By Lauren Goode
Roku just announced updates to five of its TV streaming products, as well as a new operating system that marries access to over-the-air TV with video streaming services. The announcements from Roku come after both Apple and Amazon have revealed updates to their own video streaming boxes in recent weeks, with all three companies pushing further into the home with things like 4K, voice control, and improved search functionality.
Roku’s low-cost streaming sticks are getting the most interesting updates. The basic Roku streaming stick, which at $49.99 is priced the same as last year’s model, is getting a processor update that Roku claims is 50 percent faster. The remote is also getting voice control functionality, along with power and volume buttons to control those functions on your TV set.
Then there’s the Roku Streaming Stick Plus, which now supports HDR and 4K Ultra HD. It also has four times the wireless range of the basic stick, which is partly enabled by the wireless module being built directly into the cable, rather than the stick itself. The idea is that moving it away from the television reduces interference. This one, which effectively replaces last year’s Roku Premiere 4K box, will cost $69.99.
The tiny Roku boxes — the Roku Express and Roku Express Plus — are also getting processor updates. They’re still selling for the same price, however: $29.99 for the Roku Express, and $10 more for a model that connects with composite ports on older TVs.
The bigger Roku box — the Roku Ultra — isn’t getting any significant hardware changes, but at $99, it’s less than the $130 starting price point it had last year. This is the highest-end Roku. It includes support for 4K at 60 fps and HDR10, an Ethernet port and USB support, a “Find My Remote” feature, private listening on the remote, and now, power and volume buttons on the remote as well.
Roku’s lower starting price point for its top-of-the-line streaming box undercuts the new Apple TV, which also offers 4K support and HDR but starts at $179. It’s still more expensive than Amazon’s newest Fire TV device, which again, supports 4K and HDR but only costs $70.
But Roku — which has been around for 15 years and just had its first day of trading on the public stock market last week — has always insisted that its agnostic approach to streaming content is what sets it apart, as well as its multitude of channels. Unlike Apple TV and Amazon, Roku doesn’t have a content platform (or make its own original content) that it feels compelled to prioritize over, say, Hulu or HBO Go. Roku boasts that it now offers more than 5,000 streaming channels on its sticks, boxes, and TV sets, which is kind of an absurd number of channels, but that also means there’s a lot of niche stuff people can watch if they want.
Roku also announced a new operating system today: the Roku OS 8. There are a few new handy shortcuts to access videos, but the biggest changes have to do with the way the OS now integrates programming from over-the-air TV. (Roku says it’s capitalizing on the growing trend of antenna-based TV watching.)
So when you search for programming like This Is Us, both streaming results and live TV results will show on the same page. In recent years, Roku has rolled out “private listening” for its streaming videos, letting you plug headphones into the remote or mobile app to listen to whatever you’re streaming. Now, with OS 8, private listening will also be available for over-the-air TV on Roku.
And Roku is adding single sign-on for paid TV customers, with support of about 30 TV channels to start. This is something that Apple introduced in 2016, with the rollout of its iOS 10 and tvOS 10 software.
Roku OS 8 is a free update. It will roll out across Roku boxes, sticks, and partner TV sets (like Roku’s TCL TV) throughout October and November, Roku said. Some older streaming boxes won’t get the update, though.
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By Lauren Goode