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.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...