Roku refreshed its entire streaming device lineup today, updating devices with better processors and other improvements. The company is also rolling out Roku OS 8 to all of the new devices and many older ones. OS 8 adds search and voice control features and brings the over-the-air and over-the-top viewing and searching experiences closer together.
The new devices include the Roku Express, the Roku Express+, the Roku Streaming Stick, the Roku Streaming Stick+, and the Roku Extreme. All were extant products that have simply been refreshed. Gone are the Roku Premiere and Roku Premiere+, which sat in the middle of Roku’s lineup last year. The Roku Streaming Stick+ effectively fills the gap.
The Roku Express and Express+ retail at $29.99 and $39.99. The former is still the same old device, but with a chipset that Roku says is five times faster than what we saw in 2016’s model. The Roku Express+ offers composite cable connections for older TVs, in addition to HDMI. It is available at retail exclusively at Walmart.
The Roku Streaming Stick also gets the improved performance and adds support for 802.11ac dual-band MIMO wireless. The Stick comes with a voice-control remote, which can also be used to control the TV’s volume, assuming the TV is compatible. It goes for $49.99. However, it’s capped out at 1080p HD. To go to 4K or for HDR support, you have to pay $69.99 for the Roku Streaming Stick+. The Streaming Stick+ also comes with an improved wireless receiver that Roku claims offers four times the Wi-Fi range you’d get in the base Streaming Stick.
At the top end of the lineup is the Roku Ultra. Selling for $99.99, it can also stream 4K and HDR. Its remote has a headphone jack, and the device itself has a micro SD slot and USB for storage expansion. It also comes with an ethernet port, whereas the other devices are wireless only. Last year’s model did not support Dolby Vision, and the announcement of the updated model unfortunately makes no mention of added Dolby Vision support.
Dolby Vision is one of two competing HDR formats. It provides superior image quality to the other format (HDR-10), but it is not as widely supported, in part due to hardware licensing fees. Some of the devices competing with the Roku Ultra do support Dolby Vision, including Google’s Chromecast Ultra and the Apple TV 4K. The Amazon Fire TV, Xbox One S, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 4 Pro only support HDR-10.
A lot has been happening in the OTT streaming device space lately; Apple announced a new, 4K version of its Apple TV hardware earlier this month, and Amazon updated its Fire TV streaming box last week. The content side of TV streaming has also been active. Apple is reportedly investing more than $1 billion in original content annually. Both Hulu and YouTube have launched cable-replacement services since the Roku devices were last updated, and some TV networks have launched or plan to launch their own streaming services. They include CBS, which premiered Star Trek: Discovery exclusively on CBS All Access last week. Meanwhile, Disney (parent to ABC) has said it will launch a new service in 2019.
Despite these movements, broadcast TV is still alive and well—many cable cord-cutters still watch over-the-air HD broadcasts from local network affiliates—so Roku has incorporated broadcast streams more cleanly into the Roku’s user interface with its Smart Guide feature. With Roku OS 8, you can now also search for over-the-air shows with Roku’s search function and use voice commands while watching that programming. Like Apple TV, Roku OS 8 includes a single sign-on for OTT apps from various channels that require authentication with a cable provider. This means, in theory, that you don’t have to keep re-entering your cable provider’s password for each new app. Not every app will support it, of course.
Roku’s pricing and broadcast TV support place it downmarket from the Apple TV, but these devices’ internals are likely not as fast, and none of them support Dolby Vision. Still, Apple TV made some choices—like a high price, lack of Dolby Atmos support, and unusual image processing decisions—that have left the door open for competitors like Roku and Amazon. Roku remains the most popular dedicated TV streaming hardware platform.
Disclosure: I worked at CBS Interactive in 2014 and 2015, and some of my work involved CBS All Access and Star Trek: Discovery.
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