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Roku Premiere review: More 4K streaming apps for less money

The affordable Roku Premiere has more 4K-capable apps than just about any source, including the smart TV system built into your TV. But it's not for everyone.

David Katzmaier Editorial Director -- Personal Tech
David reviews TVs and leads the Personal Tech team at CNET, covering mobile, software, computing, streaming and home entertainment. We provide helpful, expert reviews, advice and videos on what gadget or service to buy and how to get the most out of it.
Expertise A 20-year CNET veteran, David has been reviewing TVs since the days of CRT, rear-projection and plasma. Prior to CNET he worked at Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as the Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics. Credentials
  • Although still awaiting his Oscar for Best Picture Reviewer, David does hold certifications from the Imaging Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology on display calibration and evaluation.
David Katzmaier
6 min read

Editors' note, Feb. 3, 2021: The original Roku Premiere streaming box reviewed here debuted in 2016. In 2018 Roku debuted a new device, also called the Roku Premiere, that remains in the company's lineup today. It's physically smaller and adds HDR capability. In general we advise people to get the Roku Streaming Stick Plus instead of the Premiere, because it has a voice remote that can control a TV and doesn't require line of sight, which in our opinion is worth the extra money.


Roku Premiere

The Good

The Premiere is cheaper than most other 4K streamers and offers more 4K apps. Unlike the Chromecast Ultra, it actually includes a remote (and an Amazon Video app). Roku's ecosystem offers more apps, better search and more customization than any other.

The Bad

Lack of HDR and other important features make it a worse value than the Premiere+. Content in 4K is still uncommon, and your 4K TV probably already has compatible apps. Some app interfaces are less polished than on rival devices.

The Bottom Line

Although I prefer slightly more-expensive devices with better features, the Roku Premiere is still an appealing way to add more 4K apps to TVs that lack HDR.

 The review below remains unchanged from its original publication on Jan. 30, 2017.

When Roku announced three different 4K-capable devices last year, I immediately pegged the two higher-end units, the Premiere+ and the Ultra, as the ones I liked best.

The third is the Roku Premiere reviewed here, and after plenty of hands-on time with all three my opinion hasn't changed. If you want want a 4K streamer, the others make more sense.

Of course there's always an exception. If you have a relatively inexpensive 4K TV that lacks HDR (high dynamic range), particularly one with an anemic selection of built-in streaming apps, the Premiere is worth considering. It's cheaper than any other 4K-capable streamer on the market aside from the Xiaomi Mi box and the Chromecast Ultra -- and both of those are hobbled by lack of Amazon Video and its prodigious selection of 4K TV shows and movies. It's also better than the 4K capable Amazon Fire TV box, unless you're really into Alexa and voice commands.

Roku Premiere streams in 4K for less

See all photos

On the other hand there's plenty of reasons to spend a few bucks more to get our favorite 4K streamer, the Premiere+, or even more for the Roku Ultra or the Nvidia Shield. Unlike those devices the Premiere can't stream high dynamic range, and since HDR can really improve image quality, owners of HDR-capable TVs should definitely get an HDR-capable device. The better Rokus also have plenty of worthwhile extra features -- like Ethernet ports and point-anywhere remotes with headphone jacks -- that the base Premiere lacks. And the Shield is just a do-everything beast.

If you're a 4K TV owner who just wants Roku's great app selection in a single device, and wants to save as much money as possible, the Premiere is worth checking out. But for a streamer you'll use every day, we think it's worth spending a few bucks more.

What you need to know about Roku Premiere

So what's 4K HDR streaming anyway? New here, eh? No problem. Many internet video services, including Netflix, Amazon Video, Vudu and YouTube, stream some of their TV shows and movies in 4K resolution, which promises higher video quality than their other streams. We say "promise" for a reason: often the differences are tough to discern, even for trained eyes like ours.

The Permiere can also serve up lower-quality streams, too, and it can access all of the thousands of apps that any other Roku can. Most apps, including heavy hitters like Hulu, HBO Now/Go, Watch ESPN and Sling TV don't offer 4K yet, or restrict it to certain devices. Historically Roku gets 4K streams before many other devices, but there are always exceptions. Hulu's 4K, for example, is currently restricted to the newest game consoles.

David Katzmaier/CNET

Should I get it if I don't have a 4K TV? No. Unless you anticipate buying a new 4K TV (that lacks HDR) very soon, my advice is to get the Roku Streaming Stick or another non-4K device and save the money.

Why shouldn't I just stick with my smart TV system? You can, but it might be annoying. Most 4K TVs have built-in apps that support 4K. Depending on the TV you have, and what services you enjoy, you might be perfectly fine streaming without an external box. On the other hand, Roku in particular has more streaming apps that offer 4K and standard video streams, and makes those apps and streams easier to find and use. It's also updated more often than most smart TVs, and provides a single, convenient source for all your internet video.

Why do you like Roku better than the competition? The main reason is the selection of 4K HDR apps. As of January 2017, Roku devices like the Ultra offer 4K from 17 apps: Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, Plex, Roku Media Player, Fandango Now, UltraFlix4K, 4K Universe, Curiosity Stream, Toon Goggles, Tastemade, Smithsonian Earth, ifood.TV, Picasa, Flickr and 500px. That's more than any other streaming device or TV.

How does it compare to the Roku Premiere+ or Roku Ultra? It's cheaper, but has fewer features. Both offer all of the following features that aren't available on the Premiere.

  • Compatibility with both 4K and HDR streams
  • Remote: Point-anywhere instead of having to aim, allowing you to stash the box out of sight
  • Remote: Connect headphones for private listening
  • Connectivity: microSD card slot that (when you insert said card) can help apps load faster
  • Connectivity: Ethernet port for wired connections, which can be more stable than Wi-Fi in some situations

A 4K Roku triple-stack. Top: Premiere, Middle: Premiere Plus, Bottom: Ultra

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Ultra adds a USB port for playback of video files from connected drives, an optical digital audio output, a voice search from the remote (all Rokus, including the Premiere, offer voice search from the Roku app) and finder function to locate the clicker if it goes missing.

Will it work with my AV receiver or sound bar? Not necessarily. If your receiver supports 4K pass-through to the TV (look for "4K UHD," "HDCP 2.2," "HDMI 2.0a" or "HDMI 2.0" support), it should work. If it doesn't, you'll either need to buy a new receiver that does, or to bypass your current receiver and connect your Roku box directly to the TV. If that's the case, then the optical digital output of the Roku Ultra could be a lifesaver.

What else should I know?

The best thing about the Premiere is that it's a Roku. To go with its superior app support, Roku's interface is the best on the market, providing a simple list of apps you can add to, delete and arrange anywhere you want (just like your phone, but without folders). Roku still offers more TV-centric apps than anyone, and unless you're a chronic Amazon or Apple buyer, it makes the best all-around choice. (But note that Apple TV's current hardware doesn't support 4K resolution).

Roku uses the newest Netflix interface, complete with family profiles and moving video backgrounds, as well as the updated Amazon interface. On the other hand many other Roku apps, such as PlayStation Vue and HBO Now, have worse interfaces than on other devices, as they just use Roku's generic blocky template.

Sarah Tew/CNET

There's a separate "4K spotlight" app (above) that surfaces individual 4K TV shows and movies across a few providers, although unfortunately Netflix isn't one of them. There's also a row in that app that highlights 4K-capable apps. A similar list exists under the "4K content available" heading on Roku's app store, which shows all 17 of the 4K apps I mentioned above.

Like most modern streaming devices, responses on all of Roku's new boxes were about the same in my testing: lightning-quick across every app I tried, and stable without major usability issues.

In my tests the visible difference between 4K and high-def ranged from nonexistent to a good deal better, depending on the app, the TV and the content in question. The main thing to know is that once you're actually streaming 4K, you're watching the highest-quality video a particular provider can dish out (unless it's also available in 4K HDR).

Should I buy a Roku Premiere?

If you're on a tight budget and own a 4K TV without HDR, and you're unsatisfied with your current streaming device(s), then you should strongly consider it. But since other products, particularly the Premiere+, charge just a few bucks more for their worthwhile features, I think you should consider the alternatives even more strongly.


Roku Premiere

Score Breakdown

Design 9Ecosystem 10Features 7Performance 9Value 7