Roku 4K HDR: Is there a race for better voice-controlled streaming players in 2018?
If you go shopping for a new streaming player that supports 4K and HDR, the lowest price you will find is $70.
Roku solidified that price point this week when the company announced its new lineup of streaming devices. The Roku Streaming Stick+ will be the entry-level streaming device for people who own 4K HDR televisions.
It comes roughly a week after the all-new Amazon Fire TV dongle went on pre-sale for $69.99. Chomecast Ultra has been priced at $69 for months, and had showed no signs of going any lower. 4K support has been on streaming devices for a while, but few offered support for High Dynamic Range (HDR).
What’s the big deal with HDR?
Some argue that it’s a more important feature when it comes to improving picture quality than 4K. The Roku Streaming Stick Plus builds upon its popular predecessor from 2016 with some welcome new features.
Aside from adding 4K HDR support, the Roku Streaming Stick Plus is designed to have better WiFi range and a new remote that controls volume and power. But there’s another feature that Roku and Amazon will focus on in the months ahead that could make a huge difference for customers.
Why voice control will matter for Roku, Amazon in 2018
Three of the five new Roku streaming devices have voice control added to their remotes, letting you search for shows and movies.
This is a feature that Amazon has already had for months with its Alexa-based software. Amazon took an extra leap in August when it added a skill enabling Amazon Echo and Echo Dot products control Fire TV devices hands-free.
Not having to push a button to control a Fire TV can mean a lot when you can’t find where your remote is buried somewhere between your couch cushions.
But hands-free voice control is far more significant for both consumers and hardware manufactures.
Amazon has already been pushing its way into making its Echo line of speakers into a smart home hub. Now with the new Fire TV, Amazon can broaden its reach into controlling light dimmers, window shades and a long list of items that consumers will want to buy so they can be automated.
NVIDIA is already aggressively pushing in this direction as well. Last week, NVIDIA SHIELD TV owners got a software upgrade that added Google Assistant to all existing consoles. That too enabled hands-free voice control for streaming apps, while paving the way to serve as a smart home hub.
Will Roku eventually follow suit by enabling smart home commands in the future? It’s hard to say. But if you’re in the market for a new 4K HDR streaming device, you’ll have a lot more to consider than which player has your favorite streaming apps.
Here’s a breakdown of the new Roku devices that are now available for pre-order.
Roku Express and Roku Express+
All five of Roku’s new streaming players come with a faster processor. The Roku Express ($30) and Express Plus ($40) needed this upgrade the most. Roku says the new processors make their devices “5 times faster” than prior models.
The Express Plus comes with cables needed for older, analog TV cables. The Roku Express comes in at a slightly lower price than the $40 Amazon Streaming Stick, and $35 Chromecast.
The Express and Express Plus only stream HD content, not 4K or HDR.
Roku Streaming Stick and Roku Streaming Stick+
The Roku Streaming Stick ($50) will have added buttons to control TV power and volume. That essentially allows you to ditch your TV remote, and possibly avoid buying a universal remote or a Sideclick.
The Streaming Stick and Streaming Stick Plus both have quad-core processor and 802.11 AC dual-band MIMO wireless.
The voice search will let users peruse options like the 4K aggregator already found on Roku devices. There’s a difference in streaming quality between these two sticks. The $50 Streaming Stick only supports HD streaming.
The Streaming Stick Plus will stream HD, 4K and 4K HDR up to 60 frames per second. That FPS should make the Streaming Stick Plus ideal for live streaming platforms like Sling TV, YouTube TV and others, especially while watching sports.
The Streaming Stick Plus comes with a WiFi extender designed to help improve reception.
Roku Ultra: less expensive, but faster
The Ultra is now $30 cheaper, but comes with more features and power. Roku Ultra is now the only full-sized streaming box in the lineup.
Roku Premiere and Premiere+ have been dropped from production. That’s too bad because I thought the Premiere+, with 4K HDR support, had a lot more value (and a better price) than Ultra when the two were released last year.
The Ultra still has a headphone jack on its remote and a remote control finder. USB and SD card slots are still on the Ultra along with the Ethernet port. Roku got rid of the optical output on Ultra.
The Streaming Stick+ and Ultra support HDR-10, not Dolby Vision HDR. This will mostly matter to home theater enthusiasts, and they have the option to buy the new Apple TV 4K or Chromecast Ultra if it’s a must.
Roku OS 8 update
A new software update Roku OS 8 will bring some significant improvements, but I’m hoping one of them will get even better. There are two in particular that jumped out at me.
- TV Everywhere Single Sign-On: TVE single sign-on will eliminates the need to log in to TVE channels one at a time or repeatedly. Customers who subscribe to Dish, Cox, AT&T and hundreds of other providers will enjoy the convenience of single sign-on when using 30 TVE channels. I’m hoping the “hundreds of others” include subscribers to live streaming platforms like DirecTV Now, YouTube TV, PlayStation Vue and others. If it does, then it would be a big deal for cord cutters who rely on TVE apps to watch live feeds and on-demand movies and shows. Roku says more providers are expected to be added to the feature over time.
- 4K Spotlight Channel Update: The redesigned Roku 4K Spotlight Channel makes it easier to find 4K and HDR content. The 4K Spotlight Channel now features a new navigation menu to help users quickly select the type of content they want. Categories like 4K Movies, 4K TV and HDR Movies and TV are among the choices on the revamped channel. The new menu also lets you choose from multiple streaming channels if a movie or show is available from more than one provider.
When will new Roku 4K devices become available?
Roku Express+ is available exclusively at Walmart beginning Oct. 8. Customers who purchase a new Roku player will receive a $10 Vudu credit towards a rental or purchase. Offer expires 10/31/17.
Amazon began pre-sale of the new Fire TV with 4K and HDR support last week.
Founder and Editor of The Cord Cutting Report. Before launching the site in 2016, he worked for more than two decades as a staff writer or correspondent for a number of daily newspapers, including The Boston Globe. His enthusiasm for tech began with the Atari 2600. Follow @james_kimble