If you’ve dreamed of whispering sweet nothings to your Roku remote and hearing it ping back at you, now’s your shot. The company released new devices this month — the Streaming Stick 4K ($50) and Streaming Stick 4K+ ($70) — and Vulture got its hands on both for a week of testing our intimacy and our eyeballs with what they can offer. The big positive: Roku is still good at iterating on its clean, user-friendly interface and app software. The drawback: The hardware we played with felt like enough to convince a streaming newbie to jump onboard but not quite enough to justify an upgrade or a change from an already-working setup.
Of course, there are still plenty of questions when it comes to these new gadgets. The remotes are different? One of them beeps at you? And doesn’t Roku itself have more affordable alternatives — confusingly also called 4K+ models?
This calls for an investigation. We have attempted to answer the most pressing questions below.
One of them has a +? Why?
The new Roku models are identical apart from their remotes. The 4K+ ships with a Voice Remote Pro with a headphone jack for private listening that’s charged by USB. Commanding your remote to do things is fun and may notch you a speedier, more merciful death when Skynet comes to roost.
The 4K remote’s a clicker, plain and simple. Its AAA batteries feel a bit outdated given that Apple, Amazon, and Google all have rechargeable remotes now (except for the base Chromecast model, which ships with no remote).
Will this work on my HD set, or do I need to get one of those new 8K TVs?
It should work on the vast majority of screens big enough to support 4K and below. We tested it on both a 4K screen and a years-old 1080p screen and both looked crisp and streamed in perfectly. (We have seen one review that reported Wi-Fi hiccups, but we never had a single one in a week spent with both the 4K and 4K+.) For your 8K TV, you may want to wait until 8K streaming actually becomes a thing.
Does it have all the apps? Can I watch my obscure ’80s anime on it?
Roku has been called “platform agnostic” before. It’s a nice way of washing its hands clean of any drama between, say, Netflix or HBO Max should it ever come up. Roku may have its own streaming options, like the free Roku Channel, but it’s got literally thousands of apps — including biggies with their own hardware, like Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+, or niche anime stuff like HiDive — because it doesn’t play favorites.
Is it bulky? My gaming consoles take up lots of space on the shelf right now.
The Stick’s as long as a credit card and just a little wider and thicker than the HDMI port it’ll plug into — it’s not a streaming box so much as a dongle. Space behind most TVs won’t be a problem. The one thing you’ll want to note is the USB power cord, which is also the Wi-Fi antenna (tricky to replace, so don’t break it). It’s about five feet long, so you’ll want to think about where you want the cord to go.
If I buy one for Mom and Dad, will I need to set it up for them, or can they handle it?
They can probably handle it. Give ’em some credit. Roku’s interface and setup instructions are super-easy. Fifteen minutes after opening the boxes, we were good to go. The trickiest bit is setting up a (free) Roku account to link to the device. You can also download a Roku app that will connect over Bluetooth so you can type on a real phone keyboard instead of clicking arrows on a screen. Then just sign into Netflix and fire up Longmire for Wyoming prairies and crotchety cowboys.
How big’s the remote? Will the couch eat it?
It’s bigger than the Apple TV remotes and Amazon Fire Stick remotes, which can be useful if you’re prone to misplacing yours. The Voice Remote Pro also does this thing where, if you lose track of it, you can ask where it is and it’ll sound a little alarm. My parents would love that. I lost all their remotes growing up.
Know what you mean. I love talking to my remote. Is this one a good listener?
Empathy is not its strong suit, but it is attentive. Here’s what we asked and how it answered:
• “Hey, Roku, turn on.” TV and Roku both powered on.
• “Hey, Roku, Hitchcock movie from 1960.” Answer: “No results found.”
• “Hey, Roku, Alfred Hitchcock movie from 1960.” Opens search page. First film: Psycho.
• “Hey, Roku, Disney Channel Original starring Kyla Pratt.” First result: The Proud Family.
• “Hey, Roku, Gargoyles.” First result: Gargoyles.
• “Hey, Roku, the Gargoyles episode ‘Awakening.’” Answer: “No results found.”
• “Hey, Roku, 1950s Westerns.” Films on search page: Man of the West, Sitting Bull, Man in the Saddle, High Noon — all available for free.
• “Hey, Roku, can you change the language to Mandarin?” Answer: “You can ask for closed captions on, off, and during replay.”
• “Hey, Roku: handsome man.” First two results: Handsome Devil, streaming on Netflix. Third: 1917, directed by Sam Mendes.
• “Hey, Roku, Paul Walter Hauser.” First film on search page: Cruella.
• “Hey, Roku, eat my shorts.” Opens Roku page for 1976 Ron Howard film Eat My Dust!, available for free on Tubi and the Roku Channel.
Is it dumber than my Alexa?
Yes, but it’s nicer on the playground and knows movies. Counts for something.
What about this phone app? What else can it do?
Well, it’s like a second remote, and the company updated it so it can take your voice commands too and save stuff to lists to play later. It’s also better about pairing up with Bluetooth headphones now, cutting down on the lag and matching sounds to mouths.
So I don’t actually need the remote to talk to my Roku?
Huh. That thing’s $70. Base model’s $50.
Hmmm. Didn’t Roku just release a lite-beer version of this thing?
Indeed, it did. The 2021 model of the Roku Express 4K+ goes for $30 right now and has the same apps and almost all of the same functionality. It’s slower and leaner, but it also streams in 4K, even if it doesn’t support some of the same tech standards out there.
Wait, what tech standards? What are you not telling me!? Is there anything else I should know?
If you don’t know what they are, they probably won’t affect you all that much. But the simplest explanation is that Roku added the picture formats HDR10+ and Dolby Vision to its devices this year. On certain films and movies, the format will shoot information through your device to help display things differently. (“Better” is subjective here; HDR does very little for me personally.)
One thing most folks might care more about is Wi-Fi 6 — a new, faster standard for Internet speed. Roku promised faster speeds for the Streaming Stick, and it seems to have delivered; we had no connection or lag trouble in Vulture’s test. But if you already own a streaming setup of some kind and you’re not noticing problems, I wouldn’t worry too much about this one, either.
This all sounds good-not-great. What do you think I should do?
Roku’s got the best interface and layout mix in the game, for my money. That said, while $50 bucks isn’t a lot, it feels like too much for incremental updates. And $70 is definitely too high just to get a Voice Remote Pro.
I’d wait for a discount, or — if I really needed a hookup after my smart TV or my PS4 Pro failed — I’d get that $30 Roku Express 4K+. It even comes with its own voice remote. But it won’t beep when you call it, no matter how much you love it.
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