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The sweet spot for streaming in 4K and HDR


Gadgets always precede stuff you can use them with. Today, there are plenty of TVs with 4K resolution and high dynamic range (HDR), but TV shows and movies you can actually watch in 4K and/or HDR are rare. That’s one reason why you shouldn’t feel any rush to buy a device like the Roku Premiere+. There just isn’t enough 4K stuff to watch, HDR or otherwise, to make it a must-have — yet.

For the proud owner of a new 4K HDR TV who wants to surround it with the best compatible gadgets today, however, the Premiere+ makes the most sense out of all the choices. The Google Chromecast Ultra beats it with HDR support, boasting both HDR10 and Dolby Vision formats, but it lacks a remote and Amazon Video’s substantial library of 4K and HDR content. Android TV devices like Nvidia Shield and Xiaomi Mi Box also miss out on Amazon, while the actual Amazon Fire TV handles 4K but not HDR. And among Roku’s own 2016 4K boxes, the Premiere+ provides the best balance of features for the price.

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You may already own other 4K streaming options, such as a 4K game console, 4K Blu-ray player or the smart TV system built into your TV. If you’re fine using those for now, feel free to skip the Premiere+. On the other hand, no other single device can match Roku’s selection of 4K and HDR apps and services, and no smart TV system is as simple to use or updated as regularly.

If you have a 4K HDR TV and want a single device to handle all of your streaming needs, Roku Premiere+ is my go-to recommendation for 2016. Here’s why.

Your premiere Premiere+ questions, answered

So what’s 4K HDR streaming anyway? New here, eh? No problem. Many Internet video services, including Netflix, Amazon Video, Vudu and YouTube, stream some of their TV shows and movies in 4K resolution, which promises higher video quality than their other streams. A few of those services offer an even smaller amount of content in high dynamic range (HDR), promising even better quality — better contrast, with more nuanced shading and brighter whites. We say “promise” for a reason: often the differences are tough to discern, even for trained eyes like ours.

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Amazon and Netflix stream in HDR on select shows and movies, often original series like “Goliath.”

Sarah Tew/CNET

Should I get it if I don’t have a 4K HDR TV? No. Unless you anticipate buying a new 4K HDR TV very soon, my advice is to get the Roku Streaming Stick or another non-4K device and save the money. If your TV has 4K but not HDR, the Roku Premiere (without the “+”) might be worth getting instead.

Why shouldn’t I just stick with my smart TV system? You can, but it might be annoying. Every 4K HDR TV we’ve seen has apps that support 4K and/or HDR. Depending on the TV you have, and what services you enjoy, you might be perfectly fine streaming without an external box. On the other hand, Roku in particular has more streaming apps that offer 4K, HDR and standard video streams, and makes those apps and streams easier to find and use. It’s also updated more often than most smart TVs, and provides a single, convenient source for all your internet video.

Why do you like Premiere+ better than the competition? The main reason is the selection of 4K HDR apps. Roku devices like the Premiere+ offer 4K from 15 apps: Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, Plex, Roku Media Player, Fandango Now, UltraFlix4K, 4K Universe, Curiosity Stream, Toon Goggles, Tastemade, Smithsonian Earth, Picasa, Flickr and 500px. That’s more than any other streaming device. Roku also streams HDR from Netflix and Amazon, two of the three biggest services that offer it today. (The third, Vudu, doesn’t yet deliver HDR streams to Roku, only to smart TV systems with Dolby Vision.)

Why is it better than the Roku Premiere or Roku Ultra? Unlike the $80 Premiere, which is 4K-only, the $100 Premiere+ streams in HDR too. It also includes a better remote: you can point anywhere instead of having to aim (allowing you to stash the box out of sight), and connect headphones for private listening. Finally it adds an Ethernet port for wired connections, which can be more stable than Wi-Fi in some situations. Those extras are easily worth another $20 for most buyers.

The $130 Ultra is even better equipped than the Premiere+, adding a remote finder function, a USB port for playback of video files from connected drives and an optical digital audio output. It also has a remote you can use to search via voice (with other Rokus you have to use the phone app for that). Otherwise the two have the same features and processor, however, so we don’t think it’s worth spending another $30 for most people.

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Will it work with my AV receiver? Maybe. We tested it with a couple of late-model receivers, the Marantz NR1607 and the Yamaha RX-V681. It worked fine with the Marantz, passing full 4K HDR video as well as audio up to Dolby Atmos (available on Vudu). The Yamaha, however, wouldn’t consistently pass 4K HDR video fro Amazon, and caused the Netflix app to not serve 4K, period. I’m not sure whether to blame the receiver or Roku.

The big picture is that long as your receiver supports 4K and HDR pass-through (look for “HDCP 2.2” and/or “HDMI 2.0a” support), it should work. If it doesn’t, you’ll either need to buy a new receiver that does, or bypass your current receiver and connect your Roku box directly to the TV. If that’s the case, then the optical digital output of the Roku Ultra could be a lifesaver.

Does it support both HDR10 and Dolby Vision formats? No, it only supports HDR10. Of course many TVs today, namely those from Samsung and Sony, don’t support Dolby Vision either, so if you own one of those, you’re not missing anything with the Premiere+ or other HDR10-only devices.

But my TV has Dolby Vision. Should I get still it? If you have an LG TV with Dolby Vision HDR and want the best image quality, I recommend using the built-in Netflix, Amazon and Vudu apps instead of the Premiere+, because Dolby Vision on those TVs provides somewhat better image quality. The same goes for Vizio TVs with Netflix and Vudu, but since Vizio TVs lack an Amazon app altogether, getting a Premiere+ makes more sense. It’s my go-to recommendation for owners of Vizio 4K HDR TVs who want to add Amazon capability.

What else should I know?

To go with its superior app support Roku’s interface is the best on the market, providing a simple list of apps you can add to, delete and arrange anywhere you want (just like your phone, but without folders). Competitors, namely Amazon Fire TV with its new update and Apple TV with its new TV app, could challenge Roku’s interface superiority, but until I test them I can’t say for sure. No matter what, Roku still offers more TV-centric apps than either one, and unless you’re a chronic Amazon or Apple buyer, it makes the best all-around choice. (But note that Apple TV’s current hardware doesn’t support 4K resolution or HDR.)

Roku uses the newest Netflix interface, complete with family profiles and moving video backgrounds. It also has a much nicer-looking Amazon interface than other Rokus like the Streaming Stick. On the other hand many other Roku apps, such as PlayStation Vue and HBO Now, have worse interfaces than on other devices, as they just use Roku’s generic blocky template.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

One big difference between Roku’s 4K boxes and competitors is the emphasis on making 4K easier to find. There’s a separate “4K spotlight” app that surfaces individual 4K TV shows and movies across a few providers, although unfortunately Netflix isn’t one of them. There’s also a row in that app that highlights HDR-capable apps, which as of this writing included Netflix, Amazon and Fandango Now. I also like the “4K content available” list on Roku’s app store, which shows all 15 of the 4K apps I mentioned above.

If you want voice control and search, you should choose another device. Apple TV with Siri and Amazon Fire TV with Alexa, and even Android TV from Google, all provide more voice options than Roku’s simple voice search capability. And if you’re into voice search, consider the Ultra due to the fact that you can actually talk into the remote to use it. All other 2016 Roku devices, including Premiere+, require you to use the Roku phone app for voice search.

Like most modern streaming devices, responses on all of Roku’s new boxes were about the same in my testing: lightning-quick across every app I tried, and stable without major usability issues. Netflix did crash twice during testing on the Premiere+, which is unusual for Roku, but I don’t consider that a major knock.

HDR and 4K video on all of the apps I tried on multiple TVs looked as good as expected. Watching HDR from Netflix (“Marco Polo: One Hundred Eyes”) and Amazon (“Goliath”), I compared the Premiere+ to the built-in apps of the Sony XBR-65X850D and the Samsung UN65KS8000, and there was no discernable difference between the two sources.

The difference between 4K HDR and high-def ranged from non-existent to a good deal better, depending on the app, the TV and the content in question, but the main thing to know is that once you’re actually streaming 4K and/or HDR, you’re watching the highest-quality video a particular provider can dish out. Don’t expect to be blown away by the difference, however, especially between 1080p and 4K. HDR provides a more noticeable improvement, but in many cases (such as “Marco Polo”) it can also be subtle.

I did run into an issue with HDR Netflix, where if the box went to sleep, it would reawaken to improperly output 1080p HDR video, not 4K HDR. The result was poor image quality plagued by banding and other obvious issues, likely a result of the Roku sending the wrong color information. Toggling the display resolution to remove then reinstate HDR fixed the issue, until it went to sleep again. Roku says it’s working on a fix.

If you want a 4K streamer today, this is the one

The best thing about Premiere+ is that it’s a Roku. It takes everything good about that platform — the industry’s best app selection, a dead simple interface, universal search across more than 100 apps that doesn’t prioritize any one content source or store (even presenting results by price), a sweet headphone-jack remote — and adds 4K and HDR. For 4K HDR TV owners sick of using built-in smart TV apps to ensure the best possible video quality, the Premiere+ is my top pick.

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