Roku ups its offerings with new smart boxes
By Jim Bray
One of the leaders in the "smart set top boxes" market has expanded its line so it now ranges from extremely affordable to extremely capable - not that each category is mutually exclusive.
It's Roku, whose line now stretches from the $39.99 entry level Roku Express to the $139.99 Roku Ultra, the latter of which will output in 4K, giving you state-of-the-art video from a small and affordable package. Naturally, you won't appreciate the 4K aspects unless you have a 4K TV, but even if you don't yet have that type of video you can output it at whatever resolution you have now and it'll grow with your capabilities.
Roku's line actually features five new players - Roku Express, Roku Express+, Roku Premiere, Roku Premiere+ and Roku Ultra - as well as the Roku Streaming Stick I reviewed and liked so much several months ago, which now sits somewhere in the middle of the Roku line and is positioned as a portable solution (and for which it's eminently suitable).
Since I loved the Streaming Stick - I ran it back to back with the Google Chromecast, and preferred the more self-contained Roku - I was curious about the new machines. So I asked for both the Express and the Ultra, the bookends of the product line, to see how they'd stack up.
And they stack up very well. Well, I wouldn't want to pile them on top of one another…
The Roku Ultra is their ultimate player, at least so far. I hooked it into my 4K TV and it ran 4K content from YouTube (and even some test footage I plugged into its USB drive) beautifully. It also features Dolby Digital Plus decoding and an optical digital audio output that lets you hook it into sound bars and receivers (as long as they have optical inputs). My "sound bar" is a Bose SoundDock 10, an excellent unit, but it only has analogue inputs so I had to pair it with an aftermarket optical-digital-to-analogue stereo output - and it worked just fine that way.
Besides the googolplex of online channels and streaming services (Netflix, etc.) you can access via Rokus, the Ultra is chock full of other great audio/video features. It starts at its heart, with a quad-core processor and dual-band MIMO wireless and Ethernet networking. As for its video performance, it offers 4K UHD at up to 60 frames per second and High Dynamic Range that supposedly gives you the darkest blacks and lightest lights (with 4k and HDR content on a compatible 4K HDR TV of course).
There's even a "4K Spotlight Channel" in its menu that lets you search specifically for 4K and HDR content - and I was surprised at just how much there is already, especially on YouTube. Some of it is premium content for which you'll have to pay more (Netflix is such a service), but there's quite a bit that's free. I particularly enjoyed some 4K POV roller coaster footage I found on YouTube, though my wife was a tad less appreciative (and she refused to hold my pocket change for me…)
The remote is not only a "point-anywhere remote" (not necessarily line of sight), but it also has gaming buttons, a headphone jack and voice search feature. You can also make it holler for you, too, if you forget where you put it (thanks to a "lost remote finder" button on the player - something I wish my phone had! And my glasses…).
Heck, the thing even has a little jack on the remote control into which you can hook your headphones, if you want to watch programming without the audio disturbing anyone else. And besides the USB port I mentioned above, there's also a MicroSD card slot you can use to play content.
I was surprised that there wasn't an HDMI cable in the box; heck, even the "lowly" Express came with such a cable. I'm also a tad disappointed it doesn't have an on/off feature (just a screen saver) because that means it's always on. Sure, there's no boot up time that way, but it seems like a waste of energy even if only a bit.
Speaking of the Roku Express, once I'd tried it on our 4K unit (it "only" outputs at 1080p, but that's hardly roughing it) I hooked Roku Canada's sample into my bedroom TV, which is an older, 32 inch 720p unit. The Roku Express works great there, effectively taking the virtually obsolete LCD and dragging it into the "smart TV" era. I plugged it into the TV's HDMI port and powered it via its USB drive (it also comes with an AC Adapter).
It's great! And talk about convenient! We can start watching Netflix on the 4K TV in the living room, then head up to bed and finish the program there, picking up where we left off. Even if we didn't want to watch TV programming in the bedroom, it's wonderful being able to access my favourite (which means "free") audio streaming service, Accuradio (though I wish you could save Favourites in Accuradio's Roku app like you can with its website and smart device apps, rather than having to scroll through their multitude of channels to find the one you want).
What we'd do is fire up our favourite sleepy time Accuradio music channel, set the TV's sleep timer and activate its "energy saving feature" to turn off the picture completely, then nod off to dreamland to the sounds of streaming audio made possible by having the Roku in the bedroom. It works great - and when the TV's sleep timer kicks in the USB-powered Roku Express shuts off with it (otherwise, like the Ultra when plugged into its AC adapter, it would stay on all the time). It's a simple and elegant solution to a problem I hadn't realized existed before the Roku brought streaming to the bedroom.
The Express works fine if you want to exploit its capabilities more extensively, too. You don't get the higher end features of the Ultra but, depending where you set it up, you may not miss them.
Since the Rokus access the account you have to set up on your initial installation (which I found annoying in my first Roku review because it requires credit card info - though to be fair I've never been charged for anything), installing subsequent Rokus is child's play. You just set it up for your network and your existing account and Bob's your uncle - and your home screen and the apps you installed already are there waiting for you, regardless of which Roku you use.
The selection of apps is nothing short of astonishing, though you should keep Sturgeon's Law (paraphrased: "90 per cent of everything is crap") in mind. There are free apps and paid apps and apps that are basically promotional in nature. Netflix and YouTube (and others) are built in right off the bat and I've downloaded numerous free apps ranging from car stuff to old time TV, sci-fi movie channels and the like. And more channels come online all the time.
You may be amazed at what you can find in the Roku universe. I mentioned in my previous review that I found the pilot episode of the old Beverly Hillbillies sitcom, and there's plenty more gold there if you bother looking for it. The "looking for it" is the tedious part, but that isn't Roku's fault; it's just that there's so much content available!
And if you're going on the road, you can take your Roku with you easily, thanks to features such as Hotel and Dorm Connect. Roku has even figured out a way to let you use a Roku if you don't have an HDMI-equipped TV (a vanishing breed, but still out there): the $49,99 Roku Express+ (not the "garden variety" Express) also comes with a composite video cable you can plug into your TV's RCA a/v jacks (if it has them).
However you slice it, Roku offers wonderful ways to easily upgrade a "dumb" TV to a smart TV (since smart TV's are generally just regular TV's with Wi-Fi and a bunch of apps) but, beyond that, Roku and its competitors point the way toward a "cable-less" future in which broadcast TV is replaced by Internet streaming. You can't get your regular "off air" or cable TV channels via the Roku (or its competitors as far as I know) but, personally, if it weren't for Jeopardy!, CFL football and IndyCar racing I'd rarely miss regular TV.
It's inevitable that most TV channels will stream, someday - the 104th Grey Cup that ran on November 27th was streamed live on YouTube, for example, though very choppily - so while it might not be time to cut the cable or satellite yet, I daresay it'll happen sooner rather than later. And that's great, as long as the streaming is flawless and the audio/video quality as good (or better) than what's available via cable and/or satellite.
Roku, obviously, is on the leading edge of streaming devices and will undoubtedly be there to help you stream mainstream TV when the time comes. In the meantime, it can give you a lot of content for the money, whether you're watching stuff in 480i, 720p, 1080p or 4K.
Copyright 2016 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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