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CNN  — 

Roku has already proven it knows what it’s doing with its high-end Ultra streaming box, which is our best overall pick for a streaming device in 2021. But what about budget streaming devices?

The $39.99 Roku Express 4K+ is the company’s latest gadget that promises improved performance and picture quality, all without putting a hurt on your wallet. It’s available to preorder right now from Amazon.com and Roku directly, with shipments beginning on May 16. Walmart will also have its own version of the Express 4K (notice the lack of the plus sign) for $35 that comes with a standard remote that uses infrared for communication.

We’ve been testing the Express 4K+ for nearly a week and have to say that good things really do come in small packages. But before you add one to your cart, let’s take a closer look.

The who, what and how

Who it’s for: The Roku Express 4K+ is a fantastic streaming device for someone who doesn’t want to spend a lot but doesn’t want to give up a reliable streaming experience.

What you need to know: The Roku Express 4K+ lacks more advanced features like Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos for a better picture and audio experience, but it’s still capable of putting out high-quality 4K streaming.

How it compares: The closest competitors the Roku Express 4K+ has are the $49.99 Chromecast with Google TV and the $49.99 Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K. However, the latter hasn’t been updated by Amazon since 2018, and the Express 4K+ offers a better overall experience. Furthermore, it beats out the Chromecast when it comes to price. If you don’t want to be beholden to Google or Amazon’s ecosystem, any Roku product plays nicely with almost every major tech platform, and you won’t find many missing streaming services.

Just what does $40 get you?

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When Roku announced the Express 4K+ at $40, we immediately thought, “What corners were cut to get to that price?” It turns out, not very many. The Express 4K+ is a small, somewhat oddly shaped device. It doesn’t take on the same square-box approach that most streaming boxes have. Instead, it’s a rectangular device that arches from one side to the other. The black plastic housing has three holes: an HDMI port, a Micro USB power port and a reset button on the back. On the front is a plastic cover that hides the infrared receiver for the standard remote.

Roku also includes a Micro USB cable, a power adapter, a Roku Voice remote, two AAA batteries for said remote and an HDMI cable. Oh, and there’s even an adhesive strip in case you want to more permanently attach the Express 4K+ to your TV stand or even behind your TV. Everything you could possibly need to use the Express 4K+ is included. And the Roku Voice Remote connects to the Express 4K+ wirelessly, so you don’t have to worry about whether or not the remote and the streaming box can see each other.

From unboxing to streaming a “Stranger Things” episode on Netflix on the Express 4K+ took us maybe 10 minutes total. Setup is as simple as plugging everything in, turning on your TV and following a few prompts on the screen. You’ll need a Roku account if this is your first Roku device, and it helps to download the Roku mobile app and connect it to the Express 4K+ so you can use it to type in (hopefully) complicated passwords.

A robust experience at an affordable price

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Even though high-end streaming boxes like the new Apple TV 4K or the Roku Ultra get the majority of attention, we’re starting to see more affordable streaming devices get some high-end features. For example, last year’s Google Chromecast with Google TV is $49.99 and includes 4K streaming with Dolby Vision support from countless streaming services.

With the Express 4K+, Roku is putting some heat on Google’s latest streaming device at a more affordable price. Just look at this list of supported video formats the Express 4K+ includes: HD, 4K, HDR, HDR10 and HDR10+, all of which are at 60 frames per second. Notably missing from the list is support for Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, features you’ll find in Roku’s Ultra streaming box.

All of these letters, initialisms and Dolby names are more than just jargon. For instance, when the Roku OS detects it’s streaming a show that’s available in HDR, you’ll see an HDR bubble show up in the top right corner. Not only is it a helpful reminder of the quality of the show you’re watching, but you know that the images on your screen should have more realistic and true-to-life coloring.

HDR10 is the next step in providing even better colors and contrast, while HDR10+ videos include information (metadata) to help the TV tune itself to the scene on a frame-by-frame basis.

Dolby Vision is similar to HDR10 in that it adjusts the picture based on what’s on your screen. Dolby Atmos relates to an improved audio experience.

All of which, of course, requires not only a compatible streaming box but also a television that supports all of the above standards. Or, in the case of Atmos, a soundbar or system with support.

We reviewed the Roku Express in late 2019 and found it to be a capable device that got the job done, even if there were areas where slow performance was noticeable, like waiting for channels to load. And the remote lacked TV controls.

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We fully expected to have to patiently wait for the Express 4K+ to load channels, or for there to be issues with using remote listening through our smartphone. We were wrong. With the Express 4K+, Roku fixed all of those issues while at the same time adding 4K streaming. It’s truly impressive.

Switching between streaming services and navigating the various interfaces of Netflix, HBO Max or Amazon Prime Video felt snappy. On occasion, going back to the home view would take an extra second or two, but that’s something we can live with.

As for picture quality — it’s great. We tested with the Express 4K+ connected to a 27-inch 4K LG UltraGear monitor and a TCL 6-Series with Roku TV. Whether we were once again bingeing “Stranger Things” or just getting into the series “Last Chance U,” both of which are available in 4K HDR, we had zero complaints about the color saturation or picture quality, even in action-packed scenes.

Voice controls via the remote are quick and responsive. We even used the remote to spell out our Roku account’s email address during initial setup. We went through it a few times, testing how fast or slow we had to talk in order for the Express 4K+ to get it right, and it never skipped a letter. Roku doesn’t publish specifics about the components inside its streaming devices, but the company has said the Express 4K+ uses a new processor with more storage, the combination of which leads to a pleasant experience.

In addition to faster performance, Roku also added dual-band Wi-Fi to improve overall connectivity. If you’d rather use a wired connection, you can use a third-party Micro USB to Ethernet adapter for an even more reliable connection.

For those who like to connect all of their devices to a service like Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa platform or even Apple’s AirPlay 2 and HomeKit service, the Express 4K+ can be used with all three, meaning you can give voice controls to a nearby Echo or Nest Home speaker, or use Siri on one of your Apple devices to control your TV.

Bottom line

Admittedly, we struggled to find anything negative to say about the Express 4K+. At $40, it’s definitely punching above its weight. The only faults we can find with the little streaming device are a lack of Dolby features, and the fact that it doesn’t come with Roku’s Voice Remote Pro — a new remote that features a rechargeable battery and a feature to help you find a lost remote. Yes, we’re nitpicking, but that’s what happens when a company develops a product like the Express 4K+.

It’s hard not to recommend the Roku Express 4K+ to anyone looking for a streaming device that will pump out 4K streaming while integrating with third-party services and offering features like remote listening via the app — all for just $39.99.