Roku is giving its affordable Express a 4K upgrade, creating a new product that rivals not only the latest 4K streamers from Amazon and Google, but also our favorite streamer for the money, the Roku Streaming Stick Plus. Called the Express 4K Plus, the new $40 player arrives in mid-May. The small box keeps the same design as the HD-only Express but adds a faster, more powerful processor, dual-band Wi-Fi support and a voice remote.
The point-anywhere voice remote is the biggest improvement over the older $40 Roku Premiere, which included an IR-based "simple" remote that lacked voice control. The remote included with the Express 4K Plus is basically the same remote as the one on the Streaming Stick Plus, complete with the ability to accept voice commands and control your TV via power, volume and mute buttons. It lacks the headphone jack, shortcut keys and near-field voice features of the new Voice Remote Pro, but it brings the Express 4K Plus up to remote parity with the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K and Chromecast with Google TV -- which both cost $10 more.
Unlike those two streamers and the latest Roku Ultra, the Dolby Vision HDR format is not supported on the Roku Express 4K Plus. It can, however, play back video in 4K with HDR10 and also supports HDR10 Plus (assuming your TV supports either format). Other features include running Roku's latest OS 10 software as well as support for Apple's AirPlay 2 and HomeKit. Speaking of Apple, the new remote also has a dedicated button to launch the Apple TV Plus streaming service, joining buttons for Netflix, Disney Plus and Hulu.
Like the previous Express, Roku says that everything you'll need is in the box, including an HDMI cable for connecting to your television. This will also will be the first Roku to support third-party micro-USB Ethernet adapters, something that should appeal to those looking to have a wired connection without having to shell out for the company's pricier Ultra box.
Read more: The best wired TV streamer to save your home Wi-Fi bandwidth
An Express 4K that lacks the "Plus" in the name, and swaps the voice remote for the simple one, will be available as a Walmart exclusive in the US for $35.
With the new features and lower price, Roku seems to be risking cannibalizing sales of its $50 Streaming Stick Plus, long CNET's favorite Roku streamer, even though it has been years since its last update.
In an interview with CNET, Mark Ely, Roku's vice president of product strategy, acknowledged that the gap between the two devices has "narrowed" with this release, though he says the Streaming Stick Plus still has a better Wi-Fi range and a more minimalist dongle design that is more portable and can tuck behind a TV. The Express line, by contrast, has an adhesive tape that allows it to stick to the back or bottom of a television.
Ely would not, however, quantify just how large the Wi-Fi range gap is or if there are any speed differences between the Streaming Stick Plus and the new chip inside the Express 4K Plus.
Look for CNET's full review of the Roku Express 4K Plus in May.