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Posted: 2017-11-02 20:10:40

It's not tough to see why Roku beats Apple, Amazon and Google by making the most popular streamers. They combine affordability and a simple design with more useful features and apps than the competition.

The Roku Streaming Stick Plus streams the best-quality 4K and HDR video from Netflix, Amazon, Vudu and others, but lacks the fancy voice controls and modern-looking menu system of the rival Amazon Fire TV. Roku's "useful feature" retort? A remote that can control volume and power on your television. It might seem like a simple thing, but if you do a lot of streaming, not having pick up your TV remote just to tweak volume is really handy.

Roku also threw in an Advanced Wireless Receiver to help in weaker Wi-Fi areas, but in brief tests we didn't see much improvement. No matter; reception was still fine, and Roku's responses were lightning-fast. And of course there's best-in-class search and more 4K HDR apps than anyone else offers.

To take full advantage of those apps you'll need a new 4K HDR TV, but even if you don't have one, it's worth considering the Plus over cheaper, non-4K streamers like Roku's standard streaming stick. The price difference between the two is so small ($20) it might be worth paying in case you do get a 4K TV soon, and want to be ready.

The Roku Streaming Stick Plus is my favorite streamer of 2017, and hands-down a better value than the feature-laden Apple TV 4K or Nvidia Shield. It easily beats Google Chromecast Ultra since that streamer lacks both a separate remote and Amazon Video. Its closest competitor is Fire TV, but unless you're a serious Alexa head, Roku's advantages win the day.

Roku need-to-know-ku

  • The Streaming Stick Plus designed to hide behind your TV and plug directly into a free HDMI port. If space is tight you can use a male-to-female HDMI cable or "port saver," and Roku will even send you one for free.
  • The Advanced Wireless Receiver cable plugs into the stick with an old-school mini -- not micro -- USB connection. The Receiver in turn plugs into the supplied AC adapter, or a USB port on your TV, for power.
  • If you elect to power the stick from your TV it takes longer to boot up so plugging directly into AC is usually the best route.
Roku Streaming Stick Plus

That thing in my hand is the Advanced Wireless Receiver.

Sarah Tew/CNET
  • You can't use the Plus without the Receiver cable. I tried plugging an old USB-to-mini-USB cable in instead and received an error message.
  • Just like Fire TV, the Plus lacks Dolby Vision HDR, so all HDR is delivered as HDR10. This isn't a big deal unless 1) you have a Dolby Vision-capable TV, and 2) it performs significantly better with Dolby Vision compared to HDR10. If you want Dolby Vision, your only current streaming options are the much-more-expensive Apple TV 4K or the apps built into your TV.
  • 4K HDR video on Roku is currently available from Netflix, YouTube, Amazon and FandangoNow. Apps with 4K (but not HDR) support include Vudu, Plex, UltraFlix, Toon Goggles, 4K Universe and Smithsonian, as well as a few other niche apps. No other platform can match that selection.
  • Streaming in 4K requires more bandwidth, and in the case of Netflix, a more-expensive plan. Amazon recommends 15Mbps is ample for 4K streaming, while YouTube and Netflix recommend 20.
  • Unlike Apple TV 4K, the Roku Stick Plus can support Dolby Atmos, Dolby's best in-home audio format. The only app on Roku that currently supports Atmos is Vudu, and it passed through with no issues in my test.
  • The $100 Roku Ultra box has all the same features as the Streaming Stick Plus, minus the advanced wireless receiver. Its remote adds a headphone jack for private listening and the remote finder function so you don't lose it among the couch cushions. There's also an SD card slot to expand the memory for faster app loading, a USB port and a wired Ethernet port. Check out Roku's full 2017 player lineup here.
Roku Streaming Stick Plus
Sarah Tew/CNET

4K stick with the Roku you know (ku)

The iPhone has used a basic grid of apps since time immemorial, because it works and people are used to it. So does Roku, and every time I ask the company representatives about an update they essentially tell me it's working too well to mess with. And for the most part, I agree.

Roku's home page is fully customizable, allowing you to move app tiles to taste. All apps get equal footing, from Netflix to Toon Goggles, scrolling through them is smooth and fast, they launch quickly and responses within every app I tried were lightning-fast. The interface doesn't surface individual shows and movies on the home page, like Fire TV, but it's visually simpler and less intrusive; there's just one big ad to the right of the app list.

The menus on some prominent apps, like PlayStation Vue, HBO Now and Watch ESPN, are better on Fire TV than on Roku, with a more updated interface and in some cases, more features. Many others, however, including Netflix, YouTube, Hulu and Sling TV, are basically the same on both.

roku-tv-fall-2017-update-009
Sarah Tew/CNET

Stronger on apps and search, weaker on voice

Roku continues to have more apps than the competition, as well as best-in-class cross-platform search. I love that results are sorted by price, especially now that Movies Anywhere allows you to consolidate your Vudu, Amazon, Google Play and even iTunes libraries. Now if only Vudu would update its Roku app to something like the clean experience it uses on Apple TV.

Roku has a few extras not found elsewhere, including its My Feed service and headphone private listening via the Roku app (if you want it on the remote, you'll need to get an Ultra), but the most important in my book are two exclusive apps: "4K spotlight" and the Roku Channel. The former is a one-stop shop for 4K and now HDR videos from Amazon, Vudu, YouTube and others, broken down into categories for easy browsing. Unfortunately it's missing Netflix, a major source of 4K HDR content, but it still helps make finding actual 4K and HDR videos easier than on other devices.

The Roku Channel is a new hub for free on-demand movies (with ads). It gathers films from MGM, Sony, Warner and Lionsgate, intermixing them with free content from existing Roku channels such as FilmRise, OVGuide, Popcornflix, YuYu and Vidmark. The selection is a lot better than you'd think, and the ads aren't that bad, although you might have to put up with some awkward breaks.

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