About two in five American households subscribe to a video streaming service like Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu, according to Nielsen. If you don't own a smart TV, then a streaming media player such as the new Roku 4 is a great way to get that content.
Priced at $130, the Roku 4 costs more than the Amazon Fire TV ($100) but less than the new Apple TV ($150 and up). The Roku 4 supports 4K streaming content, and it has a some new features that its predecessor, the $100 Roku 3 model, lacked. Roku boxes traditionally stand out for the wide assortment of content they offer, and the Roku 4 is no exception, with nearly 3,000 total channels.
Obviously, the main reason to pay the extra $30 for the Roku 4 is its 4K capability. You can debate the merits of 4K streamers, since nearly all current 4K TVs are also smart TVs with access to streaming services. But that may not be true for long—and buying a Roku 4 is an exercise in future-proofing. If you do want a 4K streaming box, the Roku is the one to get, with 4K streaming videos from Amazon, Netflix, M-Go, YouTube, Vudu, and Toon Goggles.
Here are more details on the unit and how it works.
The Roku 4 has the company's latest operating system, OS7. One upside to the OS is the expanded My Feed, which lets you follow movies and TV shows and receive notifications when they become available for streaming. And the Hotel and Dorm Connect feature lets connect where the Wi-Fi networks require login information.
The Roku 4 is a flat black box that looks like someone sat on a Roku 3. It’s got glossy black sides and a matte black top with an embossed, shiny 4 in the center. A small button on top activates one of the Roku 4's distinctive features: a remote-control finder that emit a series of sounds from the built-in speaker.
The Roku 4's remote control is similar to the Roku 3's: There's a headphone jack for private listening (ditch the mediocre earphones that come with it), and the remote operates via Wi-Fi Direct, so line of sight with the player isn’t required. Sling has replaced the Hulu button on the Roku 3 remote, joining Netflix, Amazon, and Rdio.
As with other Roku boxes, most of the Roku 4 connections are on the back of the unit: an Ethernet jack, HDMI output, digital optical audio output, a microSD card slot, and the AC power cord power input. The exception is the side-mounted USB port. You can add storage to the player for apps and games with a microSD card.
Setting it up
Setup is a two-step process. First you connect it to your home network—using a Wired Ethernet connection or the box's 802.11ac MIMI Wi-Fi—and then you get a code from Roku.com to finish the process. Once registration is done, the Roku will auto-detect if you have a 4K UHD TV and choose the best possible picture quality. But you can also set the output resolution manually, helpful if you'll be using the Roku 4 with both 4K UHD and 1080p TVs.
Roku 4 Performance
The Roku 4 offers speedy performance and responsive control over a wired connection and Wi-Fi. There's not a big difference from the Roku 3, one of the quicker players we've tested. We didn't do a head-to-head with the new Amazon Fire TV, but it seemed comparable to that and other top-performing players.
In general, the Roku 4’s interface is intuitive and easy to use, and it organizes the content in a straightforward fashion. The new operating system looks and feels very similar to the one currently available on other models. Universal search, which supports voice commands, is improved, so it now works across 20 different channels. It's still more limited than either Alexa (Amazon Fire TV) and Siri (Apple TV), but on the plus side it doesn't prioritize content from one service over another's, as its rivals do.
Perhaps the biggest changes are the enhancements to the My Feed capability. While My Feed was initially limited to just movies, you can now search for a movie, TV shows, an actor, or a director, and follow them to get alerts when they become available for streaming, or if prices change on pay-per-view services.
Roku has updated its iOS and Android apps for smartphones. They provide greater control over more of the player's features, including search and Roku Feed.
Tops for 4K
The Roku 4 not only offers access to more 4K content than any other player except for the Amazon Fire TV but it also makes it a lot easier to find it. For example, you can find a dedicated section of 4K services within the Roku Channels. There's also a 4K Spotlight channel (shown) that showcases 4K movies, shows, and videos from several services, but not Netflix.
The Roku 4's 4K performance is comparable to what we've seen from streaming 4K videos on better smart TVs and 4K-enabled streamers, such as the Amazon Fire TV. Images looked sharp, with excellent detail and clarity.
However, there is one difference between the Roku 4 and the Amazon Fire TV: The Roku 4 has HDMI 2.0 inputs, where the Amazon Fire has HDMI 1.4. What this means is that the Roku 4 can support 60-frame-per-second videos when they become available, and it's possible that Roku might be able to update the player to support high dynamic range (HDR) content—which requires HDMI 2.0a—at some later date. This is something the Fire TV won’t be able to do, and Apple TV doesn't have 4K support at all.
We expect the Roku 4 to match the performance of the high-scoring Roku 3 when our full evaluations of all the new players are completed. But for $30 less, we think the Roku 3 will likely remain the better deal for many would-be streamers, especially since the player's software will be updated to OS7. You'll just have to keep better track of the remote.
But consider the Roku 4 if your current UHD TV doesn't support some of the 4K streaming services offered on that device, or if you think you'll be buying a 4K set in the future that might lack streaming capability. So far, this speedy, easy-to-use, and content-rich device is our top choice for a 4K-enabled streaming player.
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