Review: Should you buy Roku’s new media streaming box?

October 26, 2015, 8:43 PM UTC
Courtesy: Roku

Over the past month, I’ve reviewed several new media streaming boxes that stream movies and TV shows from the likes of Netflix or Hulu to televisions. First was Google’s latest Chromecast devices, then Amazon’s new Fire TV. Now, I turn my attention to Roku’s latest hardware, the Roku 4. During the past week, I replaced my Roku 3 with the its successor to see how the market leader’s latest hardware performs against this year’s class of rival set-top boxes.

Roku’s new box, which costs $129 ($30 more than the Roku 3), is physically bigger, offers 4K streaming quality (compared with 1080p with its predecessor), and comes with a handy feature that helps you find you remote control when you forget where you left it. It’s available for order on Roku’s website, and has already begun shipping. In addition to the set-top box, you get the remote control and headphones that plug into it.

Roku 4 comes pre-installed with Roku OS7, bringing additional search capabilities and new features including a tool called My Feed that lets users keep tabs on various shows and movies. Users can now search and follow movies, TV shows, and actors in their feeds. When Roku detects new relevant material based on items in My Feed, it sends users an alert with the option to begin watching the video. Older Roku devices will begin automatically receiving the same software update in a staggered rollout in the coming weeks.

You can use your voice to search for a TV series, for example, by pressing a dedicated button on the remote, or by using an on-screen keyboard with the remote. I found voice search to be finicky at times. On one occasion I was able to successfully search for Disney’s Christmas Carol without a problem. On another occasion, it misunderstood my search for episodes of Friends as a search for the Broadway musical Rent. Overall, the Roku 4’s speech recognition software was no better or worse than Fire TV’s.

A few more technical hiccups cropped up when voice search completely failed just after I pressed the search button on the remote. I was never able to figure out what caused the problem, but if I waited a second and tried again, it usually fixed itself.

When voice search does work, or you finally give up and enter a search term manually, Roku shows you the streaming services that have the show you want available along with the price, if applicable. This feature, known as universal search, has access to 20 streaming services and is intended to reduce the amount of time you spend looking for something to watch.

For example, instead of having to individually search Netflix (NFLX), then Hulu Plus, then Amazon’s Prime Video service for a movie, you can use Roku’s search feature to view a list of services where the movie is available. The list includes services you don’t have installed along with links to get them if you so desire. Universal search isn’t new to the Roku platform, nor is it groundbreaking in terms of putting it ahead of competition. But it’s a welcome feature that vastly improves any streaming experience.

My favorite thing about Roku 4 has nothing to do with watching videos, or new search functionalities. It’s the new remote finding feature. TV watchers lose countless hours trying to track down their remotes in the between the cushions or after absent-mindedly carrying it to another room and leaving it there. Roku’s solution is simple, brilliant, and something that every streaming box should have. People can merely push a small button on top of the Roku 4 to set off an alert from the remote itself. The sound is customizable with five different options ranging from a sonar-like beep, to the song Anvil Chorus.

The Roku 4 is slightly cheaper than Apple’s $150 Apple TV, yet slightly more expensive than Amazon’s equally capable $99 Fire TV. However, I much prefer Roku’s interface to that of the Fire TV. The app icon-based grid on Roku is familiar and easy to navigate, in contrast to the Fire TV’s confusing hybrid interface of lists and thumbnails.

Much like my time with Google’s new Chromecast (GOOG) and Amazon’s Fire TV (AMZN), the Roku 4 didn’t “wow” me.

Having used a Roku 3 as my main streaming box for the past year, the experience was nearly identical with the Roku 4. Apps and services seemed to open a little faster, and the upgraded 1080p high-definition interface does look better on my TV. But at the end of the week, I could have easily forgotten that I was using a Roku 4 and not a Roku 3.

Don’t get me wrong: the Roku 4 is an excellent streaming device. It’s just not a big enough improvement to compel you to buy an upgrade from the Roku 3. The one caveat is if you’ve recently bought, or plan to buy a 4K TV and want to take full advantage of the high-quality of video your TV can now play.

If you’re on the fence of getting a Roku 4 or new Apple TV, I’d recommend that you wait a little longer while we wait to see just what the latest Apple TV, which begins shipping later this week, has to offer in terms of performance and applications. However, if you’re deciding between anything else and the Roku 4, this is the streaming box you want.

For more about Apple TV, watch this Fortune video:


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