The Roku Streaming Stick 4K arrives with a heavy task on its shoulders: replace our pick for the best streaming device. Yes, this $50 stick replaces the Roku Streaming Stick Plus, and while it's not a huge leap over that model, it fixes one of the biggest flaws of that model and keeps everything we loved about it while doing so.
And while that sounds like it might be a minor update, the major new feature added is Dolby Vision, which could be enough to make some upgrade today. Roku's also claiming faster performance, which is a trickier thing to measure on a streaming device. That said, this Roku Streaming Stick 4K review will show why it's a worthy successor to the throne, and sitting at the top of the best Roku devices list too.
Roku Streaming Stick 4K review: Specs
|Roku Streaming Stick 4K|
|Resolution||Up to 4K UHD at 60 fps|
|Wireless||802.11ac MIMO dual-band Wi-Fi|
|Dimensions||3.7 x 0.8 x 0.5 inches|
|Audio||Dolby-encoded audio, DTS Digital Surround, Digital stereo|
|Video||Dolby Vision, HDR10/10+ and HLG|
|Remote||Roku Voice Remote with TV power and volume buttons|
Roku Streaming Stick 4K review: Price and availability
The Roku Streaming Stick 4K is on pre-order and comes out on October 17, 2021.
Roku Streaming Stick 4K review: Design
The Roku Streaming Stick 4K (like all streaming sticks) is designed to never be seen again. Identical to its predecessor (the Roku Streaming Stick Plus), the Roku Streaming Stick 4K is primarily a 3.7 x 0.8 x 0.5-inch dongle with an HDMI plug that goes into the back of your TV. But it's got a little extra in its USB power cable: a 3.3 x 0.6 x 0.3-inch long-range Wi-Fi receiver. Editor's Note: this review won't explain how much that improves things, the furthest testing can be done from our router is 8 feet away.
Also in the box, you get the Roku Voice Remote with TV power and volume buttons (with two AAA batteries it needs), and a power adapter. You could opt to forego that power adapter, and plug the USB power cable into your TV, but I found that this means the Roku Streaming Stick 4K is turned off when my relatively-recent LG TV. And I don't enjoy waiting for the Roku boot-up animation to finish, when it could just be on standby.
The Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K is a slightly larger rectangular dongle (4.3 x 1.3 x 0.5 inches) while the Chromecast with Google TV is even larger (6.4 x 2.4 x 0.5 inches). But, as I said before, these all just exist in the limbo behind your TV.
Roku Streaming Stick 4K review: RokuOS 10.5 interface and mobile app
Roku devices have one of the best (if not the best outright) interfaces there is. We like the look and lack of ads in tvOS on the Apple TV 4K more, but that $179 device is hardly comparable to the $49 Roku Streaming Stick 4K.
Instead, the Roku home screen is best compared to the $50 streaming devices in its class: the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K and Chromecast with Google TV. Both of those competitors go for a content-first approach, which feels a bit ad-heavy on Fire TV and recommendation-heavy on the Chromecast. Roku's simplicity is laudable. You just see a grid of the apps you have, and the search (more on that later) can help you find stuff you don't have.
RokuOS 10.5 brings a bunch of updates that revolve around voice — something that those who buy the Roku Streaming Stick 4K Plus with its always-listening Voice Remote Pro may appreciate more than those with the regular Roku remote in the Streaming Stick 4K.
So, the Roku Streaming Stick 4K responded quickly when I asked it to "Play Squid Games on Netflix" and to "Play Fiona Apple in Spotify." While the latter jumped straight to an appropriate playlist, the Streaming Stick 4K had me pick what episode of Squid Games to watch, which made sense.
And while I personally rarely ever use voice controls, the Roku OS 10.5 update gives me one feature I will use. You can now spell out email addresses, passwords and PIN numbers when logging into an app. This is important for anyone who uses the kind of long and complicated passwords that security folks say we should use. Apple's offered this in tvOS, while the Chromecast with Google TV and Fire TV Stick 4K lack it.
Roku's also allowing you to edit the grid in The Roku Channel's Live TV section, though this is where I found myself disappointed.
This section only allows The Roku Channel's free linear TV content (which is made up of ad-supported content from names you may be familiar with, such as This Old House, ABC News Live, NBC News Now, Vice), and your mileage may vary.
The Fire TV's Live TV grid, though, integrates with cord-cutter services such as Sling TV — a huge boon for cord-cutters like myself.
The Roku mobile app allows you to have private listening via whatever headphones you use. Roku's added optimizations for wireless headphones this year, for reducing latency (of which I saw none) between sound and video. I had one awkward moment with private listening via the app, though: I heard small beeps during the first few minutes of testing. They went away quickly.
Roku Streaming Stick 4K review: Performance
Overall, the Roku Streaming Stick 4K is snappy, and fast enough — with zero glaring issues. And that's how it should be. Roku's added a new quad-core processor in the Roku Streaming Stick 4K, for what it claims provide 30% faster app boot times vs. the Roku Streaming Stick Plus. Unfortunately, we don't have a Roku Streaming Stick Plus on hand to test that against, but we did have the top $50 streaming devices: the Chromecast with Google TV and Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K.
And in terms of app load times, the Roku Streaming Stick Plus is simply good. I don't mean that as an insult, it's more just the fact that the app load times on the major streaming devices are hard to test and can vary greatly. To try and put them all on an even playing field, We restarted the Roku Streaming Stick 4K, the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K and the Chromecast with Google TV, and then on the stopwatch app timed how long it took to open Netflix, YouTube, Disney Plus, Sling TV and Apple TV Plus.
The times, as you'll see below, are pretty similar throughout.
|Roku Streaming Stick 4K||Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K|
|Netflix (load time in seconds)||3||23||2|
|YouTube (load time in seconds)||7||7||5|
|Disney Plus (load time in seconds)||9||10||12|
|Sling TV (load time in seconds)||10||27||8|
|Apple TV Plus (load time in seconds)||11||9||8|
And there is going to be some small margin of error here, since it involves timing taps on a screen and a remote in tandem. The biggest takeaway from this testing is that the Roku Streaming Stick 4K may be a second or three slower on Apple TV Plus, Netflix and YouTube, but it's not got the terrible load time issues the Fire TV Stick 4K sees on Sling and Netflix.
But those are just the first load times after a reset (and how often do you reset your streaming device?). Most of the time, the Roku Streaming Stick 4K and these other devices are pretty similar in speed. The only issue I ever noted about load times is that there's a small delay in loading YouTube on Roku (and not just on this device), where a square YouTube logo appears before the app itself loads. It's something I always forget about, until I see it again.
Roku Streaming Stick 4K review: Audio and video
For a while, I always looked a bit sideways at the Roku Streaming Stick Plus because it lacked Dolby Vision — which both the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K and Chromecast with Google TV both pack. Now that that's complete, the Roku Streaming Stick 4K is going to stream all your shows and movies just as beautifully as anything else, which I saw when I rewatched some of the best Netflix shows (which stream in Dolby Vision).
The red and blue hues of the paper-throwing game in Squid Game episode 1 popped and the green and pink hues of the iconic house that Beth Harmon lives in also rendered properly. In the scene where Beth chugs her first beer, the black tone of her sweater looked pitch-black, with excellent contrast. The Roku Streaming Stick 4K also supports HDR10 and HDR10+, which also enable dark black tones and quality contrast.
The crisp UHD image quality continued through to the opening scene of Thor: Ragnarok, where individual engravings on the Mjolnir hammer looked crisp as it flew around a cave, demolishing baddies.
The Roku Streaming Stick 4K is lacking on audio standards, missing the spatially-focused Dolby Atmos sound technology. So, while I heard some dimensionality to that fight scene, as the hammer circled Thor (it was likely using either Dolby-encoded audio, DTS Digital Surround or Digital stereo) it possibly could have been better (my TV does support Dolby Atmos). The Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K and Chromecast with Google TV both also have Dolby Atmos.
Roku Streaming Stick 4K review: Search
There's a whole lot of stuff to watch these days, and the seemingly ever-increasing number of streaming services are making finding those shows and movies even more confusing. When I searched for Fast and Furious movies in Roku, I discovered that the Roku has a Zone (essentially a way to view a collection of related movies) for the Fast & Furious movies, so you can see where each movie is stored.
The Roku Streaming Stick 4K helps you navigate the wide world of streaming well, even when you're not able to watch at the moment. For example, say I'm out at a nice outdoors bar, and a friend tells me I need to see the anime film Paprika. I could throw that recommendation into my favorite list-making app Todoist (one of the best productivity apps), or I could add it to my Save List in the latest version of the Roku app. I just type the movie's name into the search field, select it from the results and tap "Add to save list."
While I couldn't find the Save List in the Roku interface, I didn't need to. You can open Save List movies on your Roku when you're back at home, by opening the Remote app, and (if you're on the same Wi-Fi network as your Roku), you can start streaming movies on your Roku from the Save list in the Remote app.
The one thing I didn't like about Roku's search is its list-based search results, which I got when typing in "Vin Diesel." I prefer using Voice Search on the Roku remote gave me the visual results window, with thumbnails of the movies in question. Voice Search on the new Fire TV Stick 4K Max ($55) sometimes left a little to be desired, as it would skip the results and go directly to a (wrong) result when it thought it knew where I wanted to go.
One small way the Roku Streaming Stick 4K beats Amazon's Fire TV is in its understanding of language. In our Fire TV Stick 4K review, we noticed that Alexa hears "4K movies" as "four k movies," which leads to minimal related search results (and a bad time trying to make the most of the new streaming stick on your ultra high-def TV). Roku does better by hearing "4K movies" as "4k movies" and including a 4K Movies and TV Zone (with everything from Avengers: Endgame to Breaking Bad) as one of the search results.
Roku Streaming Stick 4K review: Remote
The included Roku remote is the standard Roku remote, which means it's pretty basic. It's got standard navigation buttons, both for moving around menus and scanning throughout a show. That means you get a directional-pad, Back, Home and Options buttons for moving throughout Roku OS, instant replay, play/pause, fast forward and rewind buttons for going to the right moment.
While I wish the Roku remote had the input-selection button that the Chromecast with Google TV remote has, none of the other remotes in question have that instant replay button — which I always wind up using when I miss some thing I don't think I heard or saw right.
The $69 Roku Streaming Stick 4K is $20 more, and gives upgrades that some may love. That includes a headphone jack for private listening over headphones (you can do this over the Roku app with your phone if that's nearby), programmable shortcut buttons and a USB-port for recharging (it does not use batteries).
Of course, you still get those annoying branded app buttons: putting Netflix, Disney Plus , Apple TV Plus and Hulu. I mostly ignore these buttons, but I notice when an app I value drops away. The Roku Ultra 2020's remote (which uses batteries and doesn't have always-on listening) had a Sling TV button, which I (as a Sling user) thought was neat.
That wouldn't be an issue if the Roku remote had the programmable buttons that the Roku Voice Remote Pro has.
Roku Streaming Stick 4K review: Content and apps
Roku is practically perfect when it comes to the apps you need. The one annoying exception is that the YouTube TV app is no longer in the Roku Channel Store, thanks to a spat between Google/YouTube and Roku. Now, you need to sign into YouTube TV inside of the YouTube app, which isn't awkward at all. While the functionality is still there, the situation does reflect poorly on both sides involved. Roku doesn't publish how many apps there are in its store, but the site 42matters claims there are more than 26,000 apps at this point. The Fire TV supposedly has 12,700 apps. But I can't figure out anything missing from other side.
Also, the Roku Streaming Stick 4K supports screen mirroring (which isn't as great as the Casting you can do with a Chromecast), while the Fire TV Stick 4K doesn't.
The Roku Streaming Stick 4K just can't do the other kinds of streaming. The Fire TV Stick 4K lets you check on live smart home camera feeds, while the Chromecast with Google TV can open up Nest cam feeds and game with Google Stadia.
The Roku Streaming Stick 4K's library includes all of the best streaming services and the best cable TV alternative apps are there, though as I noted earlier YouTube TV is nestled in the YouTube app. It's also got the likes of Spotify, Vimeo, Movies Anywhere, Criterion Channel, Plex and many more.
Roku Streaming Stick 4K review: Bottom line
Those looking for a great 4K streaming device have a relatively easy decision to make. No matter if you pick the Roku Streaming Stick 4K, or one of its competent competitors, you're going to get (mostly) speedy Ultra HD streaming, with great picture quality. But as this Roku Streaming Stick 4K review has shown, each has its own tradeoffs.
If you know you want the immersive sound of Dolby Atmos, you will want to go with the Chromecast with Google TV or Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K, though each of those feature an interface that kind of gets in the way of your apps, recommending content and serving ads, respectively. Also, Netflix and Sling can (sometimes) take forever to load on a Fire TV Stick 4K.
But we still love the Roku Streaming Stick 4K just a little bit more than those devices, primarily for its straightforward apps-first interface. Plus, it's great to see how the Roku mobile app is getting smarter and smarter. This all goes to show, though, that the fight to make the best $50 streaming device is closer than ever. Your slightest preferences could make the deciding factor.