I still love my Roku 3 very much – I still use it every day – but to be honest, things have gotten a bit stale between us. The attractive new Amazon Fire TV is a firecracker, even if it does revolve almost entirely around Amazon’s own content universe, so I tend to “see” it more often than the Roku now. For that, I feel a little guilty – I don’t like cheating on my Roku. But with the introduction of the Roku 4 and Roku OS 7, the affair is most definitely over.
The Roku 4 is an outstanding 4K Ultra HD media streamer, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s the best all-around streaming media player on the market. But what’s crazy is you don’t even have to buy a Roku 4 to get at half of what makes it so great. That’s because much of the Roku magic is baked into the software, and that software is available to anyone owning a Roku product made or purchased since 2011.
That being the case, while I won’t hesitate to recommend the Roku 4 to anyone who is interested (because future-proofing), the real meat of this review is about OS 7, and the fact that current Roku owners with no immediate plans to upgrade to a 4K TV are winning, too.
Out of the box
I’d seen pictures of the Roku 4 prior to its arrival on my desk, yet I wasn’t prepared for the drastic difference in design the box takes over its hockey puck-like predecessors. It was a big enough surprise that I rushed to do this unboxing video.
The Roku 4 has a bigger footprint than I was expecting, albeit paired with a considerably slimmer profile than before. Practically speaking, the shape change doesn’t make a difference; it’s likely to fit where you want to put it.
In the box with the Roku 4 we found a pair of AA batteries, a remote control, and a power adapter. There’s a quick-start guide included, but if you know how to plug an HDMI cable into the back of a TV, you’re all set. The Roku will take you through the rest of the simple process.
Features and design
The Roku 4 is as prepared for a 4K UHD future as it can be, with an HDCP 2.2-compliant HDMI 2.0a output capable of interfacing with the most modern A/V components.
It’s also notable that Roku kept an optical-digital audio output around (Amazon ditched it on its next-gen Fire TV box) because not everyone with a home theater system likes to use their receiver as a switching hub. Some folks like routing all their HDMI cables directly to their TV, meaning a connection to an A/V receiver will require a separate digital audio output. Smart move, Roku.
The Roku 4 offers a USB input for media file playback, and can handle all of the most popular file types including H.264 files in .MKV, .MOV, and .MP4 containers, H.265 files in the same three containers, and VP9 (YouTube) in an .MKV container. It also supports a wide variety of audio files, including FLAC (no DSD, though.)
An included MicroSD card slot remains relegated for app and game storage – no media files can be played from the Roku’s MicroSD card slot.
New for the Roku 4 box is support for 802.11ac MIMO Wi-Fi, and a remote-finder button up top, which will cause connected remotes to chime when pressed.
For those interested in hardware specs, the Roku 4 boasts a quad-core ARM processor with 1.5 GB of RAM — a considerable improvement over the 512 MB the Roku 3 offers – but still contains just 256 MB of storage for apps. Roku doesn’t mention a separate GPU.
Bow to the King: Roku OS 7
The reason Roku is consistently praised as the best streaming TV platform around is because of its operating system and user interface. The fact is, getting into streaming TV is a tough transition for a lot of folks, and nobody makes it easier – and more fun – than Roku. It’s also the most comprehensive and app-agnostic platform out there because it doesn’t play favorites with apps or services. But for as good as the Roku experience was before, Roku OS 7 takes it to a whole new level, and it’s available to a wide array of Roku device owners, not just the Roku 4.
Cross- platform search
One of Roku’s most powerful aspects is its cross-platform search. That is, when you search for a title or actor, it searches a wide array of apps for availability – 20 of them, actually. Let’s say you want to find out where you can watch Star Trek Into Darkness: When Roku searches for the title, it will search within 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, Nat Geo TV, Netflix, Popcorn Flix, SnagFilms, STARZ PLAY, Time Warner Cable, Tubi TV, and Vudu. Roku will then show you where you can watch, and whether it is free with your subscription, or if there’s a rental or purchase fee.
Nobody’s search feature is stronger. And now Roku’s is even better with the addition of voice search. Just press the magnifying glass button on the Roku remote, and speak what you’re looking for. Roku will seek confirmation by displaying a result (sometimes multiple results), and then off you go.
But for as cool as Roku’s search feature may be, it’s what it ties into that makes Roku more valuable than it’s ever been.
In a way, Roku has offered this feature in a limited fashion for a while, but now it’s a lot more powerful. Here’s how it works: Let’s say you like to watch Empire or Family Guy, but you prefer to watch it on Hulu than on live or recorded TV. My Feed allows you to follow your favorite shows and get notifications about when new episodes are available. This way, you don’t have to constantly check into whether the latest episode is available yet. Your Roku will tell you.
This feature works really well for movies and actors as well. If you’re a big fan of The Big Lebowski and want to know any time it comes available for streaming, just follow the flick and Roku will alert you in your My Feed anytime the film is made available on any of the 20 aforementioned apps. Want to know whenever a piece of content featuring Charlize Theron comes available? Follow her and you’ll be notified.
The new app
In the past, Roku’s app was little more than a smartphone or tablet-based remote control. Now, it puts the power of Roku’s entire operating system on your mobile device. It’s a huge improvement.
Taking the top slot in the app interface is the search feature. Here, you can search by voice or by text, the latter of which prompts an on-screen keyboard to type on so you don’t have to hunt and peck with the conventional remote.
Further down you’ll find access to your My Feed. Roku says it is working on untethering this feature from the Roku device itself so you can follow titles or actors while away from home. The company suggests this would be great for those times when you’re at a movie and see a killer trailer for an upcoming film you want to keep tabs on.
You can also add apps from Roku’s channel store and play music, videos and photos directly from your phone on the Roku. It will also allow you to take images from your library and use them as screensaver art.
Performance and complaints
Outside of a hiccup with the remote (the microphone didn’t work, so voice search didn’t work either. A replacement remote did the trick), the Roku 4 has performed flawlessly. It’s a quick, snappy machine with simple-but-attractive graphics, dead-simple navigation, and, as mentioned before, the best content search feature you can buy into.
I’m a little disappointed the Roku 4 doesn’t support HDR at this time. The company says that HDR hasn’t been standardized, and that’s true – there are a few competing formats out there – but a leader has emerged that will almost certainly be universally adopted by manufacturers, whether they choose to implement other formats or not. Plus, Amazon has clearly committed to an HDR strategy, given it has two different shows available to stream in 4K Ultra HD with HDR. Couldn’t the Roku 4 support that?
Still, Roku seems to believe its latest set-top box can be updated in the future to support HDR, so I suppose the lack of support for now isn’t a deal-breaker. At least it does 4K, which is more than can be said for the new Apple TV.
My only other complaint is that some of the apps on the Roku platform need a serious refresh. Netflix, Amazon, and Plex apps are all superior on Android platforms right now. This isn’t Roku’s fault — the individual services need to write new apps – but when we talk about user experience, this one of the few weak points.
Apple TV has Siri, Amazon Fire TV has gaming, but the Roku has them both beat when it comes to ease of use, content search and discovery, and portability. There’s a place for all of these devices in my home, but if I had to pick just one to live with for the next couple of years, I’d pick the Roku 4 in a heartbeat.
- Best-in-class operating system
- Best-in-class content search
- Extremely handy mobile app
- Optical Digital Audio on-board
- 4K Ultra HD support with HDCP 2.2
- No HDR support
- Some apps feel dated