Every now and then I venture into writing an article about consumer technology. One of my favorite areas of consumer tech is low-cost media center type devices… e.g. Roku, Amazon Fire TV, nVidia Shield TV, and a host of off-brand media players and sticks you can pick-up on Amazon.

I consider myself a bit of a geek and I like to tinker, however when it comes to my TV, I have come to the point where I like solutions that just “work” out of the box for watching content. Our family cut the cord around 7 or so years ago starting with a “Western Digital TV Media Player” and moving on from there…

The wonder of having media streaming, local content playback, etc. in a tiny box beneath my TV has somewhat worn off as the devices have proliferated and ironically as the market is flooded with options my focus has narrowed. Ultimately I don’t care about gaming so much… streaming content from the rest of my house is not a big deal (albeit we still do a bit of that with Plex), and accessing my TV box remotely (i.e. from outside of my house) isn’t even a blip on the radar of concerns. What I care about is a device that will stream major service providers (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Youtube) and do it really well.

With all of that in mind, our family has consistently stuck with the Roku series of media players. Starting with a second-hand 1st generation Roku, then upgrading to a Roku 2 XS, and most recently replacing that a few days ago with a brand new Roku Premiere Plus. We skipped the third generation and have avoided all “stick” variations. (Sticks are avoided for a few reasons… plugging them into the back of my TV is a pain and I speculate performance is going to suffer, both CPU and WiFi, due to the size and location of the device).

Before the most recent purchase I flirted with the idea of trying a different brand streamer. The nVidia Shield TV was the most interesting option but fell down hard on three counts… First, in my head I want to play video games, in reality I have three kids and a more than full-time job so I don’t have much “free” time and gaming was the most appealing aspect of the device. Second, it was expensive… roughly twice as much (or more once you add in a “regular” remote) as the most I wanted to pay for this living room upgrade. Third, and this was the nail in the coffin, no “native” support for Amazon Prime video… I used to not mind a bit of hacking and toying to get what I wanted but going back to item one… I don’t have time for it and I want something that just works, all the time, without headache.

I briefly considered the Amazon Fire TV but I don’t care about voice search (nifty though it might be) and we use a wide range of services whereas the Fire TV is very Amazon-Centric…

So we stuck with the Roku…

Next, and this is where anyone that currently has a Roku might care to start reading, I deliberated on upgrading our Roku 2 XS at all. I mean, at the least we are talking an $80 upgrade (stick devices are cheaper… but we don’t go there)… and for what? My Roku 2 XS has access to all of the services I care about already and has an HDMI connection to my TV (our TV is NOT HDR capable, let alone 4K).

That said, we had some pain points on the Roku 2 XS… YouTube (which, granted, we don’t use all that often) is darn near unusable on the 2 XS, despite very fast internet access in our home, shows would often take a while to buffer and or would stop midway through, and the interface was a bit choppy. Show buffering was the biggest complaint. I have a conspiratorial theory this is all part of designed obsolescence but honestly I just don’t care (I work long hours and have three kids remember…) and will participate as a sheep in the system if that is the case… Sheep are often quite happy creatures I think…

So, I finally made the plunge and got a Roku Premiere… and then after looking at the box marched from my car back into the store and got a Premiere Plus for $20 more. Why…? Two word – Bluetooth remote, that’s why. I was shocked upon closer inspection to learn that Roku did a silly thing and went back to an Infrared remote control on the standard Premiere and my devices are not in easy line of site, so all I wanted out of the “Plus” edition was the bluetooth controller… So little side note, if you are looking at the Roku Premiere line, I would personally recommend the Plus if only for the Bluetooth remote control.

I took my new purchase home with low expectations. As stated, I already had my Roku 2 XS, it already satisfied what our family wanted, if with a few hiccups. I had strong feelings of having just blown $100 (well… return policies not withstanding) as I didn’t figure this would be all that much of a change. I yanked the old Roku out, put the new Roku in and booted up. Here is where I started to smile a bit…

Compared to my Roku 2 XS, the Premiere Plus booted very very quickly. I then grinned when I got to the WiFi setup page. We have a Wireless-N 5 Ghz network in our house but on the Roku 2 XS the signal always showed as “weak” vs the 2.4 Ghz network. For those of you who are not aware, 5 Ghz Wireless-N tends to provide much faster real-world data speeds. The Roku Premiere Plus should full signal strength for my 5 Ghz network.

So far so great. I then did the rest of the setup… After asking the wife and all three kids if anyone could remember our Roku account password (which in retrospect really didn’t make a lot of sense as I setup the account and only one of the three kids can actually talk in understandable English at this point…) I went through the password reset and finally got in. Only for it to proceed with downloading and installing all of the Roku Channels, which much to my surprised pleasure went very quickly.

I then found myself smiling some more…

Our TV is 1080p and has some age on it, and the Roku 2XS did 1080p, however I swear the Premiere Plus provides a sharper image and better color reproduction (even without an HDR TV, it still looks better IMHO than the older model… I am not sure why? Maybe just my imagination).

Then finally came the time for yelling WOOT… I got into Netflix and started a show… instantly. I would say less than one second of load time and it jumped straight to full quality, (no graininess). I hopped between shows with no lag and almost no buffer/load time…

I even gave Youtube a shot… it works excellently now with minimal interface lag (whereas it was nearly unusable before).

For those that care, I think the improvement in performance stems from a combination of vastly more compute power (much better processor) and some kind of magic WiFi enhancing fairy dust sprinkled liberally on the device during assembly.

I have found that I am actually using more features on the device as a result of the improved interface and speed. Youtube being one example, the Roku news streaming app is another. Buffering 15 – 30 seconds for a 2 minute video clip just made it pointless before, now News clips load in 5 seconds or less which means sitting down to watch 10 minutes worth of news stories is a painless affair.

So, if you have an older model (2nd Gen Roku) is it worth upgrading? I would say “yes”. In addition to all of the above, major apps/channels like Netflix and Amazon also have drastically improved interfaces on newer model devices. Cleaner and easier to use and much more visually appealing. I would liken the move from when you go from an old PC using a spinning disk to a system using an SSD. What you can do doesn’t really change all that much, but the fact that things are fast means what you WILL do does change. In the end, what is wonderful about the whole thing is that the tech works well enough that it just “fades away into the background” – which is what I want in my living room. I don’t want to think about what I am using, I just want it to work and I think that is where many people live. We want to sit down and watch our show quickly and easily and forget about the technology that is doing it for us.

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One comment on: Should You Upgrade to a Roku Premiere Plus?

  1. Pete
    Reply

    Thanks for your comparison that addressed a question in our household.

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