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Still Good With Not Much New

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Image for article titled There's Only One Reason to Upgrade to Roku's New 4K Streaming Sticks

Photo: Brianna Provenzano/Gizmodo

When it comes to product upgrades, it might sound like lukewarm praise to say, “It’s pretty much the same as the last version—but the last version was good!” But that’s exactly what’s true of the new Roku Streaming Stick 4K and its pricier sibling, the Roku Streaming Stick 4K+. While neither has quite enough in the way of new features to make it a dramatic upgrade from the Streaming Stick Plus or Roku Ultra, for example, both of the new sticks are still running on a solid OS, have a winsome design and deliver great streaming content. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

Should any of this on its own be enough to convince you to shell out $50 for the Streaming Stick 4K if you already own Roku’s Express 4K Plus, which offers a basically identical set of features for $10 less? Probably not. But if you’re in the market for a compact, capable streamer that now includes added support for Dolby Vision, the Roku Streaming Stick 4K and 4K+ are excellent options.

Perhaps the biggest concern for me personally is that at this point, Roku is approaching critical mass on its streaming offerings, at least from a nomenclature standpoint. The current lineup includes the Express, the Express 4K Plus, the Streaming Stick 4K, the Streaming Stick 4K Plus, the Ultra, the Streambar and the Streambar Pro—a confusingly similar array of streaming devices that are pretty homogenous in terms of their capabilities. By the time you can parse the (minor) differences between your options, you’ll realize, like I did, that you really can’t go wrong with any of them—which isn’t necessarily a compelling case for why the 4K and 4K+ are worth the slightly higher price tag.

A Winning Formula

The Streaming Stick 4K offers slight improvements to its very good, very affordable predecessor, the Streaming Stick Plus (currently $35 on Roku’s website). The newer device is faster and offers improved wifi performance, but those updates are hard to quantify (more on that below). Aesthetically, the design on both sticks is more or less the same, with the exception of a more matte black finish, but it’s not like it really matters anyway: Like the Plus, the Streaming Stick 4K tucks away neatly into an HDMI port behind your TV, so it’s not like there was any major need for an overhaul there.

To that end, both Streaming Sticks come with a USB power cable with a long-range wifi receiver (the 4K+ bundle also comes with a separate USB charging cable to power up the remote). There’s also a power adapter included in case you can’t connect the streaming stick directly to a USB port on the TV itself, but the TCL set I used to review the Roku sticks didn’t have that issue.

But really the big reason to upgrade is added support for Dolby Vision and HDR10 Plus. Dolby Vision content now abounds across various streaming services, including Disney+ and Netflix, and now Roku supports it. That’s pretty much it.

Roku Streaming Stick 4K vs. Roku Streaming Stick 4K+

If you feel like spending an extra $20, you can opt for the Roku Streaming Stick 4K+, which comes equipped with the Roku Voice Remote Pro. The Pro looks nearly identical to Roku’s other remotes, save for a few minor adjustments. A headphone jack for private listening has been added to its side, and the Voice Remote Pro also subs out AAs for a built-in rechargeable battery, which can be juiced up via a microUSB port tucked away under the remote’s purple fabric tag.

A tiny hidden USB port sets the Roku Voice Remote Pro apart.

A tiny hidden USB port sets the Roku Voice Remote Pro apart.
Photo: Brianna Provenzano/Gizmodo

The voice remote is an admittedly nice touch here, and if you’re considering whether or not spending the extra cash on the 4K+ is worth it, let me submit that that the included remote finder feature is almost worth the price of admission on its own. A simple “Hey Roku, find my remote” triggers a beeping sound to help you track it down, which is actually a welcome reprieve from digging through the couch cushions for the third time with no luck. For those who get queasy with the idea of having an always-listening device in their homes, Roku has included a switch on the remote’s left side to turn off the microphone. In this mode, the remote can still pick up commands if you press and hold the microphone button, it just won’t be “hands-free” anymore.

One legitimate gripe some users might have with the 4K and 4K+ is that the voice assistant still can’t really hold a candle to Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant. Roku’s voice capabilities remain rudimentary at best; raising and lowering volume, powering the TV on and off and searching for content by genre or actor’s name are no problem; ask anything more complicated, like what time the Knicks are playing, and you’re out of luck.

Sleek, Intuitive Software

People love the familiar feel of Roku’s app grid home screen, and Roku knows this. As a result, they tend to not switch things up too much in the software department, leaving the same uncluttered home screen users know and appreciate largely untouched.

There is a new “Featured Free” section that lets users browse their free streaming options, but this is mostly just a way for Roku to promote its own content. While it’s true that the ad-supported Roku Channel has dozens of free shows and movies, it’s also a good reminder that Roku is, at its core, an ad factory, and more ads mean more metrics being tracked and funneled back to Roku. It’s a bummer for sure, but that’s sort of the deal you implicitly agree to when you watch Roku’s content: good shows, easy-to-use software, and ads. It is what it is.

The Streaming Stick 4K and 4K+ both run on Roku’s latest OS 10.5, which adds a couple of intuitive fixes like voice dictation for passwords (scrolling around the on-screen keyboard with the remote for what feels like 15 minutes is always such a bummer) and easier troubleshooting for AV that’s out of sync. While competitors like Amazon’s FireTV Stick 4K Max have recently made the jump to Wi-Fi 6, Roku is still using Wi-Fi 5—but again, the load times have never been an issue, so it’s not a glaring omission.

Faster Performance, I Guess

I’ll be honest: If the Streaming Stick 4K loads any faster than its most recent predecessors, it’s lost on me, but that’s mostly because there was really no issue with load times to begin with.

The Voice Remote Pro’s side profile, which includes a button to turn off the listening microphone.

The Voice Remote Pro’s side profile, which includes a button to turn off the listening microphone.
Photo: Brianna Provenzano/Gizmodo

The latest batch of streaming sticks also boast more powerful quad-core processors, which allegedly yield 30% faster boot-up times, but, again… it’s hard to really notice a markedly improved performance here. All of the streams launched with no issue, never leaving me hanging for more than a couple seconds.

Worth the Upgrade?

When all is said and done, any of Roku’s latest streaming sticks are solid options, and none will leave customers with buyers’ remorse. With its wide selection of streamers, the real choice any Roku customer faces is grounded in the minutiae: Do you prefer a stick that can hide in your HDMI port, or are you OK with something a little larger, like the Express 4K Plus? Whichever direction you end up going, the long and short of it is that you’re still going to end up with highly capable, easy-to-use streamer at the end of the day. If it was me, I’d save my coins and just go with the cheapest option available, but your mileage may vary.

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