Roku's 4K Streamers

Say goodbye to cable

By Harold Glicken

 

Every time I sit down to pay my cable bill – and I have to sit down when I open the bill – I wonder why I’m shelling out so much for channels I almost never watch. There are only a half-dozen shows that I watch on my 225-channel cable plan, including HBO, Showtime and Cinemax, yet I’m paying dearly for all of them.

What I do watch are streaming programs from Amazon Prime and Netflix. If I want to watch a current movie, I certainly wouldn’t go to a premium channel such as HBO to check out their selection of old content and one-star reruns. I’d buy it on Amazon.

Streaming decent-quality video requires a high-speed wireless connection from your Internet service provider. In my tests, anything lower than 50 bits per second (bps) can cause jerkiness, buffering and pixelation. You don’t want that.

I recently upgraded my wireless connection to super-fast 300 bps, and I bought a 4K TV set, which is the new standard, for this week anyway. But my Roku Streaming Stick ($49), a device that’s capable of streaming in high definition, but not 4K, is so last week. 4K has several times the resolution of most high-definition programming.  Since my cable company doesn’t broadcast anything in 4K, I was curious about how Roku’s high-end device, the Ultra, would perform on streaming services that do have 4K programming.

Beautifully. I chose a program that Amazon is streaming in 4K (“The Patriot”), and pretty much I was blown away. Roku has access to 3,500 free and paid channels. But maybe I should back up and explain some things.

The Roku – there are many models of them, with different quality playback – is   a small device that acts as a sort of gateway to thousands of TV channels. Acorn, one of the best, can be accessed through the Roku device and costs $5 a month. The Roku is controlled by a separate remote. (It also can be controlled by a universal remote.) You can choose the channel you want by browsing the Roku home screen. Netflix and Amazon are two of the most popular channels because they offer movies, TV shows and original content. Netflix costs between $8 and $12 a month  -- a bargain considering how much content is offered. For example, “House of Cards” and “The Crown” are Netflix originals that are included in Netflix’s monthly charge.  Amazon Prime Video is included in the same account that gives consumers free shipping. It’s an incredible bargain if you do a lot of watching or buying. In addition to older movies and TV shows, which are free, fairly recent-release movies cost about $6 extra on Amazon. If you have a  large, flat-screen TV, $6 is a bargain – no parking costs, astronomical ticket prices and expensive popcorn. When you’re in your private screening room, just toss a popcorn bag into the microwave.

I’ve been using Roku players since they first came out. I’ve had Rokus 1- 4, the streaming stick, and I just finished testing the $129 Ultra model. Two cheaper, models, the Premiere ($80) and the $100 Premiere+, also stream 4K content. For most people, the Premiere is more than adequate.

For the extra $50 between the Premiere and the Ultra you get an Ethernet port, which is handy if your wireless signal is weak; a micro SD slot to play back content directly through the device – handy if you’re streaming home movies or photos; a remote that features voice search (“Go to Netflix.”); a point-anywhere remote and a remote finder; ear buds; and gaming buttons on the remote. Both have fast processors and dual-band wireless capability. The Premiere+, which is the next step up, has a micro SD slot and a point-anywhere remote. If you can live without those, you’ll still be getting a top-notch 4K player with the Premiere. I bought the Premiere+ for its micro SD slot.

But wait, there’s this nerdy caveat:

Some low-end 4K TV sets don’t have an HDCP 2.2 HDMI port. It’s not important what that means, but sadly, if that port is missing -- it should be marked on the back of the TV set -- you can’t get 4K quality. If your TV doesn’t have that kind of port, you’d be wasting your money on a Premiere, Premiere+ or Ultra Roku. Your best bet then would be a Roku Streaming Stick ($50), which does a fine job of playing high-definition content.  I used the Streaming Stick on another high-definition TV, and the picture quality was very sharp. The Streaming Stick plugs directly into an HDMI port – no cable is needed.

Speaking of cables, if you buy the Premiere, Premiere+ or Ultra Roku, you’ll need a second-generation HDMI cable to connect the Roku to the TV set. Amazon sells them for under $10.

HDMI, HDCP 2.2, 4K, micro SD, 1080p or 1080i – watching TV has become complicated. Just ignore the literal meanings of the alphabet soup, and sit back and enjoy your TV set and streaming player. If you’re looking for a great 4K streaming device, any of the three 4K versions Roku offers will give you a TV picture that’s amazingly sharp. Just be sure you pay attention to the alphabet soup. If you don’t have the latest model TV set, a 4K streaming player like the Roku would be a waste of money.

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