Roku Express 4K+ Review: Roku’s Pint-Sized 4K Streamer Packs a Punch

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One of the headlining members of Roku’s spring 2021 lineup, the Express 4K+ is the company’s latest attempt to squeeze 4K-capable hardware into a compact, budget-friendly form factor. It’s set to take the spot previously occupied by the outgoing Premiere, while also bringing improved specs to the party.

But how does the new Express 4K+ compare to its stablemates? And what about its capable competition, a lineup of devices all flirting with that $40-or-so price point? That’s what we’re here to find out.

Before we dive into things, however, we’d like to point out that Roku provided an Express 4K+ to Cord Cutters News for free. However, our opinions about the device remain 100 percent our own. So let’s take a closer look at the Roku Express 4K+ to see if this new entry can shake up the budget 4K streamer market.

(Editor’s Note: This review is based on our full video review, which you can check out at the embedded link below.)

What’s So Special About the Roku Express 4K+?

We’ve seen this particular form factor before in the earlier, budget-priced Roku Express line. Here, however, it’s packing some upgraded internals that add support for 4K resolution as well as high dynamic range video. It’s also offering WiFi connectivity along with support for an Ethernet connection via a third-party adapter that you can hook up to its microUSB port. So that could be a useful option it you’re aiming to use the Express 4K+ in a spot where your WiFi signal isn’t up to par.

Of course, one of the Express 4K+’s biggest selling points is its price tag. At $39.99, Roku’s placing its new streaming device in the spot previously occupied by the Roku Premiere. Meanwhile, there’s also a broadly similar variant coming exclusively to Walmart. That one is known as the Roku Express 4K (no plus sign) and it retails for $35. And as you’ll see farther down, it very closely matches the Express 4K+, but it packs in a less advanced remote control to help shave off $5 from the asking price.

Hardware and Features

Hardware highlights for the Roku Express 4K+ include a new Realtek 1315 CPU, 1GB of RAM and, naturally, 4K video support. On the high-dynamic range video side, we get HDR10 and HLG support, as well as the more advanced HDR10+ standard. If you want to take advantage of some of these capabilities, you’ll need to hook the Express 4K+ to a TV that supports these features, including 4K and the various HDR standards. As Roku pointed out to us, Samsung, Hisense and Vizio are among the TV makers currently offering TV sets that support the HDR10+ standard.

Here’s how the new hardware specs for the Express 4K+ stack up to other options in Roku’s lineup.

As for the included remote, Roku packed in its familiar Voice Remote with TV controls, which should hopefully cut down on the need to swap remotes for various functions, but of course your mileage may vary.

If you’re curious how the slightly cheaper Roku Express 4K stacks up, there are a whole lot of similarities between the two: same CPU, RAM, feature set, and more. In fact, the only tangible difference between the two is the remote itself and, naturally, the resulting price tag.

On the cheaper Express 4K, you get what Roku lists as the “Simple Remote,” which lacks the voice input and TV controls of its more advanced input devices. It’s also infrared-based, so you’ll have to point it at your Express 4K to use it, which means you’ll need to position your device so it can see the remote.

Beyond the included remote control, though, we’re essentially dealing with the same device here.

The included remote features voice command support, TV controls, and (in our review unit, at least) media hotkeys that include direct access to Apple’s TV+ streaming service.

Compared to the older, 1080p-only Express, the Express 4K+ boasts a new processor, twice as much RAM, upgraded WiFi and more. That all being said, the regular Express is cheaper and could still be a compelling option if you’re not at all concerned about 4K output.

As for the earlier Roku Premiere, well, it’s on its way out, and the Express 4K+ does indeed occupy a very similar space in Roku’s lineup as evidenced by the similar capabilities on offer. But the newer Express 4K+ does boast a different processor, more robust HDR support and improved connectivity.

Unsurprisingly, the $99.99 Ultra has the edge in several categories, including double the onboard RAM, Dolby Vision support and more robust network connectivity. Its included remote also features personal shortcut buttons and a headphone jack for private listening mode. So if you’re trying to decide between devices, it’ll be up to you to see if any of these features sway you in a particular direction.

Setup and Performance

In the box, you’ll find a plastic tray carrying the Voice Remote with TV controls, a pair of AAA batteries, a microUSB charger, and the Express 4K+ itself. There’s also an adhesive strip for mounting the device and some setup documentation.

You’ll see an insert that houses the included microUSB charging and HDMI display cables. And yes, Roku’s still leveraging the older microUSB interface instead of the newer USB Type-C connection.

And if you assumed the Express 4K+ was just using the same external enclosure as the earlier Express, you might be surprised to learn it’s actually larger than its predecessor.

The Express 4K+ (top) is a fair bit wider than the standard Express.

Overall, it’s a very similar design, of course, but we’re definitely dealing with a larger device here. That size increase could be due to the change in components or perhaps more demanding heat management requirements to accommodate 4K support — or maybe some combination of the two. In any case, the Express 4K+, and the Express 4K for that matter, are both similar to the earlier Express, but a bit larger overall.

As far as setup goes, it’s a straightforward affair. Plug in the device and power it on, and the Express 4K+ will walk you through the process. You’ll be asked to enter an email address — though the company reminds you it’s free to register.

Once you’re signed in, which you can do on your smartphone, the setup process will also pitch a number of services from various Roku partners. And yes, you can accept or decline as many as you’d like.

During our setup, the Express 4K+ immediately detected new software to update. After a brief restart, it powered up and started automatically downloading the apps that had already been associated with our Roku account. That can come in handy for existing users as it means you won’t have to start from scratch on a new Roku device.

And once it’s ready for use, the Express 4K+ will automatically play a welcome video that walks you through the interface and how to use various features, including voice commands and enabling captions. If you’re already familiar with all of Roku’s bells and whistles, you can skip the video and head straight to streaming.

We tested the new Express 4K+ on 1080p and 4K HDR displays and it handled all the content we could throw at it without breaking a sweat. Apps loaded smoothly and consistently and 4K HDR content like Moana on Disney+ played without issue.

The Express 4K+ has a sticker on the front that mentions pointing your remote toward the device, but that’s more for the standard 4K’s IR-based remote. The Voice remote included in the 4K+ can be used without actually pointing it toward the device. However, if you’re using that remote for TV controls, you might still need point it toward the TV for it to work — just a heads-up there.

Speaking of voice, Roku’s voice commands may not be as robust or as comprehensive as, say, Google’s or Amazon’s systems, but it’s capable of some useful tricks. We held down the remote’s mic button to ask for the current time, to swap between apps, and to search for content using our voice.

Also, while initially logging into your Roku, you can hold the mic button to spell out your email address instead of typing it in letter-by-letter with the directional buttons. We ended up saving some time going that route, and the Express understood each of our letters and intelligently added the “@” and “.com” to our email address when we spoke them.

We were also able to turn captions on and off via voice, although that experience varied depending on the app we were using. In the YouTube and Disney+ apps, for example, asking the Express 4K+ to “turn on captions” or “turn on subtitles” worked just fine. But trying the same command in Netflix resulted in a momentary “Thinking…” prompt, but no actual response to our request. In other words, voice app support can vary depending on the app and the commands being issued.

On the performance side, we fired up our usual Roku testing gauntlet, which includes a series of streaming apps loaded up in sequence. We timed how long it took to load each one and compared that cumulative result to other Roku devices to see how this new Express 4K+ stacked up. For reference, our app suite includes Netflix, YouTube, Prime Video, Disney+, Hulu, ESPN, Pluto TV, The Roku Channel, The Roku Tips and Tricks Channel, and then Netflix once more to see if the app loads any faster the second time. We run each device through the suite three times and then average the results.

In this test, the Express 4K+ pulled in an average total time of 70.86 seconds to get through our test. And yes, the Walmart-exclusive Express 4K should be capable of similar times. We also ran the standard Roku Express through the same test, and while the older Express didn’t have the latest OS 10 update installed, we felt the performance numbers were worth exploring.

And with a total score of 103.69, the Express clearly lags behind the Express 4K+, so there’s a definitely performance advantage to go along with the upgraded feature support.

As for the top-of-the line Roku Ultra, it came out on top with a score of 65.83. That’s, honestly, not all that surprising given the Ultra’s status at the top of Roku’s lineup, but the $39.99 Express 4K+ pulled off an impressive showing considering the difference in price and hardware.

But what about similarly priced 4K streamers from Roku’s competitors? We fired up another app suite to compare the Chromcast with Google TV, the TiVo Stream 4K, and the Fire TV Stick 4K to see how the Express 4K+ measured up. For this test, we changed up the apps a bit to include options available on all the competitors. As for the results, well, see for yourself.

The $40 Express 4K+ more than holds its own against competitors in its price range, besting the Chromecast with Google TV in overall time. It’s clear, though, the different devices have their own strengths and weaknesses in various apps. The Fire TV Stick 4K, for example, loaded up Amazon’s own Prime Video in an impressively quick time span. But it’s safe to say the Roku Express 4K+, and by extension the Express 4K, can easily compete in this price bracket.

Wrapping It All Up

After all our tests and comparisons, it’s clear the Roku Express 4K+ is yet another capable, dependable option in Roku’s lineup. You get a lot for your $40 here, including robust HDR support, 4K output, and even Ethernet support if you want to attach an adapter. Yes, Dolby Vision would’ve been nice, but overall, it feels like the Express 4K+ offers a lot for the price tag, especially when you factor in performance.

It puts up a very good fight against similarly priced devices from Google, Amazon, and others. Of course, Amazon hasn’t updated its 4K Fire TV Stick in a while, so we’ll be on the lookout for that.

Regardless, the Express 4K+ impresses. If you’ve got a 4K TV and maybe you’re looking to upgrade beyond its onboard streaming platform, the Roku Express 4K+ is a solid deal at $39.99. And if you’re fine using a less capable remote, the Walmart-only Express 4K is even cheaper at $35. Both offer strong performance in a compact, easy-to-use package. If you’re looking for Roku Ultra-like performance in a cheaper, sleeker package, the Express 4K+ delivers.

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