Turning on the Roku Premiere+ for the first time feels a lot like coming home. There have been some small improvements around the house since you last visited – this new Roku model supports 4K and HDR, for example, the most important technical qualifications for a new streaming player in 2017. And the remote is subtly different as well, it’s matte black with rubber buttons instead of the old glossy plastic.
But mostly, it's familiar.
The same user interface, the same channel store with apps like Netflix and HBO Go, the same sound effects. It's just as easy to set up and use as you remember, and it simply works. The interface is never laggy, and you can stream 4K video now as easily as 1080p.
It’s all great. It's just, well, a little too familiar. A little bit stale. Compared to your friend's renovated modern apartment, it just doesn't feel quite as shiny and elegant as you want it to.
That's the dilemma of this new Roku: it's a reliable workhorse, familiar and solid. But glamorous? No, definitely not.
Design and content
The design of the streaming box itself is classic Roku: a small black hockey puck, easily fitting into (and disappearing inside) any entertainment center.
The Roku remote has gone through a nice, subtle redesign, with a more comfortable matte plastic shell. It’s ditched the A and B buttons on the bottom of the remote since the Roku 3 but is otherwise little changed. (The headphone jack for a private audio stream is still there, however, and still a great feature if you watch TV while others are sleeping.)
The content available to you, too, is plenty familiar. All the big names are here: Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO and Youtube and Crunchyroll, Plex and Pandora and Spotify. You can rent and buy individual movies and TV through Vudu and Fandango, the latter of which is the de facto rental service on the streamer.
Roku isn't the place to go for exclusive content, but the good news is it supports practically everything, including playing your own video files on a microSD card through the Roku Media Player. Same old reliable Roku.
We can't help but find the Roku's interface – especially in some of its older apps – disappointingly stale, especially when compared to a more design-centric streamer like the 2015 Apple TV.
The design language of modern Apple TV apps is colorful and elegant, a fountain pen to Roku's crayon. The Apple TV's default screensaver cycles through stunning drone footage of cities like San Francisco and London. Roku's is a crude 2D cityscape, with ads scrolling across the foreground. For $100 (about £80, AU$130), no one should have to look at ads on their screensaver or home screen.
We’re not saying the Apple TV is perfect, by any means. It , and its remote is still confusing to use. But its app store has boomed, the interface is beautiful, and apps for new streaming services like premiere on the Apple TV before making their way to Roku. In terms of design, it's leagues ahead of the Roku. But the current model can't stream in 4K or HDR, the main selling points of the Premiere+.
Depending on how you use the Roku Premiere+, these drawbacks might not matter much. Roku's universal search feature is still a wonderfully powerful way to find content. Search for an actor or director or title, and if any streaming service in Roku's index has what you're looking for, boom: renting, buying or watching is a click away. If you know what you're looking for and want to use the Roku as a rental box, or have subscriptions to a load of streaming libraries, you'll be able to find all but the most obscure movies.
That being said, Search also doesn't extend into all apps; it can't search Plex, for example, because it pulls from an online index, not the content specifically visible to your device.
Ultimately, if you prefer to browse for something to watch, you may find the Premiere+'s interface and limited theme options (essentially just a background image) very disappointing.
After using the Roku Premiere+ for two weeks to watch Netflix, Amazon Originals in 4K HDR, browse our own Plex library, and poke around the channel store, we don't have a single complaint about performance or reliability.
It's done a better job streaming high bitrate 1080p video from our local Plex server and from Netflix than our PlayStation 4 and Samsung Smart TV, which would often stutter or buffer regularly, even over Ethernet with a fast connection. 4K streaming works just as well over a wired connection, too. Though, that said, on wireless, you'll need to make sure you have a strong signal from your router to keep up with the demands of 4K.
A quick look at the specs should put your mind at ease when it comes to performance:
- Quad-core processor
- Video output up to 1080p/60 fps or 4K/30 fps over HDMI 2.0a
- HDR10 support
- 802.11ac wireless, 10/100 Ethernet port
- HDMI 2.0a and microSD ports
In terms of performance, the Premiere+ is the middle child of Roku’s 2016 line-up. Roku's slightly cheaper Premiere model lacks HDR support, which makes the Premiere+ the best choice for pairing with a new 4K HDR TV. The top-end model, the Roku Ultra, adds a few luxuries: the remote supports voice search, and the streaming player includes optical audio and USB ports for connecting to more devices. In our time with the Premiere+, we haven't felt the absence of any of these. The Roku detected our 5.1 audio system during setup, and properly fed surround sound to the TV, which passed it along to our soundbar no problem.
Getting 4K HDR video to work on our TV turned out to be simple, once we got our hands on some proper HDR content. Roku's YouTube app seemingly wouldn't play videos in HDR (or the TV wouldn't recognize them), but Amazon's Original TV shows triggered the TV's HDR mode, which automatically ups the backlight to maximum and shows a smoother, wider range of color.
It can take a few seconds for the Roku and the TV to communicate that HDR video is playing, and twice we got an HDCP error when that connection took slightly too long. But simply backing out to the menu and trying to play the same video again solved the only problem we experienced with the Roku.
At $100 (about £80, AU$130), the Premiere+ model is currently the best device to watch 4K HDR video on your TV, period. The costs twice as much, and the cheaper lacks a built-in interface and remote, two things that make the Roku Premiere+ a breeze to use.
If reliable 4K HDR streaming is all you care about, rest easy and grab the Premiere+. It'll absolutely get the job done.
There isn't loads of 4K HDR content out there right now, but the Roku Premiere+ plays it all like a champ. Navigation is quick and performance is rock solid. Almost all the apps you want are here for a huge library of streaming content.
When all’s said and done, the Roku Premiere+ is a great piece of hardware for the price. But in terms of software, Roku is lagging a bit behind.
Roku's interface hasn't evolved since I last used it in early 2015. Some frequently updated apps like Netflix and Amazon look almost as nice as their Apple TV counterparts, but others are ugly and barebones, stuck with simplistic thumbnail navigation that hasn't really changed since 2012. The Premiere+ is currently the best combination of features and price for a 4K HDR streaming player, but its interface could use a refresh to catch up to the Apple TV.
If you already have a streaming player that's serving you just fine, there's absolutely no need to update to the Premiere+. This player is specifically for anyone who needs a new 4K, HDR-ready device to make the most out of a 4K TV. Considering the power and performance of this little $100 (about £80, AU$130) device, there's no better alternative ... at least until Apple updates the Apple TV with 4K HDR support.
The Premiere+ is mostly a familiar face on a new, more powerful chassis, and its interface has some catching up to do to be worthy of that new hardware. It won't let you down, but it probably won't blow your mind, either.
Except for HDR video – that really can look amazing.