4.5 out of 5 Remotes
Since its inception, Roku has been in the business of making dumb TVs smart, smart TVs smarter, and cord cutting a real consideration for viewers.
The company has survived – and thrived – not despite competition from Apple, Amazon, and Google, but because of it. From a hardware standpoint, each company has produced similar results, but from a software standpoint, the latter companies have devised walled gardens. Roku, on the other hand, has earned consumer trust by remaining neutral; this, in turn, has attracted the best publishers and app developers.
Roku’s latest model, the aptly named Roku 4, is the company’s best model. It is also the best over-the-top streaming device on the market.
First, the hardware. The Roku 4 has a quad-core processor (it’s fast), 802.11ac MIMI Wi-Fi (it maximizes your WiFi speed), and best of all, it supports 4K Ultra HD (up to 60 frames per second).
Since 4K came to market, 4K TV owners have been rightfully sour. Why? There has not been much content that makes the investment seem worth it, and when there is such content, it’s hard to find. Among streaming devices, only the Roku 4 and the newest Fire TV support 4K, but the Roku’s 4K content library is perhaps the most extensive such library available.
The 4K Spotlight channel features curated movies, TV shows and internet video from select streaming channels that offer 4K video. There’s also a 4K row in the Roku Channel Store, which enables fast access to select streaming channels that offer 4K video.
But what makes Roku great is the software and the user experience. It's why Roku will outlast the concept of OTT devices, a category that will likely not exist in 10 years. The company has for the past three years been positioning itself as a software solution and operating system provider to TV manufacturers, the majority of which either do not want to devote the resources to, or have failed miserably at, developing their OS.
The Roku 4 was released in conjunction with Roku OS 7 – an update available on all prior Roku devices (more on that later).
The best part of OS 7 is the unbiased search feature, which allows users to search for content across 20 streaming channels. The other night, I tried searching for “Boogie Nights” on Amazon Fire TV, and, even as a Prime member, was only offered the opportunity to rent the film for $2.99. However, when I searched “Boogie Nights” via Roku Search, the first option presented to me was ‘Netflix – Free with subscription,’ along with four other rental options, one being Amazon Video (note: I have the Netflix app installed on Fire TV). This search experiment is a “prime” example of the walled garden experience consumers are knowingly or unknowingly experiencing through other streaming devices, and it is indicative of Roku’s consumer centric approach.
Also appearing in the results of my “Boogie Nights” search was “Roku – follow this movie.” Through the "My Feed" feature, OS 7 allows users to follow specific upcoming and already-released movies and actors. When there’s an update available to what users follow, whether it's a price change or an actor has a new film, it will show in "My Feed." This is particularly useful for content you know you want to watch eventually and for content that you don't want to pay additional money for. The feed will update, for example, when a movie once only available for rent becomes available to watch for “free” with your Netflix subscription.
Other Roku 4 features worth noting:
- A "cute", and yes, sometimes useful, find remote (Found Remote!) feature. Roku 4 owners can press a button on top of their device, which will trigger a sound from the remote that will help them locate it.
- Voice search and hotel/dorm functionality – Nice additions, originally pioneered by Amazon. If I seem down on Amazon, I’m not. It’s my second-favorite streaming device, and it’s in large part because of how they’ve innovated within the OTT market.
The Roku 4 is the best streaming device on the market for both its hardware and software updates.
Non-4K TV owners or intenders may want to go with the Roku 3, which will be $40 cheaper with Black Friday deals. The hardware differences will likely not be noticeable.