Roku Express 4K UK Review: Ultra HD Streaming For Everyone?

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In some parts of the world, the Roku name is almost synonymous with streaming devices. But with so many streamers out there, and with Smart TVs getting better and better, Roku’s job – and its ability to innovate – is becoming harder.

The Roku Express 4K is the latest Roku streaming device: it’s a small box that connects to your TV via HDMI, and lets you install most of the leading UK streaming services (from BBC iPlayer to Netflix and Disney+), as well as thousands of other channels and media apps. The new Express 4K sits in the middle between Roku’s older Express (HD) and Streaming Stick+ devices – but how does it compare?

In this review, I’m going to look at the Roku Express 4K features, what it does well (and what it doesn’t), and who it’s aimed at, especially with such tough competition around.

Roku Express 4K device official

Quick Look – Roku 4K Express

What is it:  An excellent and affordable 4K / HDR streaming device with a big library of streaming services and apps – and a few shortcomings.

Features

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Interface / Usage

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Value for Money

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Overall

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Pros

  • Excellent 4K / HDR Picture quality
  • Easy to use Roku interface
  • Very fast and snappy
  • Almost all the major UK streaming services
  • Dual-band WiFi

Cons

  • IR Remote needs direct view
  • Simple remote with no voice search and TV controls
  • No VPN support

Features and Specs

  • Size: 0.8 (h) x 3.4 (w) x 1.5 (d) inches
  • Video Quality: 4K HDR10 / 10+ / HLG
  • Audio: Digital Stereo / DTS Digital Surround, Dolby Audio pass-through over HDMI
  • Processor: Quad-Core (Realtek 1315)
  • RAM: 1GB
  • Storage: None (only for system use)
  • Apps: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, NOW, Apple TV, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, Demand 5, YouTube and thousands more
  • Connections: HDMI (MiniUSB for Power and for Ethernet with optional adapter)
  • Extra Features: Smartphone app can be used to control the device, and for “Private Listening”, Can connect to Apple AirPlay 2 / Amazon Alexa / Google Assistant

Summary

A very affordable 4K streaming device with Roku’s simple and easy to use interface (though TOO simple for some), and support for most of the streaming services and apps in the UK. The outdated basic remote is a let-down with this model.

Who Is The Roku Express 4K For?

If you’re not familiar enough with the name Roku – take a look across the pond. In the US, Roku is often the most popular streaming device in terms of market share – ahead of Amazon, Apple and Samsung.

In the UK, Roku isn’t as popular – but their devices are certainly not to blame – and the new Roku Express 4K is a great example.

Up until recently, Roku was selling 4 devices in the UK:

So where does the Roku Express 4K fit in? Right in the middle, taking the place of the Roku Premiere, which will no longer be sold (at least officially) in the UK.

With a suggested retail price of £39.99, the Express 4K is meant to be a slightly more affordable version of the Streaming Stick+ – it supports 4K and HDR, it has a fast quad-core processor, and it has 1GB of RAM (as opposed to the regular Express’ 512MB) – so it’s really snappy when you use it.

The main difference between the Express 4K and the Streaming Stick+, other than its shape (this is a small box with an HDMI cable behind it, and the stick is, well, a USB stick), is the remote that comes with it.

Roku Express 4K remote VS streaming stick plus remote
Left: Streaming Stick+ Remote / Right: Express 4K Remote

The Express 4K uses Roku’s “simple” remote, which doesn’t have any voice capabilities (for searching or for basic commands), and doesn’t have TV control buttons – two things the Stick+ remote does have.

Is that a deal breaker? Not necessarily, but it’s a dissapointment. Everything else about the Express 4K, however, is quite good – with Roku’s usual pros and cons evident as always, as you’re about to see.

Setting Up The Roku Express 4K

The Express 4K is a small, light “box” that’s meant to sit in front of your TV – or glued alongside it. Unlike “stick” devices, this one doesn’t connect directly to your TV’s HDMI port, and instead needs a cable (which is supplied).

Roku Express 4K in the box

In the box, you will find the Roku device itself, the remote (with batteries), a 4K HDMI cable, and the power cable/adapters.

Since the remote is infra-red based, it needs a line of sight to the device – so Roku also added an adhesive patch that lets you stick the Roku to your TV or cabinet, and hold it in place.

Remember that since this is a 4K device, you need an HDMI port that supports 4K. On some TVs, only one or two of the available HDMI ports support 4K – so check your TV’s documentation.

Roku Express 4K back

The Roku Express 4K is powered via a mini-USB port on its back. If you have a newer TV, you can – in some cases – plug the device (with the supplied cable) into a free USB port on your TV – and it will get enough power from there.

Some TVs won’t be able to give the Express 4K enough power via their USB ports. In that case, you’ll need to connect it to a power socket – with the supplied adapter.

However, if you connect the Express 4K to your TV’s USB port, it will turn on and off along with your TV (as it loses power once the TV is turned off). This, in turn, means that every time you turn on the TV, you’ll need to wait a few seconds for the Roku to restart. If you prefer a more instant start, you’ll need to connect it to a power socket instead of the TV’s USB.

Signing Up And Installing Channels

Once everything’s connected and you turn the Roku on, you’ll be asked to sign in to your WiFi network. The Express 4K supports Dual-band WiFi, so connection and speed were quite good in my tests.

Next, you need to sign-in to your Roku account (which you’ll have to create on your desktop/smartphone if you don’t have one yet). 

Keep in mind, you can’t create a Roku account without a payment method (a credit/debit card number or PayPal). While this makes future content purchases easier, some people aren’t too keen on giving their payment details before they have had a chance to see what the device does – but that’s how most streaming devices operate these days.

Once you sign in, Roku will install some “default” channels (in Roku’s world, apps are called channels), and if you have another Roku device (or had one), the Express 4K will remember channels you chose in the past, and will install those as well.

Roku Express 4K homescreen

Once that’s done, you will finally go to the Roku “Homescreen” – which you can customise to your liking, by choosing different themes (there are plenty of choices, which is fun), and your very own screensaver.

Using The Roku Express 4K

One of the first things you’ll notice when you start using the Roku Express 4K, is how slick and instant everything feels. Every button press and every menu choice pop up very swiftly.

When compared to the regular (HD) Roku Express, the difference is quite noticeable – but it even feels faster than the old Roku Premiere which this one is replacing. While the more expensive Streaming Stick+ has a different CPU – I haven’t noticed any difference between the two in how fast they are to use.

The Roku interface is very clean – on the main Homescreen you get a tiled list of your installed channels, and that’s ALMOST it – except for an annoying banner that takes up half the screen and promotes other channels, movie rentals, etc.

You can control everything on that tiled list of channels. Unlike Amazon, which tends to push Amazon Prime on the Fire TV’s interface, Roku doesn’t play favourites, so you can move icons and channels around whichever way you want.

When you install a new “channel” (directly on the device or via the web/phone), it will show up at the bottom of the installed channels list – and you can then move it to your desired position.

Roku Express 4K channel store

Roku’s interface hasn’t changed too much since the company was born, which is a blessing or a curse – depending on who you ask. Personally I’m a fan, and I like how simple everything is – I know which streaming app I’m going to use, so I just want to get to it as fast as possible.

Other streaming devices (like the Fire TV or the new Chromecast with Google TV) take a more “proactive” approach and fill your screen with content ‘recommendations’ – which is not the case here.

Channels On The Roku Express 4K

The Roku Express 4K excels in having a very comprehensive list of UK streaming services – Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Disney+, NOW, and all the UK catch-up apps – BBC iPlayer, ITV HUB, etc. Sadly, it doesn’t have BritBox for the time being.

Most channels are for video streaming, but you will also find some simple games, fitness and meditation services, weather apps and more. Sadly, there are no internet browsers – Roku even bans developers who try to offer them.

There’s also no VPN support on the Roku Express 4K, which is a real shame. So if a VPN is important to you, for example, so you could watch American Netflix, or just for the extra privacy, that’s something to keep in mind (Though you could still use a hardware-based service like the StreamLocator).

The games selection is both free (ad-supported) and paid. Don’t expect any console-level gaming, and control has to be done via the remote – but you can find some OK casual games to pass the time.

Roku doodle jump
Doodle Jump on Roku

The wealth of apps is generally a good thing, but unlike Apple, for example, there’s very little curation on the Roku Store, which means you’ll see A LOT of VERY BAD or useless channels/apps – and it can be difficult to find your way around them (see our list of recommended Roku channels).

There’s also a market for “Uncertified Roku Channels” (previously known as “Private Channels”), for channels that are either small and peculiar or sometimes a bit dodgy (As in – copyright infringing, so be careful). You install these with a “code”, just remember that these apps are UNcertified.

The Roku Express 4K Remote

The remote is small and easy to hold. It’s Infra-Red based, which feels outdated at this point, but still – it works very well – I rarely had to point it directly at the Roku box, since the IR beams bounce off walls and other objects.

Roku Express 4K remote in hand

In the UK, the remote has four shortcut buttons for Netflix, Spotify, Apple TV+ and Rakuten TV – you can’t change these shortcuts (after all, Roku reportedly get paid for these buttons) – so they’re only helpful if these are services you actually use.

On top of the remote, you’ll find a “Home” button that always takes you to the main Homescreen, there’s a “Step Back” button, a multi-directional navigation pad, the standard control buttons (Play/Pause, Fast-Forward and Fast-Backward) and an “Instant Rewind” button, which instantly jumps back 20 seconds (and can even turn on the subtitles for those 20 seconds).

The Express 4K’s remote doesn’t have any voice search capabilities, and unlike some older models, it also doesn’t have a headphone jack. Instead, these two features rely on the Roku App on your smartphone.

You also won’t find TV control buttons (ON/OFF and volume control), which are present on the Streaming Stick+ remote.

Sadly, US buyers are getting a better deal here – for $39 (£27), they can get the Express 4K+, which DOES come with the voice remote, but doesn’t exist in the UK.

Global Search And The Personal Feed

Roku’s global search is accessed via the Homescreen. It lets you search for anything from actors to movie titles and TV show names.

The results are pulled from the major streaming channels that you have installed, and are sorted according to price. 

So if you search for Tom Holland, you’ll get a list of all the content with Tom that’s available to stream on your device.

Roku Express 4K name search tom holland

If there are movies you can watch for free (because you have a Disney+ subscription, for example – and the search should know that), these will be on top.

Then, you’ll see movies that you can rent/buy – with the cheaper options first, and it’ll also tell you whether the content is in 4K or just HD.

Roku Express 4K avengers title search

The global search is useful, but it only works with the big streaming services (so Netflix, Prime Video, Apple TV etc.) and sadly doesn’t work with the British broadcasters’ channels – such as BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, etc.

So for now, the global search can’t be used as an alternative to FreeviewPlay’s search functions if you’re looking to find local programmes.

On the Homescreen, you’ll also find “My Feed”, which is a place where you can get updates on new movies and TV shows – including ones that you mark to follow.

So, let’s say you want to get updates on The Walking Dead – you “follow” it, and will then get an update each time a new episode is available on one of your streaming services.

That’s only mildly useful, and depends on how each streaming service catalogs things – I’ve had instances where I was notified of a “new” episode of a series from 6 years ago, simply because something with that episode technically changed on a particular streaming service.

4K Picture Quality

With 4K being one of the main selling points of the Roku Express 4K (it’s in the name!), you expect it to work well – and it does.

Roku Express 4K HDMI autodetect

As always, picture quality depends first and foremost on your TV, and on your video source (Streaming services are notorious for compressing the hell out of 4K streams – some more than others). So you’re not going to get the same quality as on a 4K Blu-ray player.

The Express 4K also supports HDR, which stands for “High Dynamic Range”. It’s a technology that helps improve the contrast rates, making the picture more accurate, and it also provides a larger colour palette and more colour shades. 

To complicate things, however, there are several competing HDR formats, and the Roku Express 4K supports three of them – HDR10, HDR10+ and HLG (which is the format used by the BBC for their 4K / HDR content).

I’m happy to say it all looks great – picture quality is bright and crisp, and looks excellent even when you’re watching Full HD (1080) content, but certainly gets better with 4K.

Also, the WiFi connectivity manages to keep up, even when you’re streaming 4K (provided that your broadband connection is fast enough).

The Roku Smartphone App

Roku offers apps for both iOS and Android, and these complement the device nicely. Once you pair the app with the Roku Express 4K, it can be used as a virtual remote control, and for voice search.

Roku smartphone app

The app’s voice search lets you use the global search with your voice – So you say “Tom Holland”, and you get the search results of Tom Holland on your phone’s screen, ready to be cast to the TV.

You can also use some basic voice commands – say “Netflix” and the app runs instantly on the Roku Express 4K, or say “Replay” and it jumps back 7 seconds. But having to find your phone for those commands, is not as useful as having them on the remote.

Roku’s voice capabilities are nowhere near Amazon’s Alexa (which is built into the Fire TV) – it’s not a virtual assistant, and it only understands a basic set of commands – but it works, and it’s useful when you’re searching for a specific actor or movie.

The smartphone app also includes the “Private Listening” mode. You connect headphones to your phone, and use the Roku app to direct the sound from your TV to the headphones – so no more worrying about waking up your spouse with those late-night binge sessions. 

With wired headphones, this worked like a charm for me. With wireless (Bluetooth) headphones, however, it really depends on the model you’re using – I sometimes noticed a slight lag and lip-synching issues.

Finally, you can use the app as a keyboard for the Roku Express 4K, which is quite handy when you need to manually enter passwords, for example.

Unfortunately, the keyboard doesn’t always work well, and some channels refused to recognise my keystrokes (through the phone), and I had to go back to using the physical remote and the on-screen keyboard.

Roku Express 4K Alternatives

Other than Roku’s own Express and Streaming Stick+, there are two other main alternative streaming devices in the market: the Amazon Fire TV line and the Google Chromecast.

And, of course – Smart TVs.

Roku Express 4K VS Amazon Fire TV

In terms of pricing, at £39.99 the Express 4K is matched with the HD version of the Amazon Fire TV Stick (see our review). If you want 4K from the Fire TV, you’ll need to pay £49.99 for the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K.

New Amazon Fire TV 2020
Amazon Fire TV Stick 3rd Gen

So in terms of picture quality, the Express 4K has the upper hand at the same price range. However, the Fire TV Stick (HD) comes bundled with the Alexa Voice Remote, which offers voice control/search and some of Alexa’s voice assistant features. With Roku, you’ll need to jump up to the Streaming Stick+ for the voice remote.

The biggest difference, however, is in the interface. The Roku offers a very simple (some would say basic) interface that’s mainly there to stay out of your way and make it easy for you to find the streaming app you’re going to use.

The Amazon Fire TV’s interface, however (especially its newest version) makes a point of shoving everything and the kitchen sink in your face – content recommendations, streaming services, a history list, Amazon promotions, and the list goes on and on.

It feels like a confusing mess, sometimes – but some do prefer it, so you’ll need to make up your own mind – do you prefer simple and easy (Roku), or rich and confusing (Fire TV).

Roku Express 4K VS Google Chromecast

Google’s Chromecast streaming devices come in two flavours – the older one, which doesn’t have a remote or user interface and is only used to ‘cast’ content from your phone to your TV – and the new Chromecast with Google TV, which comes with a new operating system that’s based on Android TV.

If you want a remote and an easy to use user interface on your screen – and not have to use your phone for everything – then the Express 4K is certainly better than the older Chromecast.

New Chromecast with Google TV
Chromecast with Google TV

The newer Chromecast, however, poses a similar comparison to the one we did with the Fire TV – Google TV’s interface is all about recommendations and personalisation, trying to match things it thinks you’re going to want to watch and shove them in your face.

If you use a lot of different streaming services, and tend to forget what you watched there – Google TV offers an interesting (but far from perfect) solution. If, again, you just want the streaming OS to stay out of the way – then Roku is your friend.

Roku Express 4K VS Smart TVs

Finally, do you even need a standalone streaming device if you already have a Smart TV with streaming apps?

That really depends on how much you value ease of use, speed and the selection of streaming services and apps.

Some Smart TV operating systems are better than others, but there’s one common trait to most of them – they’re slow. Even with the newest TVs, the apps are usually a pain to load. So yes, they work fine – but they’re not exactly a joy to use.

Plus, Smart TV interfaces are often not very user-friendly. Each TV manufacturer has its own Smart TV interface, so they all try to re-invent the wheel, and some even change interfaces every couple of years as new TV models are released.

Roku, on the other hand, has been around since 2008, so they’ve had plenty of time to work on their interface and make it as user-friendly as possible – and it shows.

And with thousands of “channels”, a Smart TV will never compete with the vastness of the Roku ecosystem, which is also likely to support existing (and new) services for a longer period.

Roku Express 4K near box

Bottom Line: Is The Roku Express 4K Worth It?

With the Roku Express (HD) being an entry-level streaming device, and the Roku Stick+ being the premium, feature-filled offering, where does the Roku Express 4K land?

In a way, it’s an entry-Level 4K streaming device. It’s cheaper than the Stick+, but pretty close to it in features and performance, with the lack of a voice remote being the main difference. And during times of special sales and deals, the price becomes even more enticing.

The Express 4K is quite similar to the Roku Premiere that it’s replacing, but it does feel even faster than the Premiere, which lagged a bit here and there.

So, the Express 4K can work either as your main streaming device, or as an additional device for other rooms in your house (or even to carry with you when you’re travelling).

That being said, if you can spare the money, I would still go with the Roku Stick+, simply because the remote is more useful, and the price difference is minimal (and it’s disappointing to see the Americans got a better deal with the Express 4K+, which would have been the best of both worlds).

Still, if you’re looking to save, and the remote is not an issue – then you won’t be disappointed with the Roku Express 4K.

Note: The Roku Express 4K was supplied by the manufacturer for this review. As always, this did not influence my unbiased opinion of the product.

man watchin streaming tv on tablet

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