Get to know Roku Premiere Plus (again)
I say "again" because Roku sold another 4K HDR streamer calledin 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 HDMI 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 TVs' 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, recommends a 15Mbps connection for 4K streaming, while YouTube and Netflix recommend 20Mbps.
- The Roku Premiere Plus can support
- 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. Itsoffers 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 from ABC, Cheddar, Newsy and more.
New for 2018 is thesection 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, 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.