Roku 4 review: The ultimate 4K accessory for your shiny new TV
The Roku 4 is the most capable Roku yet, with access to more 4K movies and TV shows than any device, a faster processor and even a remote finder. It beats any other 4K video player you can buy today, but is that enough?
When you drop a chunk of change on a shiny new thing, like a big TV with 4K resolution, the urge to accessorize can be overwhelming. If that urge has just overtaken you, the Roku 4 looks pretty sweet.
This squat little box spits out the widest variety of 4K video available today -- including Netflix, YouTube, Amazon, Vudu and M-Go -- and makes finding actual 4K TV shows and movies easier than ever. It's still early days for 4K so even those services don't have much, and newer 4K movies cost a bundle, but if you're hot to demo that new TV, I guess some 4K is better than no 4K.
Streaming videos in 4K resolution can deliver better picture quality than HD or 1080p resolution streams, but you'll need a big 4K TV, a fast Internet connection, and in the case of Netflix, the most-expensive subscription plan to take full advantage. Just don't expect a drastic improvement. Even to an image quality stickler like me the best non-4K streams from Netflix and Amazon look pretty awesome, and in my comparisons I find it difficult to tell the difference between them and actual 4K streams.
Compared with most 4K TVs, the $130 price of the Roku 4 is chump change, but in the puck-infested world of media streamers it's pretty expensive. And if you're on a budget, it's largely unnecessary. That's because your 4K TV probably already has access to Netflix and Amazon's 4K stuff, and maybe YouTube or others as well. And in the case of next-generation HDR content, which (wait for it...) promises even better quality than regular old 4K, those apps might even be more capable than Roku's. In most other ways, of course, Roku and other external streamers blow away any smart TV system.
Roku 4's competition includes the Nvidia Shield and Amazon Fire TV , both of which also handle 4K, but both ultimately fall short. Then there's Apple TV , which could offer enough useful capabilities to unseat Roku 4 as the best high-end streamer, even though it doesn't have 4K (or an Amazon video app). I'll know more once I review it. In the meantime maybe you know you like Roku better anyway, or you just want the best 4K video device available today. That's the Roku 4.
The box: A pancake packed with ports, processing
The Roku 4 looks like someone ran over a Roku 3 with a pickup truck. The new "box" is a thick, squared-off black plastic pancake, wider and deeper than other streamers but squat overall. Externally it's basically the opposite of the taller, chunkier new Apple TV.
The top is matte black and the sides glossy, slightly taller along the edges than the middle. Adornments include the big "4" up top, the trademark purple fabric Roku tag, and the discrete "Roku 4" logo on the front. The bottom is nicely rubberized to minimize slideage.
Mounted topside you'll also find the lone button, shaped like a miniature version of the Roku remote. That's appropriate because it's used to operate the remote locator function.
Roku omitted no connection. On the side there's a USB port, and around back you get the best selection of ports on any streamer available today outside the Nvidia Shield: HDMI, Ethernet, optical digital audio and a MicroSD card slot. Most other new streamers drop optical digital audio, which is the easiest way to get 5.1 channel surround to older devices that lack HDMI. And Roku has more 5.1-capable apps than anyone.
The USB port can connect to USB sticks and hard drives for playback of photo, music and video files using the Roku Media Player app (see below for testing). The MicroSD card port can take cards up to 64GB if you find the need to expand the Roku 4's storage. Like on the Fire TV, this feature is only useful for gamers (the SD card can't be access for media file playback), and of course Roku has very few games compared to Fire TV and Android TV.
One advantage over streaming sticks is the presence of an Ethernet port, and in many locations Ethernet will provide a more reliable, higher-bandwidth stream than Wi-Fi (something that's especially important for 4K streaming, which generally needs a hefty 15Mbps connection). Of course, Roku 4 supports the latest 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard, too, and it worked flawlessly in our test lab.
Roku also mentions a quad-core processor for faster response times. In my tests menu navigation and other tasks didn't seem to go noticeably faster than the already very zippy Roku 2 or 3, however, and apps like Netflix and YouTube didn't launch any faster. The same goes for other newer streaming boxes: all are plenty speedy for most users.
The cure for RLS (remote loss syndrome)
The biggest improvement on the Roku 4 remote is its cool finder function. Press the button on the top of the box and the remote emits an alarm sound -- your choice of whistle, submarine-style sonar or "Ride of the Valkyries," among others -- from wherever it happens to be hiding. It's a great feature for people who always misplace the clicker, provided you're using the actual Roku remote instead of a universal model. Now if only Roku would sell a tiny accessory speaker I could paste to my Harmony .
Otherwise the remote is identical to that of the Roku 3. It's chunkier and looks a bit dated next to the Amazon Fire TV , Apple TV (even the old one) and Google Nexus Player remotes, but still feels natural in the hand.
Like most streaming media device clickers, and unlike the more basic remote found on the Roku 2 , it uses uses Wi-Fi Direct so it doesn't require line-of-sight to operate. You can stash your Roku 4 pretty much anywhere in your system, and point the remote anywhere, and it works fine.
The "return" button on previous Roku remotes -- not to be confused with the much more useful "back" button -- has been replaced by a little magnifying glass that summons the voice search dialog. Otherwise the buttons are basically the same.
Roku kept the A/B keys for gaming, and the volume controls to the side effect the headphone output only. I like the ability to instantly launch Netflix and Amazon, but I found the buttons for services to which I didn't subscribe (namely, Rdio) irksome and a rare departure from Roku's content-agnostic ethos. Another annoyance is the main OK key's unconventional placement better below the four-way cursor, rather than in its midst.
The Roku way to play 4K, eh?
Unless you lose your remote all the time, the main reason to spend the extra money on a Roku 4 over cheaper models is to get 4K capability. As with all external streamers, you'll need to connect it to an HDCP 2.2-capable input on your 4K TV to enable 4K playback with most copy-protected content, which includes just about everything available to stream today.
True to form, Roku offers the most apps of any streamer with 4K. At launch its apps for Netflix, YouTube, Amazon, Vudu (which has an exclusive with Roku for now), M-Go and ToonGoggles all support 4K streaming, and PLEX and the Roku Media Player app both handle local playback of 4K files.
The only 4K streaming app I know about that Roku 4 doesn't currently support is UltraFlix, found on Vizio and some other 4K TVs. It offers a hodgepodge of mostly older movies and other video. Roku's rep told me they're working to add UltraFlix as well, but couldn't tell me when.
Meanwhile Amazon Fire TV only offers 4K from Netflix and Amazon, although it says YouTube and PLEX will be added soon. Nvidia Shield has Netflix, YouTube, PLEX and numerous video player apps including VLC Player and MX Player, but it doesn't have an Amazon Video app at all.
Advantage Roku, right? Not so fast. If you have a 4K TV, chances are it already has a built-in app or three that offers 4K streaming or even downloads. That app may even support for HDR video. HDR promises even better image quality than 4K, with brighter highlights and expanded color. Amazon was the first to deliver HDR content, and offers a handful of HDR shows and movies. Vudu and Netflix will follow suit with their own HDR content later this year.
Right now no external device supports HDR, including Roku 4 (like Nvidia, Roku claims it might add such support in the future, but Amazon's Fire TV, ironically, will not). The vast majority of 4K content, of course, isn't in HDR, and of course no Smart TV system is as good as Roku's in terms of update frequency, customization and ease of use. And of course some don't support every 4K app Roku does; Vizio's M series, for example, still doesn't deliver 4K YouTube.
Roku makes 4K content easier to find than any other platform. The app store (Roku calls it a Channel Store) has a dedicated section called "4K UHD Content Available" that collects all of the apps that deliver 4K.
Even better, there's a dedicated Roku channel called "4K Spotlight." It's designed to showcase individual 4K movies, TV shows and videos. I was surprised to see a relatively solid selection at press time: 133 movies, 44 TV shows and 33 videos were listed. Selecting one takes you to the app to play it back. Most of the movies are from M-Go, Amazon and Vudu, and while a few are free (for Amazon Prime members), most cost plenty to rent (if available, it's typically $10) or buy ($20 to $30). All of the TV shows are original series from Amazon (free for Prime members) or cartoons from ToonGoggles (free, with ads). And all of the videos are from YouTube (free).
Unfortunately, Netflix's substantial 4K catalog isn't included among the 4K Spotlight offerings. When I asked why, Roku's rep told me "We encourage all of our content partners to participate, but some are still evaluating the opportunity." To watch 4K shows via Netflix, you'll have to hit Netflix's app directly.
I'd like to see some ability to sort the 4K offerings by price, genre or release date, and it would be even better if Roku's excellent search offered a "4K only" filter, either from within Spotlight or globally. Those are nitpicks though, and likely coming in the future as more 4K content rolls out.
So how does 4K look? As I've seen in previous viewing tests, it provided very little improvement in my experience over the best 1080p streams. I used the Sony XBR-75X950C, a high-end 75-inch TV, to judge image quality between the non-4K Roku 3 box and Roku 4.
Switching quickly between the two boxes watching "Narcos" on Netflix from a theatrical seating distance of about eight feet, the two looked basically identical. The pores on Escobar's face as he peers out the plane window, the hills and buildings of Medellín spread out below, the small letters on the wall or the flag in an office, all looked equally sharp. The same went for "Daredevil."
I've seen these same minuscule differences with most 4K material and source devices. The simple fact is that 1080p streams from Netflix, Amazon and others look so good already, that the 4K streaming tier provides little benefit.
The Roku advantage: App access and no axe to grind
Just about every streaming platform these days provides access to most of the best apps, but Roku has a big advantage over Apple TV and Google's Chromecast and Android TV streamers: an actual Amazon app. Sure you can use Apple's AirPlay and Google's screencasting features to watch Amazon videos on those devices, but the convenience of an actual app is makes for better user experience. And you don't need to use your phone or computer.
Amazon's Fire TV ecosystem actually claims a higher app total that Roku these days, with more "channels, apps and games" than any other streaming media player -- more than 3,000 by its count. Roku tells me its total is up to 2,700 video and music channels, and more than 100 games. I wonder how many apps the new Apple TV, with its newly minted app store, will claim by this time next year?
Roku's core app selection is still better than Amazon's, however, which lacks Google Play Movies and TV, M-Go, NFL, NHL, CBS All Access, Nick, Comedy Central or SiriusXM, among others. Meanwhile just about every worthwhile video and music app on Amazon is also on Roku; the only other exceptions I found were Watch ABC and file hoarder favorite Kodi.
The best part about Roku, and a major reason I've used it for years at home and recommend it to everyone ( most recently in TVs ), is the user experience. Roku doesn't sell content (yet), so unlike Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and the Google, its interface doesn't prioritize any source of content over another.
Aside from its broad app selection, the biggest manifestation of this egalitarian approach is the fully customizeable, consumer-friendly menu system (which, incidentally, looks better than ever on the Roku 4 thanks to 1080p graphics). Much like a smartphone (and like Apple TV), Roku lets you move any app tile you want on the Home page, and remove any you don't use. You can even remove the trio of branded options on the main left navigation screen -- Movie Store, TV Store (both by M-Go) and News (by AOL On) -- via the "Home screen" menu under Settings. The menus for Amazon and Android TV don't let you arrange apps beyond showing the most recently used.
Roku also has my favorite cross-platform search. It allows you to search by title, actor, director or keyword across 20 apps, including major services Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Crackle, CBS All Access, Starz Play, Fox Now, FXNow, HBO Go, M-Go, Time Warner Cable and Vudu (notable omissions include HBO Now, Showtime, Showtime Anytime and Sling TV). In comparison the new Chromecast app hits Netflix, Hulu, FXNow, Crackle, HBO Go, and of course YouTube and Google Play Movies, while the search catalogs of Fire TV and Android TV are more limited; both still omit Netflix results, for example.
I'm betting it will be awhile before the new Apple's TV's search equals the breadth of Roku (it will supposedly support Netflix, Hulu, HBO and Showtime at launch) but we'll see, and meanwhile the old Apple TV doesn't have cross-platform search at all.
The inclusion of subscription services in search results may actually save you money. If you're a Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus or HBO Go subscriber, for example, you'll see results for movies available there listed as "free" in addition to those available from pay-per-view services, with costs attached. Among current streamers only Chromecast provides the same kind of up-front pricing information.
Roku 4 has the same voice search via remote offered by the Roku 3, and it works well. Just press the button on the remote, wait for the onscreen prompt, and talk. It recognized most of my queries on the first try, and surfaced Roku's excellent results lists quickly.
On the other hand Roku doesn't have the kind of voice control and conversational search offered by Apple TV's Siri or Amazon's Alexa. I tried asking Roku 4 "What's the weather?" and all I got was the "Nothing Found" dialog. I told Roku 4 to "Play Music" and two programs came up: "Elmo's World: Let's Play Music" and "Playing for Change: Peace Through Music." While watching "Narcos" I asked Roku "What did he say?" and the video stopped, I was booted out of Netflix to the search results screen, and up popped a bunch of videos featuring 50 Cent.
If you want to talk to your streaming device about more than simply find new stuff to watch, you should probably go with Siri or Alexa.
Roku-wide upgrades: Fatter feeds, a slicker app, and hotel Wi-Fi
In conjunction with the release of Roku 4, Roku is rolling out a software upgrade to all of its devices. The main change improves the novel Feeds feature, while another allows the ability to connect to tricky guest networks, often found in hotels and dorms. Roku also has an updated mobile app for iOS and Android with better looks and a few new extras.
My Feed is a feature Roku debuted earlier this year, allowing you to "Follow" certain movies to be notified when they're available to stream. Now Roku has expanded it to TV shows, people (typically actors or directors), and more movies -- essentially anything you can search for, you can follow.
Once you follow something it appears under My Feeds with its own "card," and updates on availability and pricing changes will appear there. If a movie or TV show you follow gets a price drop, or if an actor you follow appears in a movie newly available to stream, the card shows an update. It's a great customer-friendly extra, and no other streaming device offers anything similar.
Roku's improved smartphone app can still control the device, which is great if your remote goes missing (and you forget Roku 4 has a remote finder function), as well as offer voice search (even for cheaper Roku devices), but also has a few cool new tricks. Much like Chromecast, you can create a screensaver using photos from your phone (Roku 4 has a special 4K screensaver too, with nature photos). The ability to "fling" photos from phone to TV has been improved a bit, with the addition of pinch-to-zoom and drag-to-move, for easy expansion of details.
You can also access My Feeds from the app, and coming soon you'll be able to "follow" stuff directly from the app as well. If somebody mentions a movie or TV show you want to see, you can pull out your phone and follow it, so you don't forget. I asked Roku again whether I could receive Feed update notifications on my phone or via email, rather than having to keep checking the Feed itself, but that's not available yet.
Roku also added the ability to connect to so-called "captive portal" networks, which are common to hotel and dorm rooms. It works from the device's main settings screen and, unlike I was told earlier, doesn't require the smartphone app to use. I didn't get the chance to test it yet, but check out my writeup of the same feature on the Amazon Fire TV if you're curious.
Tech talk: 4K FPS, HEVC, MKV and USB
Unlike previous Roku boxes, the 4 is aimed to compete with high-end units and packed with the requisite impenetrable specifications. Consider yourself warned, and feel free to skip this section if you don't care.
The Roku 4 has an HDMI 2.0 output for 60 and 30 frame-per-second 4K streaming. If connected to a TV that supports 4K at 60 fps, content will be streamed at 60 fps. If connected to a TV that only supports 4K at 30 fps (namely, an HDMI 1.4 rather than 2.0 input, often found on 2014 4K TVs and 2015 Vizios), the Roku 4 will stream at 30 fps or 24fps, depending on the content. In testing it delivered 4K to TVs with both HDMI versions, as long as it detected HDCP 2.2, but I was unable to confirm the frame rates with the HDMI 1.4-equipped Vizio I used.
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, the ability to force 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. If you consider yourself a stickler for film, like me, the Shield seems to have the advantage. That said, when I watched 24p material on the Roku, its processing did an excellent job maintaining the correct cadence, despite being delivered to the TV at 60 fps. Still, I'd like to Roku include an option to deliver 4K/24p to HDMI 2.0-equipped TVs as well.
The Roku 4 is very good at playing back video files, but not quite as proficient as the Nvidia Shield in this area. If you're a file hoarder with a lot of local stuff you want to pipe to the TV, Shield is a better bet.
I tried a few 4K test files encoded with HEVC compression playing via the Roku Media Player app and it worked well, delivering full 4K resolution. On the other hand, most of the files at 4K encoded with the older H.264 method failed. I'm guessing that's an issue with the app, and unfortunately on Roku (as opposed to Android-powered devices like Nvidia Shield) there aren't many alternative apps for local file playback.
With non-4K file playback, Roku handled a tough 1080p MKV-encoded file at 120Mbps, so it shouldn't have any trouble with Blu-ray rips. It also played uncompressed Blu-ray rips.
In comparison, the Nvidia Shield had no problems playing back anything I tried via the VLC Player and MX Player apps, including both encoding methods at 4K. It also recognized all three hard drives I attached (two 500GB USB-powered drive and a 2TB drive with its own power source). The Roku 4 only recognized the 2TB drive, although it had no issues with my test 128GB USB stick.
For what it's worth, the Amazon Fire TV didn't play back any files in full 4K resolution, although Amazon says 4K media playback will be available as the apps get upgraded to handle it.
I also tried network file playback via the Plex app. It worked well but even with my robust network and server, neither Shield nor Roku could maintain 4K resolution over Wi-Fi -- although both services say they support Plex in 4K (conclusion: if you want guaranteed 4K over your home network, use Ethernet). Amazon says 4K support is coming to its Plex app soon.
If you have a 4K TV with a 10-bit HDMI connection option, you may appreciate that Roku 4 has a matching setting in its menu system. I didn't test it however.
Conclusion: Great if you want the best Roku, but not the best value
In my book the best streaming player for the money is still the Roku 2. The Roku 4 costs twice as much for the privilege of 4K streaming, along with a few other niceties like the remote finder and an optical output. But none of those extras are worth it for most people.
But let's say you just bought a 4K TV, you don't want to use its built-in apps and you don't mind paying extra to get the very slightly better quality afforded by 4K streaming. Or maybe you just want the best Roku yet. In that case, the Roku 4 is for you.