Roku 4 review

Roku 4 leads the new pack of streaming boxes with 4K playback

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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).

Roku 4

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.

Roku 4

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.

Roku 4

(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.

Roku 4

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.

Roku 4

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.

Roku 4

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.

Want Roku to-go? Meet the Roku Streaming Stick

Want something a bit smaller than the Roku 4? Check out its little brother, the USB stick-sizedRoku Streaming Stick that just recently saw a hardware refresh for 2016.

Changes include the addition of a quad-core processor and an 802.11n Wi-Fi antenna capable of streaming data at 600Mbps – but all the apps you know and love from Roku OS will be there.

There are more powerful entries in the Roku family of products, but if you're content with 1080p streaming, want the biggest and most open app store and don't mind using 802.11n Wi-Fi for another few years, the Roku Streaming Stick is an unbeatable value.