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(Pocket-lint) - Roku regularly tweaks its streaming devices, with the Roku Express 4K the latest addition to the existing portfolio.

The name is familiar, because this model is close in function to its namesake - the Roku Express - and it's positioned in competition with the current Roku Premiere.

Confused? Fortunately, we've got you covered. So does the Express 4K make the best sense?

Design and setup

  • Dimensions: 86.3 x 39.3 x 20.8mm / Weight: 44.6g
  • HDMI connection to TV
  • Micro-USB powered

To look at, the Roku Express 4K is identical to the Roku Express. It's the same compact black device with a curved top, connections on the rear and a glossy front, behind which the IR receiver sits.

On the rear is the HDMI connection you'll use with the (short) supplied cable to connect it to your TV, while there's a Micro-USB power cable that you'll need to plug into the wall to deliver the power. There's a small piece of double-sided tape supplied so you can stick the Express 4K to a surface, like the underside of your TV, if that helps tidy it up.

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Setup is as easy as connecting those cables, slipping the supplied batteries into the included remote, then following the onscreen instructions. To get started, you'll be invited to sign into your Roku account, sign into your Wi-Fi network, upon which the Roku Express 4K will update itself and be ready for use.

During this process you'll be invited to customise the apps you'll have appear on your device, so you only have to look at those ones you actually want to use.

Once that's all done, you'll have to sign into those subscription streaming services, like Amazon Video or Disney+, with each of those having a totally different process.

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It's worth noting that the Wi-Fi antenna is in the box itself, rather than on the cable as in the Streaming Stick+. This is updated dual-band Wi-Fi, so a step up over the older Roku Express and Roku Premiere.

For those who are still struggling, it also supports third-party Micro-USB Ethernet dongles, meaning you can move to a wired connection instead, which is great if you're streaming in your concrete basement where the wireless connection is poor. We haven't tested these adapters, however, so can't comment on the reliability.

Apps and services

  • Works with Alexa, Google Assistant
  • AirPlay 2, Google Cast
  • Roku OS & Roku app

The best thing about Roku is that it supports just about everything. For those in the UK, it supports all the domestic catch-up services, all the pay-for streaming services, while also supporting other connectivity services like Apple AirPlay 2 and Google Cast.

Starting with the streaming services, the coverage offered by Roku means that the service is slightly better than devices like Chromecast with Google TV - because it doesn't have those annoying omissions (like Now or All4) - so the access to content is one of the great advantages of Roku.

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You still get YouTube, but you also have Apple TV+ access, for example, so it's a very complete selection of programming. Few others offer such a full suite of apps, there's usually an exception here or there with most platforms.

Support for additional connection protocols - Google Cast, AirPlay 2 - means that the Express 4K provides an additional route to getting content onto your TV. You'll be able to cast Chrome browser tabs or send video from your iPhone to your Roku to watch on your TV without having to fork out for an expensive Apple TV 4K. This just means you have even more choices on top of all those streaming channels.

While that's the big benefit, the downside of Roku is that Roku OS - the platform they all run on - doesn't really do anything else for you. It's pretty much a linear experience offering app icons for you to click through and play the content you want, rather than the curation you'll find on something like Chromecast with Google TV.

One useful feature is the universal search, which you can access through the remote, returning choices for where you can watch something, making it easy to find content on your subscribed channels, or where you can rent or buy.

The included remote isn't Roku's most advanced - that's saved for higher positioned streamers in the line-up - so there's no voice searching, which is an inherent advantage of Amazon's Fire TV Stick models, but you can use voice searching through the smartphone app.

The remote needs line-of-sight to function - and this is a fairly narrow infrared (IR) field, so you'll need to see the front of the unit to get it to respond. The remote has a selection of shortcut buttons to go direct to some major services.

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Otherwise it's a fairly basic remote, not that a streamer needs much more than this - but again, the Roku smartphone app offers an alternative, skirting around the direct line-of-sight issue, while also offering advanced options like private listening, so you can listen to the audio via headphones rather than the TV speakers.

You can also connect to smart speakers - to use Alexa or Google Assistant - so you can ask your Amazon Echo to open Netflix on your Roku, for example, as another route to access. That's the theory anyway: in our testing with Alexa, it didn't work at all.

Quality and performance

  • 4K HDR support
  • HDR10+ support
  • Dolby Atmos

The Roku Express 4K boosts the offering of the Express by adding support for 4K content - so you'll be able to stream in Ultra HD from services that offer it - from BBC iPlayer through to the likes of Netflix.

That resolution will result in nice crisp visuals on larger displays, while increased support for HDR10+ will make this a more capable high dynamic range streamer - although there's no Dolby Vision support here. The positioning of this streamer is worth bearing in mind - because it's pushing affordability rather than promising to be the best streamer on the market for those cinephiles looking for the utmost.

Dolby-encoded audio is supported, including passthrough of Dolby Atmos object-based surround sound, as long as you have something to do the decoding, like an AV receiver or some of the more recent televisions.

The performance is generally good and stable too. The user interface is fast to move around and apps open quickly enough so you never feel like you're waiting for things to happen.

Ultimately the performance will be dictated in part by your internet connection and how strong your Wi-Fi signal is, as you'll see buffering or lower bitrates (so lower resolution) as a result. We found no problems with this in our testing - again, there's support for wired Ethernet via a third-party adapter if you need that.

Quality of the visuals is good, with a nice crisp serving of high-quality streaming from all those channels, but we did find some oddities with BBC iPlayer: the colours were richer in UHD streaming that some other streaming devices and the Roku refused to give us anything other than basic PCM audio from BBC iPlayer.

These things do sometimes fluctuate as platforms and content providers work together on what they are offering, often resolving themselves as time passes. It's not a deal-breaker for us anyway, and if you're not using an AV receiver and connecting straight to your TV, you'd likely never know.

How does the Roku Express 4K compare?

The Roku Express 4K sits above the Roku Express. The regular Express is Roku's entry-level device, offering Full HD (1080p) quality only, so it's a step below in resolution.

The Roku Premiere was a step above - but now the Roku Express 4K comes in offering HDR10+ support for better high dynamic range content handling, as well as better Wi-Fi and a more powerful processor, so it's a step above the current Premiere - suggesting that the regular Premiere is going to get an upgrade pretty soon.

Exactly which model you should get will depend on various factors, the biggest of which is the TV you're connecting it to and the display resolution and HDR support it offers. There's a full breakdown here explaining how the different Roku devices compare.

Verdict

The Roku Express 4K is an ideal streamer for anyone wanting to make a TV smart, especially if you have a 4K HDR one that doesn't have all the services you want already, or if you'd rather move to one single platform for everything.

There are some inherent advantages that Roku offers: not only does it have a complete set of services, but it also offers AirPlay 2 and Google Cast, while we've found the performance to be really good too.

With that in mind, unless you have specific requirements for top quality - Dolby Vision support, for example - then the Roku Express 4K will likely provide everything you're looking for in an affordable and highly competitive package.

Also consider

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Chromecast with Google TV

A marked step forward for Google, offering a Chromecast with a remote control and a proper user interface It's not only much easier to use than older Chromecast devices, but enjoyable to use, while being very capable.

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Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K

Amazon's streamers offer a range of choices, but to get access to 4K, you'll have to take the this model - and it's more expensive than the Roku. It does, however, offer wider format support with Dolby Vision, so it's more complete in that regard.

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Writing by Chris Hall. Originally published on 28 June 2021.