Introduction, design and remote
The Roku 4 has big shoes to fill. It’s taken over two years for this latest model to come out – the Roku 3, which we dubbed “the gold standard in streaming,” came out in 2013 – but the end product has justified the wait.
The new, $129 (about £85, AU$180) Roku 4 is faster, more well-rounded and more open than any product the company has released before, borrowing from its predecessor and adding more to its legacy in equal measure.
It’s faster because it’s sporting a new quad-core processor for 4K, 60 frames-per-second video streaming. It’s more well-rounded, thanks to the universal search function that scans streaming services, like Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, Vudu, YouTube, M-Go and the Google Play Store for movies and shows and displays the cheapest option first. (Of course, it will scan the UK/AU equivalents when it eventually reaches those territories.)
Roku is still the most egalitarian streaming set-top box of the day. It doesn’t care if you pick Netflix over Amazon, or Vudu over Hulu. It doesn’t want to sell you an Rdio subscription, and it couldn’t care less if you join YouTube Red.
At the end of the day, all Roku’s new device cares about is getting you to the content you want through the most affordable means possible. It’s entertainment on your terms, the epitome of the cord-cutting movement.
If the best analogy for the Roku 3 was a hockey puck, the closest sports relative of the Roku 4 would be a frisbee: it’s wider, by far, but shorter overall.
The Roku 4 measures in at 0.8 x 6.5 x 6.5 inches, or 2 x 16.5 x 16.5cm (H x W x D). The flatter top allows you to stack items on top of it (the Amazon Fire TV fits perfectly, in case you’re wondering), and these dimensions seem like a true feat once you learn what’s under the hood.
The Roku 4 is rocking a quad-core ARM processor, an 802.11ac Wi-Fi antenna and 1.5GB of RAM. All of this allows the system to play 4K TV shows and movies, however, it strangely doesn’t support HDR content. There’s not a lot of storage on the Roku 4 when compared to other streaming systems – there’s only around 256MB. But, in its defense, games are sparse and individual channels don’t take up much space on their own.
Spin the system around to the back, and you’ll find a new addition to the standard lineup of ports. The Roku 4 is the first streaming box from the company to house an optical audio out connection, a huge boon for A/V enthusiasts who have needed to run the HDMI cable through a soundbar or receiver before connecting it to their TV.
Other ports include an HDMI 2.0a (which supports HDCP 2.2, obviously), a USB 2.0 and 10/100 Base-T Ethernet ports. There’s also a microSD card slot that will support up to 128GB of extra storage.
However, it’s worth noting that the slimmer profile and addition of high-powered hardware have introduced two new problems that were absent in the Roku 3: heat and noise.
Even when the Roku 4 isn’t playing a TV show, I hear an audible humming noise coming from the box. Now, this might not be a major concern if it’s going in your living room next to some already-noisy game system, like the Xbox One or PS4. But, if it’s going in your bedroom or a quiet spot in the house, prepare for a faint “bzz” sound all hours of the day. Interestingly, the Roku 4 is noticeably hotter than any other device in my media cabinet.
Neither of these were deal breakers once I had my favorite shows and movies on the screen (even though, at times, I can hear the device over the sound of the TV), but they’re something to be prepared for.
The Roku 4 remote
If you’ve used a Roku 2 or a Roku 3 remote, you’ll be intimately familiar with what to expect on the Roku 4. The Roku 4’s remote is almost identical to the Roku 3’s.
The major differences are that the A and B buttons have lost their color, and it no longer comes with the iconic purple wrist-strap, something that I actually quite liked about the Roku 3’s pad.
The remote sports four branded buttons for quick access to Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Rdio and Sling TV. With the exception of YouTube, these are probably the four most popular streaming services on the platform.
Also returning is the built-in microphone that supports voice search and an audio jack for private listening, with a set of volume control buttons located on the right side of the stick.
It was mentioned before in the Roku 3 review, but it’s worth reiterating that the remote’s built-in amplifier really isn’t powerful enough for high-end headphones. (Earbuds are your best bet.)
The last feature worth pointing out is the remote-finder button, located on the back of the box. Anytime you lose the remote between the cushions, you can press the button to cause the remote to emit a customizable tone. The tones can be changed from the settings menu found inside the gorgeous new 1080p interface, which is up next.
Performance, interface and app
Before you can check out the snazzy new interface or take on the world of Ultra-HD streaming, you’ll first need to set up your unit.
If you’re new to Roku, you’ll be forced into creating an account before you can get anywhere. The account setup only takes a few seconds and is incredibly simple, however it does require you to input a credit card, which allows for easy debiting should you decide to shell out for pay-to-view content.
I understand the reasoning behind entering the credit card information, but it seems unnecessary if you already pay for services like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime and don’t have any intention to spend money on content.
Existing Rokuites upgrading from second or third generation units can simply authorize the box online and add it to their inventory, and the process takes but a few minutes.
Once the box is up and running, you’ll be asked to pick your screen resolution – 720p, 1080p or 4K. You can change the resolution from the settings if you decide to step up to a higher-resolution screen, however Roku warns that it may require a factory reset in order for it to take effect.
The Roku 4 interface
Choosing any one of the latter options – 1080p or 4K – will bring up the gorgeous new 1080p interface. The Roku 3 only mustered a 720p interface and the difference is immediately noticeable. Images and apps look sharper, and the themes feel distinctly less Windows XP and more Windows 10.
Speaking of, there are four themes available right out of the box that change the color of the background, the screen saver and the noise the remote makes when you press remote-finder button. During my time testing the unit, Roku pushed out a free fifth theme for Halloween.
If that trend continues, it will help the system appear more vibrant over the coming few years, especially compared to its stagnating predecessor. Roku also offers six premium themes (including two Star Trek options) which run anywhere from 99 cents to $4.99 (approximately £0.65/AU$1.40 to £3.25/AU$7).
The rest of the interface is largely unchanged from the rest of the Roku family.
The main screen works as a central hub, with separate spaces for Home, My Feed, Movie Store, TV Store, News, Search, Streaming Channels and Settings, all of which are explained in detail below.
Home is where you’ll find a list of all the channels you have installed on the Roku 4, ordered by installation date.
My Feed was a new feature introduced at the tail end of the Roku 3 that allows you to track films and TV shows. Say you want to know when a new episode of The Simpsons is available to watch. You’d search the show using the remote, add it to the My Feed section and then anytime it becomes available on Hulu or FOX’s streaming apps, you’ll be notified.
Movie Store and TV Store are two of my least favorite functions on the Roku 4. Selecting either of these will take you to MGo storefront where you can purchase films or shows at varying prices. If you already subscribe to any streaming service, these two options will likely go unused, however will loom over the experience at all times.
News is a video content aggregator that’s similar, but not nearly as effective, as the one found on Android TV. You can select a channel (like technology, entertainment or business, for example) and Roku will spit out a few suggestions from YouTube.
Search is the piece-de-resistance of Roku features. Using the built-in microphone on the remote or a text search, you’ll be able to inquire about TV series and movies, as well as specific actors, actresses and directors.
Search pulls in data from 20 different apps (Acorn TV, Amazon Video, Blockbuster On-Demand, CBS All Access, CinemaNow, Crackle, Fox Now, FX Now, HBO Go, Hulu, M-Go, Met Opera On Demand, NatGeo TV, Netflix, Popcorn Flix, SnagFilms, Starz Play, Time Warner Cable, Tubi TV and Vudu) and will list search results from least expensive to most expensive.
Streaming Channels is, for all intents and purposes, the storefront for new channels on Roku. There are over 3,000 channels on the store and around 100 “hidden” channels that can only be accessed by entering a channel code on Roku’s website, triggering a download on your local system.
Settings is pretty self-explanatory.
The Roku 4’s content library
While Amazon and Android TV act as storefronts for content, Roku sees more practicality in showing you all of your options before making a choice. And with 3,000 channels ranging from the streaming mainstays like Netflix, HBO and Vudu to the obscure (there’s actually a station called “Firewood Hoarders”), finding something to watch is rarely a problem.
If you’re in the US, you’ll want to make your first stops at the shop YouTube, Vudu and Crackle for free movies and TV shows, as well as HBO Go, Netflix, Amazon, Showtime, Sling TV, FX Now, Starz, Hulu and Plex, if you subscribe to any of those services.
(If you’ve never owned a Roku before, it’s worth pointing out that the last bunch of services do not come free with the hardware and require separate monthly subscriptions.)
If you’re in the UK, check out Sky’s Now TV platform (Sky being a shareholder in Roku), the ubiquitous Netflix and Demand 5. However, as a user pointed out in the comments, it’s not all pie in the Sky for the UK audience. Amazon Prime still doesn’t offer an Ultra-HD option in that territory, nor has the BBC upgraded its iPlayer channel for the 4 yet.
Once you’ve downloaded the essentials (and assuming you own a 4K TV), US folks should check out the curated 4K Spotlight Channel. The channel serves as a hub for 4K content, and is probably the easiest way to find Ultra-HD TV shows and movies. As of this writing, I count over 130 movies or series to watch in 4K, a number that should give some pause to the dogma that there’s nothing to watch in Ultra-HD.
Audio apps of note include Rdio, Pandora, Vevo and Spotify. However, unlike PlayStation Music on the PS4, the latter requires a premium subscription in order to get anywhere. Admittedly, this barrier to entry makes the Roku 4 one of my least favorite music streaming devices, losing major ground to the new front-runner, Google’s Chromecast Audio.
Similarly, there are a few fun games, but the Roku 4 is far from the best gaming system on the market. Titles on the store are usually cheap knock-offs or revamps of classic games from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Some of the titles worth checking out are Tetris, Retaliate (a knock-off of Galaga where you have to collect bullets before you can shoot) and Snake.
But while the Roku 4 doesn’t win many points in the music or games categories, it has probably the most sports channels of any other platform. You’ll find both the NFL Channel and NFL Sunday Ticket in the Roku 4 channel roster, as well as apps for the NHL, NBA, MLB, MLS, college sports and tennis, not to mention some of the more extreme fringe sports that get covered by the Red Bull TV, GoPro and UFC apps.
As far as content is concerned, Roku has the most diverse streaming video options of any set-top box. It might not do games or music as well as the competition, but if you’re looking for a straight streaming device, it’s hard to do much better than this.
How the Roku 4 performs
Before I go off making big, bold claims like “it’s the fastest streaming system on the planet” (it’s not, but it’s close), or “you’ll never see buffering screens again” (trust me, you will), understand that more than any other factor you need to have a super solid internet connection to get the most out of the Roku 4.
Before receiving my unit for testing, Roku asked two questions: What’s the average connection speed at my house, and am I using an 802.11ac router?
If your answer to those questions are less than 10Mbps and no, then the Roku 4 might not be any faster than the Roku 3 you already own.
While testing the unit at home with an Apple AirPort Extreme that consistently puts out around 30 to 35Mbps download speed, I found the Roku 4 to be noticeably – though not quite mind-blowingly – faster than its predecessor. Titles on Amazon and Netflix still take a second or two to pop up when I browse their channels, but videos did start almost immediately after I select them.
Regardless, you’ll find rewinding and fast-forwarding less of a time sink on the new unit, thanks to the improved processor. And the new hardware allows for a fairly rapid transition when going from a channel or game back to the home screen.
Overall, the unit seems to spend less time buffering than the Roku 3, which is to be expected, but it’s still to be determined whether if or how much faster the Roku 4 will be when compared to the new Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV.
The Roku 4 mobile app
Say all heck breaks loose at your home – you lose your remote and the remote-finder button goes haywire. Roku has thought of this very scenario – or at least something close to it – and has updated its mobile app.
Not only will the app act as a stand-in remote, but it can also check the channel store and add channels to your unit remotely. Tack on search and screen casting functionality, and together it’s a fairly competent iOS and Android app.
While it’s comparatively heads and shoulders above the previous-generation app, I still didn’t find it as useful as the Cast button that comes built into iOS and Android apps, or the complete screen mirroring functionality available to Apple TV owners that use iOS and Android TV users with Android TV players.
Now, are you likely to lose your remote? No, probably not. And you might not ever need to touch the Roku app. But, it’s nice knowing that a moderately useful option is available should you decide you actually need or want it.
Where other streaming boxes feel like a storefront (Nvidia Shield and Amazon Fire TV, I’m looking in your direction), the Roku 4 feels like a true entertainment hub, built with the users’ best interest – not their wallets – in mind.
And to that end, Roku has the widest, most diverse set of channels, scoring both Amazon Prime Instant Video and Google Play Movies and TV Store in the US. There are still some unripe fruits on the Roku tree – convincing Spotify to remove the paywall would be a nice start – but by and large the device takes streaming video seriously and does an impressive job.
In fact, it might actually be a curse that Roku, as a platform, does streaming so well. Because so much of what makes the Roku 4 spectacular is available on any of the other Roku streaming devices, you might want to consider the Roku 3 or even Roku 2, if you can stand a slightly grainy user interface and longer load times.
You might not need to shell out for the 4K player if your TV isn’t quite up to snuff yet or, in a worse scenario, your internet connection peters out at a less-than-stable 10Mbps.
That said, the Roku 4’s OS and remote are still some of the best, most feature-rich in their class, even if the latter’s built-in headphone amplifier leaves a lot to be desired.
So, what sets the Roku 4 apart from the competition? Like its predecessors, it comes with a remote – a missing component of the brand-new Chromecast 2 – it supports 4K, unlike the new Apple TV, and isn’t tethered to one ecosystem, like the revamped Amazon Fire TV.
There’s still the sore point of it placing M-Go content in the start menu, but most users will turn a blind eye to it in favor of the streaming services they already shell out for at the end of every month.
Almost everything about the design of the unit is smart and well thought-out. I liked the wider footprint coupled with a flatter profile. Plus, the optical audio out connector allows me to run a cable directly to a soundbar without passing a signal through the TV.
The Bluetooth remote also feels like one of the best yet. It iterates on the Roku 3 remote that just came out over the summer, and integrates voice search into the weighty and solidly built stick.
Inside the box, the quad-core processor gives the Roku 4 a snappy response time, while the 802.11ac Wi-Fi antenna makes sure streaming videos start faster and don’t fall victim as easily to the dreaded buffering screen.
Of course, this all only works to complement the already-amazing egalitarian operating system that Roku has spent the last five years putting together. Voice search plays in harmony with the universal search function that scans 20 different sources for content. Roku Feed keeps you up-to-date on the movies that are just about to leave theaters, while over 3,000 channels of content keep you occupied while you wait.
Right, so almost everything about the design is great … with the minor exception of the new heat and noise problems. When it’s on, expect to hear a faint buzzing noise at all times and a solid 20-degree increase in temperature.
And while the operating system is one of the best, it comes with a major downside for the Roku 4: you don’t need the Roku 4 to take advantage of its many great features. If you don’t want 4K or own an 802.11ac router in your house, then there’s little reason to pick up a new $129 (about £85, AU$180) box.
Finally, and these are small quibbles rather than end-all, be-all complaints, it’s not the best gaming device in its category (that honor belongs to the Nvidia Shield). Nor does it necessarily make for the best music player – an award that I’d currently give to the Chromecast Audio.
If your current streaming situation fits the bill, the Roku 4 is easily the best home entertainment investment you can make in 2015. The device caters to a modern, must-own-everything-immediately crowd that already owns a 4K TV set and comes with a price tag that’s slightly higher than other products in the category. That said, you get what you pay for – a high-end, quad-core ARM processor doesn’t come cheap.
More than anything else though, the Roku 4 cemented my love for Roku’s operating system that does its best to put the consumer ahead of the business. It’s not flawless in its attempt (the M-Go TV and Movie store on the home screen are evidence of that). But, the universal search function that scans 20 different sources for content in every inquiry shows that Roku wants to put your streaming needs ahead of a bottom line.
Roku has become one of the rallying cries of the cord-cutting movement, and the fourth iteration of the streaming box doesn’t shirk that responsibility.
If high-end specs aren’t what you’re looking for, and you have the patience for an aging system, save yourself some dough and pick up the video streaming-only Roku 2 or casual game-ready Roku 3 instead. If you want a top of the line player to match your top of the line TV, however, the Roku 4 is the unequivocal best choice in streaming boxes.