Watch out, Apple TV. There's a new contender for "best streamer that costs more than $100."
Roku, makers of my favorite streaming sticks, boxes and Smart TVs, has a new product to beam your favorite TV shows, movies and music from the Internet to your TV. Called the Roku 4 and shipping later in October for $129, it's the company's most-expensive box to date, and the most capable.
In addition to its squatter, wider shape, the Roku 4 differs from less-expensive Roku boxes by adding 4K video streaming capability. The 4K movies, TV shows and videos available from providers like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, M-Go and YouTube promise better video quality compared to current HD or 1080p streams (Vudu's 4K content will also be available on the Roku 4 at launch, the first we've heard of it). To take advantage of it, you'll need a 4K TV and a fast Internet connection, and in the case of Netflix, the most-expensive subscription plan.
Roku 4's other main feature has me even more excited, however: a remote finder. Press a button on the unit and the remote beeps. It's a feature so simple and useful (and one I've been asking for for years) that I can't believe other manufacturers haven't done it already.
In addition to a faster processor and more connectivity, the Roku 4 gets all of the features of the step-down $99 Roku 3. And since it's a Roku, it benefits from the most apps, the best search and the simplest, most customizable interface around.
Roku is also rolling out an update to its software, which will be available on recent-vintage Roku boxes and all Roku TVs, that expands the novel "My Feeds" concept beyond just new movie releases. With it you can receive notifications for when certain TV shows, movies and even actors and directors become available to stream, complete with pricing information.
The software update also adds the ability (already available on Amazon Fire TV devices) to connect to certain hotel and dorm Wi-Fi networks that require a web page to sign in. Roku is also improving its mobile app for iOS and Android, adding better My Feeds integration and improved "casting" of photos from your phone to the TV.
The cure for RLS (remote-loss syndrome)
4K, schmore-kay. The coolest feature of the Roku 4 has nothing to do with resolution, unless you mean the resolution of a search for a lost remote.
Unbeknownst to yours truly and my doughty CNET coworkers, Roku's representatives had planned a cute demo of the remote finder capability for our meeting. A one point Matthew Anderson, Roku's Chief Marketing Officer, pretended to lose the remote he'd been using to control the device. He then hit a small button on the top of the box. A loud sound, Uhura's intercom from the original Star Trek to be exact, issued from the cushion under my colleague, and kept sounding until it was dug it up and the finder pressed a button. Maniacal laughter ensued.
After everybody calmed down, we were shown a settings screen that allowed a choice of three other effects, including a whistle and submarine sonar sounds. The sounds are actually downloaded to the remote, a process that can take a few seconds and (among other requirements) precludes the feature working with other clickers. Maybe Roku will someday sell a little add-on speaker that attaches to my beloved Harmony so I can rescue it, too, from its daily forays into sat-upon oblivion. A nerd can dream.
Otherwise the remote is the same one found on the Roku 3, complete with a headphone jack for private listening and voice search capability. Unlike the new Apple TV and some other devices, Roku's voice support doesn't extend to commands or general questions, just search terms.
Putting the Roku (and the 4) in 4K streaming
Unless you lose your remote all the time, the main reason to spend the extra money on a Roku 4 is to get 4K. If you have a 4K TV, chances are it already has an app or three that offers 4K streaming or even downloads. However, no Smart TV interface is as good as Roku's in terms of update frequency, customization and ease of use.
Roku offers a few options for getting to 4K content. The app store (Roku calls it a Channel Store) has a dedicated section called "4K UHD" that collects all of the apps that deliver 4K. In our hands-on demo, I was also shown a dedicated Roku channel called "4K Spotlight," which featured a bunch of 4K movies from M-Go and videos from YouTube.
When I asked why TV shows and movies from Netflix and Amazon were missing from the Spotlight app, Anderson told me "participation is voluntary, but we hope to add more providers soon."
The Roku 4 has an HDMI 2.0 output for 60 and 30 frame-per-second 4K streaming. By comparison, the new Amazon Fire TV 4K box only supports HDMI 1.4 (for 4K at 30 and 24 fps), so it can't handle the highest-bandwidth 4K content. Meanwhile the Nvidia Shield is the most versatile, with HDMI 2.0 and the ability to output 4K at 60, 30 and, with the latest software update, 24 fps as well.
Video at 24 fps is considered the standard for film-based movies and TV shows, while 60 is advantageous for fast-moving content like sports.
As with the other boxes, to get access to the copy-protected 4K streams provided by Netflix, Amazon, M-Go and others, you'll need to connect Roku 4 to the HDCP 2.2 input on your TV.
Unlike the apps built into some 4K TVs, the 4K apps on these external 4K streamers do not currently offer access to HDR content. I asked Anderson whether the box's HDMI port would be upgradeable to support HDR, which requires a protocol known as HDMI 2.0a, and he answered with a "maybe," citing still-to-be-nailed-down HDR standards.
Aside from its beefed-up HDMI, the Roku 4 also improves on previous Roku connectivity with the addition of an optical digital audio output, perfect for slightly older AV systems that lack HDMI for audio. Of course it has an Ethernet port and the latest 802.11ac Wi-Fi.
I look forward to testing the Roku 4 using the official couches in CNET's lab soon.
In the meantime, check the box for an easter egg. Hint: BO-Hay OW-Nay.