Roku Premiere Plus (2018) review: The best value in 4K HDR streaming, if your Wi-Fi is solid
If streaming devices are a commodity like rice or paper towels, Roku deserves a lot of the credit. (Or maybe that's the blame, depending on your point of view.) The streaming specialist has been making the same basic boxes and sticks for the last five years, iterating and improving along the way and selling them at crazy-low prices. And the formula works.
Roku routinely tops CNET's list of best media streamers, and its outsells giants like Amazon , Google and Apple year in and year out. Rokus are simple to use yet powerful enough to deliver snappy performance with the latest versions of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and thousands of other apps.
For 2018 Roku has two new streaming players -- the $40 Roku Premiere and $50 Roku Premiere Plus reviewed here. They're basically just as good as existing players, which Roku continues to sell, and they're cheaper than ever for 4K streaming.
The Premiere Plus is my favorite between the two, but my favorite Roku overall is still the Streaming Stick Plus from 2017. For an extra $10 over the Premiere Plus it gives you the potential for superior Wi-Fi reception: It can pull in 5Ghz Wi-Fi networks, which in many places perform better than standard 2.4 GHz ones (see below for details). The Stick Plus also has Wi-Fi 5 (aka 802.11ac), which offers the potential for faster speeds over the Premiere Plus, which maxes out at Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n). That said, Wi-Fi 4 is more than fast enough for 4K video in most cases.
Beyond Wi-Fi differences, the new Rokus are "more of the same," but that's not a bad thing, and Roku continues to add new features to all of its streamers. Coming soon is support for Google Assistant for example (you'll need to add an Assistant-capable device to your network), which should help it even the voice control odds against its chief competitor, the $50 Alexa-powered Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K.
Two other caveats: The Roku Premiere Plus is available exclusively at Walmart, and only in the US.
Roku Premiere Plus vs. the rest
If you're buying a streamer today your first task is to decide between one that does 4K HDR and one that doesn't. If you have a 4K HDR TV and you don't love its built-in Smart TV functions, you should definitely get a 4K HDR streamer.
Even if your current TV doesn't do 4K, there's a good argument for going with a budget 4K HDR device like the Premiere Plus anyway. The price difference between 4K and non-4K streamers is so small ($20 in Roku's and Amazon's cases) it might be worth paying in case you do get a 4K TV soon, and want to be ready without having to buy a new streamer then.
Here's how the Premiere Plus stacks up against the other choices.
Vs. the $50 Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K: For the same price it has better voice support thanks to Alexa built into the remote, but Roku's remote has voice search and play/pause commands too, and its forthcoming Google Assistant integration could even the playing field for far-field (hands-free) commands. If you have a Dolby Vision TV the Fire TV Stick 4K becomes more appealing, but Roku's interface is more neutral: it doesn't pummel you with Amazon's own TV shows and movies. Look for my full review of the Fire TV Stick 4K once it becomes available.
Vs. the $40 Roku Premiere: For $10 less the Premiere drops the Plus' voice remote with TV control, and its remote requires you to aim it at the device. Otherwise the two Roku streamers are identical. In my book that remote is worth the money, so I like the Plus better, but I can see super-budget buyers (or Harmony users) going with the basic Premiere.
Vs. the $60 Roku Streaming Stick Plus: For $10 more the Stick Plus' only advantage over the Premiere Plus is compatibility with 5GHz Wi-Fi networks. Most people will be fine with standard 2.4GHz streaming, but if you're not, or you travel with your Roku and could encounter less-than-ideal network performance, consider stepping up to the Stick.
Vs. the $70 Chromecast Ultra: For $20 more, the Ultra lacks a remote and relies on your phone to control streaming. Yes it does have Dolby Vision, but for most people a traditional remote and on-screen interface is better. Chromecast also lacks compatibility with Amazon Prime Video, which is a huge hole for many viewers.
Vs. the $100 Roku Ultra: For $50 more the Ultra's remote adds a headphone jack for private listening and the remote finder function so you don't lose it among the couch cushions. There's also an SD card slot to expand the memory for faster app loading, a USB port and a wired Ethernet port. These features are neat, but not worth the extra money for most people.
Get to know Roku Premiere Plus (again)
I say "again" because Roku sold another 4K HDR streamer called Premiere Plus in 2016. The 2018 version is smaller and cheaper with more features. Here's the basics.
- The Premiere Plus itself is a little mini-box that's just 1.4 by 3.3 by 0.7 inches. Unlike a streaming stick, which has a built-in
plug, it has the standard HDMI port and includes a 2-foot HDMI cable.
- Since it doesn't require line-of-sight to the remote, you can mount it out of sight, behind the TV for example, just like a streaming stick. In fact Roku includes a double-sided sticker to make it even easier.
- Power is provided via a mini-USB so you can plug it into many
' USB ports for power. Doing so takes longer to boot up, however, so plugging the Plus directly into an wall outlet is usually the best route.
- It's compatible with Wi-Fi 4 (802.11b/g/n) Wi-Fi networks, but not Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) networks. It's also not compatible with the 5GHz bands found on many routers -- at any speed -- which offer better coverage that the crowded 2.4GHz bands in some households.
- Unlike the new Fire TV Stick 4K, the Plus lacks Dolby Vision HDR, so all HDR is delivered as HDR10. This isn't a big deal unless 1) you have a Dolby Vision-capable TV, and 2) it performs significantly better with Dolby Vision compared to HDR10. If you want Dolby Vision, your only current streaming options are the Fire TV Stick 4K, the much-more-expensive Apple TV 4K or the apps built into your TV.
- 4K HDR video on Roku is currently available from Netflix, YouTube, Amazon, Vudu and FandangoNow. Apps with 4K (but not HDR) support include Plex, Curiosity Stream, UltraFlix, Toon Goggles, 4K Universe and Smithsonian, as well as a few other niche apps. No other platform can match that 4K HDR app selection.
- Streaming in 4K requires more bandwidth, and in the case of Netflix, a more expensive plan. Amazon recommends a 15Mbps connection for 4K streaming, while YouTube and Netflix recommend 20Mbps.
- The Roku Premiere Plus can support Dolby Atmos, Dolby's best in-home audio format. The only app on Roku that currently supports Atmos is Vudu, and it passed through with no issues in my test. Note that Apple TV 4K also supports Atmos via Netflix, but currently Roku does not.
- In my brief viewing tests, video quality was the same on the Premiere Plus as on other 4K HDR streamers I've tested.
Weaker on poor Wi-Fi, plenty speedy otherwise
The Premiere Plus lacks 5GHz and Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) compatibility, which is common on most other streamers including Roku's own streaming sticks. That's not a big deal if your 2.4 GHz network is robust, but can be an issue otherwise.
I tested the Premiere Plus by connecting it to my Wi-Fi access point's 2.4 GHz network at the same time as I connected the Streaming Stick Plus to the access point's 5GHz network. Close to the access point both Rokus performed equally well. The Premiere Plus loaded apps just as quickly as the Stick Plus, achieved peak image quality with both standard and 4K HDR video within a matter of moments and had no issues with interruptions or buffering. The connection was basically flawless.
Moving further away, however, the Stick Plus performed better. I scanned for the access point from various places around CNET's office, which is a tough environment packed with competing Wi-Fi networks. On the outskirts only the 5GHz network was visible so only the Stick Plus could stream anything -- and it performed very well. Moving a bit closer the 2.4GHz network came into range again on the Premiere Plus but performance wasn't good, with low-quality video and long load times (complete with a warning message from Roku saying "Internet download speed is low."). Meanwhile the Stick Plus continued to perform perfectly on its 5GHz connection.
Ditch your TV's remote
If you only pick up your TV's original remote to turn it on or adjust volume, Roku's clicker is great. Its power and volume controls seamlessly commanded every TV I tried, including Samsung , Vizio , Sony and LG models.
Setup was super-simple. Instead of making you enter some numeric code, as required by most cheap universal remotes, Roku knows what TV you have and programs itself automatically.
How? It reads the the EDID (Extended Display Information Data) in your TV. EDID is essentially a list of information about the set -- brand, model, size and other characteristics such as what signals it can accept -- that can be transmitted over the HDMI plug. Roku reads this data and sends it to the remote, programming its power and volume buttons wirelessly. The only thing you have to do for setup is confirm it works. It takes about 10 seconds.
Roku's TV-controlling clicker isn't unique. In fact Amazon aped Roku by including TV volume and power buttons on its new Fire TV Stick 4K remote, with the addition of a mute button (which Roku lacks). Apple TV's remote has volume buttons that work without needing line of sight, but they rely on a HDMI protocol called CEC and it's not as universal as the standard infrared commands Roku uses to control the TV.
The same remote interfaces with the actual Roku box via Wi-Fi Direct, which doesn't require line-of-sight. That means you can tuck the Roku behind the TV, and it will still work flawlessly. Meanwhile the remote on the cheaper Roku Premiere does need line-of-sight.
Same old Roku menus, now with new free stuff
The iPhone has used a basic grid of apps since time immemorial, because it works and people are used to it. So does Roku, and every time I ask the company representatives about an update they essentially tell me it's working too well to mess with. And for the most part, I agree.
Roku still has the simplest, most customizable layout, the best cross-app search (complete with voice -- just speak into the remote) and just about any app you could ask for (with the exception of Apple's iTunes, TV and Music apps). Providers have also been steadily delivering their most updated app interfaces as well. Last year the latest versions of PlayStation Vue, HBO Now and Watch ESPN for example all used Roku's generic template interface. Now all three have the most up-to-date designs on Roku, as do Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Sling TV, YouTube TV, DirecTV Now and every other app I tested.
Compared to other streaming platforms, Roku focuses more on free TV shows and movies that don't require a subscription or login. Its Roku Channel offers free movies and TV shows (with ads). The movie selection is similar to basic cable movies (think Rocky, Ghostbusters, Platoon, Gattaca, King of New York, and so forth). The ads aren't that bad -- although you might have to put up with some awkward breaks -- and the movies are otherwise uncut. There's also a section that streams live news from ABC, Cheddar, Newsy and more.
New for 2018 is the Featured Free section of Roku's main menu. The idea is to surface TV shows from network apps that are available to watch immediately without having to sign in to those apps. Clicking a show title, like New Amsterdam, Family Guy or Grey's Anatomy, launches the app (NBC, Fox Now or ABC, respectively) and begins playing the episode (with ads). The section also mixes in movies from The Roku Channel and plenty of older shows available to watch for free, like Seinfeld (from Sony's Crackle), Duck Dynasty (from Tubi TV) or Hell's Kitchen (from the Roku Channel).
A great value, but the Stick is worth another $10
Now that Roku's Streaming Stick Plus is $60, just $10 more than the Premiere Plus, it's the better buy for most people. In my book the advantage of better Wi-Fi is worth the price of a couple cups of coffee. The Premiere Plus is a superb second choice, however, especially if your 2.4Ghz network is solid.