NOT TO BE outdone by Amazon’s deluge of hardware announcements last week, set-top box maker Roku is readying two new, low-cost streaming video boxes. Along with the new hardware, Roku is going to work with Google Assistant voice control to make it easier for users to find all the streaming content available for bingeing.
Roku said in a briefing last week that it’s adding two new 4K streaming boxes: the Roku Premiere and Roku Premiere+. These boxes have a similar form factor to Roku’s Expressline; they’re tiny pieces of hardware, much smaller than the remote they ship with, and are so lightweight they come with a strip of tape so you can stick them to your entertainment console. But these tiny Rokus stream 4K HDR video, pack quad-core processors, and come with updated firmware that the company says contributes to a smoother streaming experience.
Both of these new streaming boxes will ship early next month, at $40 for the Premiere box and $50 for the Premiere+. The difference between the Premiere and the Premiere+ is the remote: one comes with a standard IR remote, and the more expensive one is Wi-Fi-connected, which enables voice control.
Roku is essentially re-using the Premiere name, or, updating the earlier Premiere boxes with a new form factor, depending on how you look at it. Previously, a Roku Premiere was a flat sandwich of a box with 4K streaming and a price tag of $70. These two new options are much smaller and cheaper. The company is also updating the Roku Ultra, its top-of-the-line streaming player, to include an “enhanced” voice remote and a $40 pair of JBL headphones at no additional cost. (You can plug those headphones into the remote for private or late-night TV-watching.) The Roku Ultra has the fastest processor of any Roku product, has a handy find-my-remote feature, and supports dual-band wireless. That whole package costs $100.
Including the new Premiere boxes, Roku now sells nearly half a dozen different categories of streaming devices, ranging from an HDMI stick to these new boxes to Roku-branded TV sets. It also said last month that it plans to ship wireless TV speakers later this fall, for a relatively low price of $180. (The speakers only work with Roku-branded TVs, and not stand-alone Roku boxes.) Those speakers will come with a puck-like gadget that offers remote control for TV and music content coming from a Roku TV, and will include other features that Roku declined to share at this point. Lloyd Clarke, director of product management, said that Roku OS TVs are the fastest-growing hardware segment for the company.
But it’s obvious that Roku is feeling the heat from Amazon’s aggressive push in the TV streaming (and smart TV) market. According to research from Parks Associates, Roku had the lead in streaming media market share in the US as of May 2018, but Amazon’s share has been increasing.
But unlike Amazon, Roku doesn’t have its own virtual assistant to lure people into its devices, though it does offer basic voice search for finding programs to watch. So as part of an operating system update that starts rolling out today, Roku is launching a skill that lets people use Google Assistant devices to control their Rokus. You can now bark orders at your Assistant to pause and search for videos, and to launch Roku channels.
With Roku OS 9, you can also use voice to search for free stuff to watch on Roku, just by attaching the word “free” to your initial search query; i.e., “action movies free.” Roku’s focus on free and ad-supported TV shows started last year, when it first launched a free-content channel, but the system-wide voice search is new. And Spotify will return to the platform with the rollout of Roku OS 9, along with Pandora Premium. (Spotify removed its app from the Roku store in December of last year, saying the overall experience needed to be improved.)
Roku has an absurd number of “channels” on its platform—more than 5,000. The company used to tout that number a lot, along with unit sales, but now it’s much more focused on user engagement and streaming hours. At the end of the second fiscal quarter of this year, Roku reported 22 million active accounts, a 46 percent year-over-year increase. The company also said that streaming hours were up 57 percent from a year ago, to 5.5 billion streaming hours per quarter. That’s some phenomenal growth that Roku is eager to maintain.
Article originally posted on wired.com