Roku Streambar Review: A Very Good Streamer Inside A Pretty Good Soundbar

The 2020 Roku Ultra is the first Roku device to support Dolby Vision and offers improved Wi-Fi support. It also has a private-listening mode on the remote, along with Ethernet, MicroSD, and USB connections to make it the most flexible Roku streamer available, but it’s overkill for most people. In addition, it supports AV1, an improved streaming codec that services will use in the future to offer improved image quality. The shortcut buttons allow the device to learn your voice commands, so “Open Amazon” or “Listen to Radiohead,” for example, causes the appropriate apps and radio stations to start, but that functionality seems useful for only one person. Since the shortcut buttons are labeled only 1 and 2 on the remote, most people won’t know what the buttons do until they try them; the shortcuts can’t do complex tasks, but they are easy to reprogram. Compared with the Streaming Stick+, apps do load noticeably quicker on the Ultra, but you’re still saving only a second or two in almost every case. Because the Ultra is almost twice the price, we think the smaller size and lower price of the Streaming Stick+ make that model a better option, but Dolby Vision users might want to opt for the Ultra.

The 2019 Roku Express is very compact, which makes it easy to mount behind a TV, but because the remote control uses only IR, you need line-of-sight to be able to control it. Compared with the Streaming Stick+, the Express is slower; in addition, it supports only 1080p, it has older, single-band 802.11n Wi-Fi instead of the MIMO 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and it lacks volume controls on the remote. To us, this model isn’t worth saving $20 on when the Streaming Stick+ is so much better.

Apple TV

The Apple TV 4K supports almost every service, can handle Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos content, and has a simple user interface. It can also support an external TV tuner for cord cutters and run more powerful games and apps than other streaming devices. But it costs far more than the competition, it’s not as successful as Google TV at integrating content across platforms, and the touchpad on the remote control is almost universally derided. Apple’s search capabilities are usually very good, and the player does a good job with recommendations, but both of those functions could use a refresh at this point.

Amazon Fire TV

Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K looks almost identical to the Roku Streaming Stick+, with a compact size that allows it to hide behind the TV and a remote that can control the TV volume and power, too. It supports 4K HDR video, including Dolby Vision and HDR10+. The Fire TV interface prioritizes Amazon content while relegating Netflix and others to also-ran status. The search results are less accurate than those on the other platforms and show fewer results. The Fire TV interface also has ads on every page. Integrated Alexa support is nice, but we’d rather pair an Echo or Dot speaker with one of our picks.

The updated Fire TV Cube combines a Fire TV Stick, an Echo Dot, and an IR emitter in a single box. It is almost identical in streaming performance to the Fire TV Stick 4K, though it can handle Netflix in Dolby Atmos. If you also want an Alexa speaker and the ability to control your cable box and Blu-ray player with your voice, this model might be worth looking at, but it typically costs far more than a normal media streamer. You can add an Echo Dot and the new Amazon Fire TV Blaster to get the same functionality from multiple other streaming boxes.

Amazon introduced the Fire TV Stick Lite in 2020, but since it’s capable of only 1080p, we recommend that people spend a little extra money to get the 4K model instead.

Gaming systems and built-in TV apps

The gaming console, Blu-ray player, or smart TV you already own probably streams Netflix and plays some local files, too. These devices are just as capable and typically offer a lot of the same content as most streaming devices do. However, most of them lack the extensive selection of content that dedicated streaming boxes provide and omit cross-app searching—they’re fine, but a streaming device offers more.

Android TV

The Nvidia Shield TV has always been our favorite Android TV device, thanks to powerful hardware that is way ahead of the competition. It supports Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos and has upscaling technology that makes non-4K content look much better on 4K TVs than the competition can muster. It has been a good choice for people who like to use the GeForce Now platform for gaming, or for people who want the Pro model to use with a Plex server or emulator. But right now it doesn’t have the updated Google TV interface, so it doesn’t integrate services like the Chromecast does, and the search feature isn’t as powerful. At some point the Shield TV should get upgraded to the newer platform, and then it might be a better choice since it’s more powerful, and equipped with more storage, than the Chromecast.

The TiVo Stream 4K is an Android TV–based HDMI dongle that incorporates software from TiVo, making it easier to find content from the services you subscribe to. But those services are currently limited to only the most popular ones such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hulu, while options like Apple TV+, PBS, and Showtime are missing. As a result, if you’re looking for content that TiVo’s app supports, you can stay inside its app, but you need to go back to the standard Android TV interface for other apps. There are also a few other flaws with the Stream 4K at this point. For one thing, if you want to watch content in HDR, even SDR video has to be converted to HDR all the time, and switching between HDR10 and Dolby Vision requires rebooting the entire device. Second, the search feature shows the different platforms that a title is available on, but it can’t show the prices, so you don’t know which option is best for you. Third, in my home the TiVo’s Wi-Fi would continually refuse to connect, or disconnect once it had connected, which no other device has done in the past. There’s no option to use Ethernet if you have Wi-Fi issues, either. Overall, the TiVo software for Android TV is interesting, but it’s still a work in progress, and the Wi-Fi and HDR issues are close to dealbreakers for now.

The Xiaomi Mi Box S is an Android TV box that offers Ultra HD support but isn’t as capable as the Shield TV. The Mi Box S isn’t as powerful for local content as the Shield TV is. The interface isn’t nearly as responsive as those of other devices, and in our tests, when we set it to select a TV mode automatically, it indicated that all of our 4K HDR TVs were capable of only 720p resolution. You can manually fix such an error, but it will leave people disappointed if they don’t realize it’s happening. On top of all that, the remote lacks the TV controls for power and volume that have become standard features over the past year.

Sling’s AirTV Mini is designed to integrate Sling TV with Android TV, as well as to integrate with a networked TV tuner so that you get Sling TV channels and your local over-the-air channels in a unified TV guide. For people who want this Sling TV integration, the AirTV might be a reasonable option, but for people looking for a general-purpose media streamer, there are cheaper, more full-featured options that don’t automatically boot into Sling TV every time you power them on.

Android (but not Android TV)

A number of companies are making boxes that run Android, not Android TV. The advantage to these boxes is that they can run a wider variety of apps, including Kodi (formerly XBMC). The downside is that traditional Android is designed around a touchscreen, so these boxes are difficult to use without one, or at least without a mouse and keyboard. A TV remote doesn’t cut it, and these boxes are harder to use from the couch, anyway. You’re also using apps designed for a different screen format than your TV’s. And because such a box costs more than a dedicated streamer, this category doesn’t make much sense for most people.

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