It’s hard to believe that when Roku launched its first on-demand video streaming box, the Netflix Player by Roku, the device didn’t support HD video and didn’t even have access to Netflix’s full library, despite its brand name.
Fast forward seven years to the Roku 4. The newest Roku and its competitors are no longer just workarounds so that you don’t have to attach your PC to your TV. They’re legitimate video streaming devices with powerful processors, 4K video support, and thousands of “channels” offering a whole bunch of content.
But when you boil it down, the technical specs of these boxes don’t vary all that much, even with all of the brand new hardware we’re seeing this fall from Apple, Amazon, and Roku. So what it really comes down to is a) whether you’re going to be able to watch the stuff you want to watch and b) whether the user experience is intuitive, uncomplicated, even pleasing. Sure, there are other little features sprinkled throughout — a headphone jack so you don’t disturb your roommates! an audio alert for finding the remote! the ability to shop through the TV! — but the real TV-killer is going to be the thing that just makes watching all that over-the-top TV content as easy as possible.
That’s what Roku does. Roku likes to boast that it has over 3,000 channels, or apps, but more importantly, it has the stuff people want: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Sling TV, Vudu, Crackle, HBO Go, HBO Now, Showtime, YouTube, Vevo, GoPro, casual games, cable authentication apps (so you can log in using your cable credentials and stream your cable through the Roku interface), and more. Apple TV has a lot of these too — but it’s lacking the Amazon Prime Video app. And Amazon Fire TV has a lot of the same content, but tends to push its Prime Video service whenever it can, whereas Roku is content agnostic. Plus, Roku has an easy-to-navigate interface and a "Follow" option that sends you updates when the stuff you want to watch becomes available or goes down in price.
Roku is most likely to have the content you want
The question, then, isn’t whether the Roku 4 is a good streaming video box; it definitely is. The question is whether it’s worth spending $130 on a new Roku 4 if you have an older Roku, and whether a Roku is a better choice over the new $99 Amazon Fire TV or the new $149 Apple TV.
The latter question can’t be answered in full just yet; our review of the new Apple TV is coming soon. The first one really comes down to whether you have a compatible 4K TV and how much you actually care about watching 4K content. Otherwise, you’re still going to get pretty much the same Roku experience with an earlier device — and save a few bucks while you’re at it.
The Roku 4 has at least a few new hardware elements worth considering. The first is its new look; it is notably larger than any of its Roku predecessors and competitors. If the shape of earlier Rokus were pucks and the Amazon Fire TV is a hard-edged flat sandwich, the Roku 4 is a black plastic potholder. There are two schools of thought around this; the first is that size matters, and the second is that the thing gets hidden somewhere around or behind the TV anyway, so who cares. But with the Roku 4, it’s just large enough so that it couldn’t be squeezed next to my cable box or video game console.
The Roku 4 remote looks just like earlier ones and has the same headphone jack as the remote with the Roku 3, with one added feature: there’s now a physical button on top of the streaming box that sends an audio alert to the remote, so you can find it when it’s wedged between the couch cushions.
Roku has said the box’s bigger size is to accommodate all of the new stuff inside of it — a faster quad-core processor, support for modern Wi-Fi (it has 802.11ac wireless networking capabilities), and an optical audio output in addition to the usual selection of HDMI, ethernet, and USB ports. It also streams 4K, or UHD, video.
At this point in the 4K game, though, it’s wise to temper your excitement a little bit. Sure, it supports 4K at 60 frames per second, not 4K at 30fps like the Amazon Fire TV, which means smoother, more fluid high-resolution video, especially if you’re watching something with lots of movement. But you’re really only going to get the full 4K experience if you’re looking at a 4K TV and you’re watching video that was shot in 4K. Also — and this is important from a practical standpoint — your 4K TV has to have at least one HDMI input that’s HDCP 2.2-compliant in order to work with the 4K Roku.
It’s also obvious that 4K is still very much in content limbo. I had access to a compatible 4K TV over the weekend, and watched a lot of (HD) TV episodes through the new Roku. I also watched part of a 4K nature video called Oceans on Netflix. But when I went to Roku’s movie options in the main menu (powered by M-Go) and clicked on the 4K Ultra HD sub-menu, there were just 49 options there, and none of them were particularly timely or appealing. Under the Ultra HD options for TV shows, there were only two programs. Using voice search to find "Ultra HD video" pulled up no results. In other words, if you like the idea of having a 4K streaming box for future super-duper hi-res streaming, great, this has it. But don’t buy it now solely because of 4K.
Roku has also rolled out a new operating system and redesigned mobile app with the new Roku 4. Older boxes and streaming sticks will get these updates too, so this isn’t specific to the new hardware. But it does make for a slightly improved experience.
The new OS includes an minor update to the "Follow" function that Roku introduced earlier this year; instead of just being able to add new movie releases to your personal list of things you want to watch, you can now add any movie to the list. The idea of the Follow function, in general, is that you can get availability updates on movies, TV shows, or programs starring specific actors, as well as pricing updates when a movie or episode goes down in price. Using either Roku’s handy remote or the new Roku mobile app for iOS, I was able to quickly add movies and shows like The Martian, Trainwreck, Everest, and The Good Wife to My Feed, though I haven’t really reaped the benefits from this yet, either because they haven’t become available or their prices haven’t dropped in the short time frame I’ve been using Roku 4.
Roku has stuck with the split-screen approach it rolled out with the Roku 3, with menu items on the left and a selection of apps or "channels" on the right. Unlike Amazon Fire TV, which will show you an assortment of TV shows, movies, and apps on the home screen, Roku takes a channel-centric approach. It’s straightforward and streamlined — with the exception of My Feed in the main menu and My Watchlist in the M-Go submenus, which can feel redundant.
The one area where I’d have to ding Roku would be in voice search, which can be done through the remote or the mobile app. There's good voice recognition, and then there's smart, contextual search. Basic voice searches on the Roku were no problem at all — "Amy Schumer," "Back to the Future," "The Good Wife," "The Quiet Man," pulled up the stuff I was expecting. But it got tripped up on a couple of less obvious searches, like "Malala." And compared with Amazon Fire TV and even my Comcast XFinity X1 voice search, the Roku wasn’t very good at contextual searches.
If I searched for "shows with lawyers," the TV screen would show "Nothing found for shows with lawyers." Same with "war movies," which would show a handful of movies with the word "war" in it, like Andy Warhol’s Blue Movie and Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie, but not your Apocalypse Now or Saving Private Ryan variety of films. When I searched for "4K movies," I only got eight different results with the numeral 4 in the title — like Madagascar 4.
The Roku 4 is a great streaming box, but it's not a must-upgrade
So, considering that the key new features of the Roku 4 are 4K support, a faster processor and a remote that has a "Find Me!" button, I’ll say the same thing I said about the new Amazon Fire TV: this is not a must-upgrade-now kind of gadget. That said, Roku as a whole is still the best-in-class streaming video box, due mostly to its volumes of programming, content-agnostic approach and ease-of-use. At least, it is until we can give our full assessment of the new Apple TV.
Photography by Vjeran Pavic