Roku announced major upgrades to its popular media streamers on Tuesday. The flagship Roku 3 ($100) gets an all-new remote control with an integrated mic that can be used for voice searches, and the new Roku 2 (US$70) is now based on the same hardware as its more-expensive sibling.
The new Roku 2's remote, however, doesn't support voice search, and it loses the headphone jack that it currently has (the Roku 3's remote retains this feature, which is useful for private listening). The Roku 1 and the Roku Streaming Stick ($50 each) remain the same, apart from new software features that will be common to the entire lineup (and all other Roku players manufactured since 2011).
Why this matters: Roku is slugging it out with Amazon, Apple, and Google to lead the media-streaming space, and consumers are reaping the benefits from this healthy competition. It's unfortunate to see a product lose a feature--I'm referring to the headphone jack on the Roku 2's remote, in this case--but the faster hardware under the hood should more than make up for that.
Roku prioritizes hardware and search
"We focused on two key areas," Roku chief marketing office Matthew Anderson told me in a briefing last week, "the next stage of search and discovery, and hardware enhancements to the Roku 2 and the Roku 3."
To use voice search on the Roku 3's remote, you hold down the search button and speak. A circled-mic icon in the user interface pulses with each word until you release the button, to provide visual feedback that your search terms have been acknowledged.
You can search by title, actor, or director. The Roku will respond by listing all the content available on Roku that matches your criteria. After the primary search term, search results are listed in reverse order of cost, so that free content is listed first.
The Roku 3's new voice-search remote is compatible with the new Roku 2 (the cheaper box is built using the same hardware as the Roku 3, after all), but Anderson said the company currently has no plans to sell the new remote separately. "We'll look at offering the remote separately if the market demands it," he said. The new remote will not work with the Roku 1 or the Roku Streaming Stick.
Across-the-board software upgrades
All four Roku models will get software updates, including the new search functionality (apart from voice recognition). Another new software feature, "Roku Feed," lets you "follow" new movies that are currently in theaters but not yet available on Roku. Movies garner the most attention while they're in theaters (and shortly before), so this feature lets you track as many films as you'd like and be notified as soon as they become available on one of Roku's channels.
Roku will report when the movie is available for streaming, which service it's available on, and how much it costs. Each time the movie becomes available on a new channel or changes price, your feed will get an update. "It's like search that keeps on searching," said Anderson. "It does the work for you."
Anderson said the new Roku 2 and Roku 3 are available today, although it will take some time for the devices to reach all retail channels. Deployment of the new software--plus all-new Android and iOS companion apps--also starts today.
The new software that embraces all Roku models back to the 2011 vintage sounds extremely promising. Even the biggest fans lose track of some new movies they didn't get a chance to see in theaters, so the "movies coming soon" feature is also compelling. Roku says we'll get hardware to review sometime this week, so I'll be able to report soon on whether everything lives up to its promise.