also possible using the phone/tablet microphone (and the icon to activate it is a microphone, thank you very much). The app's "Play on Roku" feature lets you stream music, photos, and videos stored on the mobile device for playback through the Roku. New additions to the mobile app include the ability to search for and browse content directly through the app without disturbing playback on the TV screen and the ability to create a custom screen saver for your Roku 4 using photos stored on your mobile device.
The core design of the Roku user interface has not changed drastically since I reviewed the Roku 3 about two years ago. It remains as clean and simple as always, with menu options like Home (formerly called My Channels), Streaming Channels (formerly called Channel Store), Search, and Settings running down the left side and big, colorful channel icons to the right. Roku continues to have the largest selection of channels, including just about every major player: Netflix, Amazon Video, YouTube, M-GO, VUDU, Google Play, Hulu, Sling TV, HBO Go and Now, Pandora, Spotify, Amazon Music, Rdio, Plex, and many, many more.
The Home page's Movie Store and TV Store options take you to M-GO's library of pay-per-use titles. Thanks to the Roku 4's 4K upgrade, these sections now include special "4K Ultra HD" categories. M-GO currently has about 50 4K movies available for rent and/or purchase, but only two 4K TV shows (Power and Spartacus). Of course, there's a much larger selection of non-4K titles from which to choose, all laid out in the same manner as the primary Roku Home page.
So wait, if Roku touts M-GO content directly on its Home page, does that mean the platform isn't really agnostic? Has Roku gone the way of Amazon, Apple, and Android TV by pointing people almost exclusively to content offered by one content provider?
Not really, since Roku's excellent search tool--be it through text or voice search--still shows you options from a variety of content providers. Search for "Breaking Bad," for instance, and you'll see that it's available through VUDU, Netflix, and Amazon Video. Likewise, a "Game of Thrones" search reveals that you can watch the show through HBO Go, Amazon, or VUDU. Just click on the provider of your choice, and that channel will launch.
The one thing Roku's search tool lacks that you do get with the Nvidia Shield that I recently reviewed is the ability to search by subject or theme. With the Nvidia, I can ask to see 2015 Academy Award films and get links to those titles, or I can say "Texas Longhorns" and get YouTube clips related to my favorite team. Reportedly, the new Amazon and Apple search tools have this ability (stay tuned for my reviews), but the Roku search is limited to title, actor, or director.
One final note on the search tool: I found that the Roku mobile app, which uses your phone or tablet's microphone, did a slightly better job with voice recognition than the microphone in the new remote control. As an example, every time I said "Paw Patrol" (my six-year-old's favorite show) into the Roku remote, it heard "call patrol," but the mobile app got it right on the first try.
A new addition to the Roku Home page, added in Roku's recent OS 7 launch, is called My Feed. In this section, you can designate content you want to "follow." Is there a certain movie you're waiting to arrive on home video? Are you waiting for the next episode or season of your favorite TV show to be available for streaming? Want to see when new content arrives from your favorite actor or director? Just search for that title or person and "follow" them for updates.
Of course, 4K is the big-ticket new upgrade to the Roku 4, and the company has wisely created a special "4K Spotlight" channel to make it easy to find 4K-friendly channels and content. Through this channel, you can launch other 4K-friendly channels like Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Plex (for your personal 4K files), and VUDU. That's right, VUDU has launched its 4K service, and it includes some compelling movie choices. Sadly, the VUDU interface currently does a lousy job of telling you where to find those 4K titles, but Roku's 4K Spotlight channel does a great job. It lists all of the 4K movies and TV shows available within the different apps. Just select the title you want to watch in 4K, and you'll be taken directly to the app where it resides.
Now let's talk performance. The Roku 4 scores very high marks in the areas of speed and reliability. I compared the Roku 4 directly with the Nvidia Shield and the older Roku 3. The Shield is the fastest player I've used to date, and it was consistently just a tad bit faster than the Roku 4 in loading apps. We're talking a few seconds at most. I found the Roku 4 and Roku 3 to be almost identical in their speed of launching apps and cuing up content.
The Roku platform itself never froze or crashed on me, and 4K video playback within Netflix, Amazon, and VUDU was smooth and clean. The video quality of these services is largely dictated by your broadband speed, but I didn't see any stuttering or other issues related to processing problems. The Roku 4's YouTube app was able to pass the full UHD resolution in Florian Friedrich's Dynamic Horizontal Multiburst pattern, and 4K video clips looked excellent. The player successfully passed Dolby Digital Plus soundtracks over HDMI from M-GO, Netflix, and Amazon.
For those who want to play back personal media files, in addition to Plex and other "channels," there's the Roku Media Player that supports both USB and DLNA content. Supported file types include: MP4, HEVC, MOV, and MKV for video; MP3, ALAC, WMA, AAC, AIF, and WAV for audio; and JPG and PNG for photos. The app was able to play HEVC 4K videos, as well as 4K photos and test patterns, from my Video Essentials UHD USB stick at full resolution.
The only playback/performance issue I experienced with the Roku 4 involved M-GO's 4K content. I rented the 4K version of "How to Train Your Dragon" and tried to watch it at about 8:00 p.m. on a Wednesday night. Even though my network speed test revealed a 55-Mbps speed through my wired connection, the video kept freezing and quitting. When I adjusted the resolution down to 1080p, everything was fine, so I'm fairly certain it was a 4K bandwidth issue.
Throughout the next day, playback was hit or miss; sometimes it played smoothly, and sometimes it didn't, even though my network speed kept registering the same. When the movie played reliably, the picture quality was excellent--probably the best of all the 4K content I watched. Just be aware that quality like that can take its toll on your network. Technically, this is more of an M-GO issue than a Roku issue (I didn't have any problem with VUDU's 4K rentals); however, since the two have teamed up to feature M-GO content on the Home page, I think it's worth mentioning.
There were times, especially during heavy testing and jumping between channels, when I could hear the Roku 4's processor kick in all the way across the room.
While the Roku platform does offer games, there's definitely less of a gaming emphasis here than on the Nvidia Shield or Amazon Fire TV consoles. If you want more advanced gaming options, this may not be the ideal product for you.
Comparison & Competition
The number of 4K-friendly streaming media players is growing steadily. Nvidia's Shield carries a higher price tag of $199.99, but it adds a 16GB hard drive for internal media storage, hi-res audio support, 24p output, and a more robust gaming platform/controller. The Android TV platform doesn't yet offer as many apps as Roku, however.
Amazon has introduced its second-gen Fire TV streaming media player with 4K support, voice search, 8 GB of internal storage, dual microSD card slots, and an optional gaming controller for $99.99.
Apple has also introduced a new Apple TV ($149-$199) with a new interface, 32 to 64 GB of storage, voice search, an app store, and a stronger emphasis on gaming. However, it does not include support for 4K streaming.
Sony offers the $700 FMP-X10 4K player with a 1TB hard drive, access to Sony's 4K movie download store and Netflix's 4K streaming service, and hi-res audio support.
TiVo has announced its 4K-friendly Bolt HD DVR and streaming media player; the 500GB version will cost $299.99, plus the monthly/yearly TiVo subscription cost.
Roku has another hit on its hands. The Roku 4 delivers everything that people have grown to love about the Roku platform while adding more functionality (4K), better system compatibility (optical digital output), and new convenience features (remote finder, My Feed, and an improved mobile app)...all for only a modest $30 price increase. Sure, it lacks the advanced gaming, hi-res audio support, and internal storage that you can find in some of its competitors, but not everyone is looking for those specialized features. If what you want is an outstanding streaming media player with next-gen 4K support and access to all the hottest app-channels, the Roku 4 is tough to beat.
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