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 (), 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 myif 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 withplaying 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.