Adding 4K Ultra HD movie and TV show streaming, a world-class selection of streaming apps and services, and a new and improved operating system, the new Roku 4 set-top media streamer is now available offering a compelling alternative to the smart TV universe.
At $129.99, the Roku 4 is pitted against recent introductions including the Amazon Fire TV at $99.99 and Nvidia Shield Android TV at $199.99 (both support 4K streaming) and the latest $35 Chromecast and next-gen. Apple TV (neither of which support 4K Ultra HD). Sadly, none of the devices will support metadata for forthcoming high dynamic range (HDR) content at this time, but then there aren’t many TVs out there to support it either.
Roku 4 didn’t change a lot from the previous $90.99 Roku 3 mark II; everything just got a little better. Users will find the same simple, intuitive and clean user interface, elegant remote control that fits comfortably in the hand, refreshingly quick responsiveness to commands and access to an available library with thousands of entertainment apps and video games.
What’s better about the device, first and foremost, is 4K Ultra HDTV streaming for those with supporting TVs. Even the menu/interface is sharper. For those without 4K UHD TVs, the Roku 4 will automatically scale down images to match the resolution of lesser displays.
Compared with the Roku 3, the new set-top adds a quad-core processor, Wi-Fi 802.11ac with MIMO to go with b/g/n, HDMI 2.0 port and HDCP 2.2 content protection.
The remote continues to offer a headphone jack so one person can watch and listen to a program while others in the room sleep, read or whatever else they might want to do in silence. It also adds a built-in mic to take spoken search commands and a new remote finder that lets you trigger an audible alarm when the handset goes missing so you can quickly retrieve it from under the sofa cushion or dog’s bed.
More of our review of the Roku 4 after the jump:
Measuring 6.5 x 6.5 x 0.8 inches, the Roku 4 is still low and flat but has a larger squarish footprint than the Roku 3. It has piano black sides and a matte-black top with rounded corners and edges. Inputs and outputs on the back include a power connector, an HDMI port, an optical audio output, and an Ethernet port. A single USB port is placed on the right side.
The look and feel of the remote hasn’t changed much. It measures 5.5 x 1.6 x 1.1 inches, has a thick rounded, textured matte-black bottom and is well balanced to fit comfortably in the hand.
The top of the remote is gloss black and carries a layout of 14 buttons plus a purple up/down/left/right cross-shaped arrow key positioned at the top-end center of the remote just below the back and home buttons. Dedicated Amazon, Netflix, Rdio, and Sling buttons are centrally located beneath the playback controls and above the sideways positioned A and B buttons that act as gamepad controls along with the arrow keys.
The headphone jack is found on the left side of the remote and allows listening to the TV volume with the set’s speaker automatically muted. Volume can be adjusted with high/low button controls on the right side of the remote. A pinhole for the built-in microphone is found on the top front. Voice search is activated by pressing a button with a magnifying glass icon before speaking.
In addition to the supplied remote, the Roku 4 can be controlled using the Roku App on Android and iOS-based smartphones and tablets. The app also supports voice searches or typing in search commands. The app also enables streaming videos, music and photos from the handheld device to the Roku box.
4K Ultra HDTV
Not only will the Roku 4 support 4K Ultra HD, it will support it at up to 60Hz. App channels offering 4K video playable on the Roku 4 include: Amazon, Netflix, YouTube, Vudu and M-GO. Because M-GO supports 4K streaming and downloads, the Roku 4 will support 4K downloads stored to an external USB device using the included USB port and Plex app, according to a Roku spokesperson, although we were unable to test this capability for this review.
Loading and playing back Amazon original series Hand of God, and Mozart In the Jungle via the Amazon Prime Instant Video app was fast and simple. Playback over my Comcast broadband service flowed unimpeded by buffering, although it was apparent that resolution was periodically downscaled at times and digital artifacts were prevalent, particularly in motion sequences, suggesting that very fast broadband speeds will be required for optimal 4K playback. Similarly, 4K videos played back on YouTube streamed without hesitation, but pronounced motion artifacts were obvious in some postings including shots of the movement of tree branches and leaves swaying in the breeze. Again, this can be chalked up to bandwidth issues. Keep in mind that even with perfect streaming conditions the benefits of 4K Ultra HD resolution will be difficult to see, particularly in screen sizes under 70 inches. More discernible results are expected from forthcoming content encoded for a wide color gamut and HDR metadata, although as we pointed out, HDR metadata will not be supported by this particular Roku player.
Meanwhile, Vudu revealed this week that it is supporting 4K movie streaming, exclusively through the Roku 4 to start. The 4K Vudu offering launched with 12 movies at prices of $10 for a rental and $25 – $30 for a purchase. Vudu said viewers will require a minimum broadband connection speed of 11Mbps to stream titles labeled “Vudu UHD.” Vudu said it plans make the 4K streaming titles available to other platforms including Vizio’s 4K TVs soon, including support for HDR and Dolby Atmos object-based surround sound for compatible equipment. Vudu UHD titles available now include: San Andreas, Man of Steel, Edge of Tomorrow, The Lego Movie, Magic Mike XX, Jupiter Ascending, Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, The Great Gatsby, Into the Storm, Focus and Run All Night.
As with previous Roku media adapters, the Roku 4 offers a vast selection of apps that can be selected through a “Roku Channel Store” app. The store offers a huge assortment with all of the major apps, including Amazon, Hulu, MLB, Netflix, NFL, Sling, Twitch, Vudu and YouTube, with thousands more offering both broad and special-interest fare in multiple languages.
Roku also offers a broad selection of games, although most are basic smartphone level experiences, lacking the depth and realism of console-based titles.
The Roku 4 is also the launch device for the new Roku 7 OS, which is rolling out as a firmware update over the coming weeks in earlier Roku device platforms. The latest OS offers a variety of upgrades including a “Hotel and Dorm Connect” feature that enables taking the Roku with you to a hotel room or dorm and connect to any room Wi-Fi network requiring a browser to input username and password authentication. The authentication process is handled by a mobile device through the Roku app.
The new OS also improves the Roku “My Feed” feature that now provides information on any movie, show, or actor, and alerts you if the applicable content becomes available on any of the supported streaming services, except Netflix.
The Roku 4 maintains the company’s reputation for producing excellent media streamers that are easy to use and provide a wealth of app selections. This iteration adds 4K Ultra HD support for next-generation TVs.
The Roku 4 improves upon what had been one of the industry’s best smart TV solutions, and although, at $129.99, it’s Roku’s most expensive set-top device, and more expensive than devices like the latest Fire TV, it’s still one of the best bargains in the industry, and one of the only aftermarket options for streaming 4K Ultra HD at 60Hz.
Clearly, as 4K Ultra HDTV viewing continues to grow, TV makers are going to begin expanding the field of sets with less-expensive models that omit built-in IPTV systems. The Roku 4 becomes the perfect upgrade solution.
Additionally, a number of 4K Ultra HDTVs have been sold over the past three years that for one reason or another have less-than-satisfactory smart TV platforms or lack some popular apps. Again, the Roku 4 comes to the rescue.
Set-up for the player was smooth, quick and painless. Using the menu is actually a pleasure. One knock on the device is that switching between programs and apps is a slow and requires multiple button process, but it’s a heck of a lot faster than switching between Blu-ray Discs.
The lack of support for HDR content in the Roku 4 is disappointing given that many of the top streaming services are gearing up to add HDR content now, and by this time next year the market will be flooded with HDR-ready 4K Ultra HDTVs at more affordable price points. Roku said it has opted to wait to see where HDR standards settle before adding the capability to its hardware line. I guess we’ll have something to look forward to from a Roku 5.
The Roku 4 is one of the best options for accessing and viewing cutting-edge over-the-top 4K streaming entertainment available in the market today, and $129.99 is not a huge outlay if you decide to upgrade to an HDR-ready version in a year or two.
By Greg Tarr
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