Roku specializes in streaming, and so far that focus is paying off.
The scrappy Los Gatos, California-based firm just came off a big initial public offering , but as a company it’s still dwarfed by its main rivals in the streaming hardware game: Amazon, Apple and Google. Roku’s streaming sticks and boxes are more popular than their competitors, however, and they routinely earn my top recommendations .
Roku’s latest hardware lineup, with five players ranging from $30 to $100, looks capable of winning a streaming championship once again. Four have the same names as last year but they’ve been working out in the offseason, bringing upgrades like faster processors. And three of the five get a new feature so smart and basic I can’t believe it hasn’t been done before in a streamer: their remotes can control your TV’s volume and power.
Now Playing: Watch this: Roku Streaming Stick Plus streams 4K and HDR for less
The fifth, the Roku Streaming Stick Plus ($70), is completely new yet could be an all-star. It builds on my favorite streamer of 2016, the Roku Streaming Stick , by adding 4K HDR playback at a price that matches competitors from Amazon and Google. It also includes that TV control remote, as well as a new antenna attachment said to improve Wi-Fi reception in problem areas.
Roku’s 2017 streaming lineup
|Model||Price||Streaming quality||Key extras|
|Express||$30||HD||Faster than 2016 version|
|Express Plus||$40||HD||Includes analog TV cable|
|Streaming Stick||$50||HD||New TV control remote with voice|
|Streaming Stick Plus||$70||4K HDR||Wi-Fi boosting cable|
|Ultra||$100||4K HDR||Remote headphone jack, remote finder, Ethernet, USB, SD slot|
Meet Roku’s 2017 streaming players
I got the chance to play around with the new Rokus in a brief hands-on session. Here’s what I think so far.
Express/Express Plus ($30/$40):My main complaint about last year’s Express , a tiny box just slightly bigger than a streaming stick, was pokey operational speed. The new version with the faster processor, which Roku calls “5x faster,” is a big improvement. It blazed through Roku’s menus and heavy apps like Netflix and Sling TV, which choked its predecessor. It seems like an ideal “basic” streamer now, and it costs less than Chromecast ($35) and Amazon’s Fire TV Stick ($40). The Express Plus is identical and equally fast, but includes an analog cable for older TVs, just like last year.
Streaming Stick ($50):The signature addition, a remote that with buttons that control your TV’s power and volume, is great. For many people it’s easily worth the $20 extra to ditch their TV’s remotes (sorry, Sideclick ). Roku says setup is easy and codes are beamed to the clicker so you don’t have to input them manually. The Stick is also the cheapest Roku with voice capability on the remote, another feature not found on the 2016 stick. It works fine for search, but it’s a far cry from Alexa. Roku is not selling the new remote separately.
Streaming Stick Plus ($70):This is the only 2017 Roku player that looks different, with a glossy finish and an included “advanced wireless receiver” that’s an extension of the power cable. Roku says it’s designed to improve reception in weaker Wi-Fi areas, delivering 4x the range for a stronger signal and faster speeds. The receiver is incompatible with other devices, Roku or otherwise.
The Plus has the same clicker as the standard Stick and adds 4K resolution with high dynamic range HDR , just like the Premiere Plus I liked from last year. Its biggest competitors are Amazon’s new 4K Stick and Chromecast Ultra , two similarly tiny 4K HDR streamers that also cost $70.
Roku Ultra ($100):The only full-sized box for 2017, the Ultra is similar to last year but $30 cheaper, and without the optical digital audio output I liked so much. (Roku says it’s because very few people ever used it.) It adds TV control to the remote, however, and is now the only Roku with the company’s signature remote headphone jack for private listening and the remote finder function so you don’t lose it among the couch cushions. There’s also an SD card slot to expand the memory for faster app loading, and a wired Ethernet port. Roku missed a trick by not including Dolby Vision HDR , but the only streamer that currently has it is the $170 Apple TV 4K .
The new players are available for preorder now and hit stores around Oct. 8.
Separately, Roku also announced a free update to Roku-powered TVs , rolling out in November. It adds a full program guide for over-the-air antenna channels, with a novel integration of the company’s More Ways to Watch feature: click on a show title and immediately be taken to the streaming version. The update also integrates new voice commands beyond search, for example turning on and off the TV, switching inputs and tuning to antenna channels.
I look forward to more time testing Roku’s new gear and comparing it to the other streamers on the market. Expect full CNET reviews soon.