Roku debuts $29 streaming box, updates voice search

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor
At $29, the Roku Express is Roku's entry-level streaming box. (Image: Roku)

Roku (ROKU) on Thursday announced a host of additions to its streaming video player lineup including the surprisingly small $29 Roku Express. The company also debuted the latest version of the operating system that powers its players and Roku-branded TVs.

Roku OS 9.2 brings with it a new feature called Roku Zones that makes it easier to find content based on the genre you're most interested in, as well as a refreshed 4K Spotlight to help you find movies and TV shows that take advantage of your sweet 4K set.

New Roku models

Roku's fall 2019 lineup starts with the Roku Express. An upgrade over last year's Roku Express, the 2019 version of the streaming device is roughly 10% smaller than its predecessor. An adhesive strip on the bottom of the player lets you stick it to the top or bottom of your TV, though you can always place it on your TV stand, too.

The Express is Roku's entry-level offering, and as such, its remote doesn't have any of the fancy bells and whistles that more premium players offer, such as the ability to listen to content by plugging your headphones into the remote or voice capabilities.

The player is also the only one in Roku's lineup that doesn't include 4K, HDR streaming capabilities. Really, this is the player you'd want if you're on a budget, or want to get an older TV in your home online.

Walmart, meanwhile, is getting an exclusive version of the Roku Express called the Roku Express Plus. The $39 player is the same unit included in the standard Roku Express, but adds a voice-capable remote.

Then there's the Roku Premier, which, starting at $39, offers 4K, HDR streaming. The remote is a standard model, but if you've got a 4K, HDR television at home, it's worth shelling out the additional $10 versus the Roku Express to get improved image color and quality.

The Roku Premiere offers 4K, HDR streaming capabilities in an affordable package. (Image: Roku)

Roku's Streaming Stick Plus is a 4K, HDR capable player designed to be taken with you when you travel. That's because the Streaming Stick Plus packs all of its processing guts into a design that plugs directly into your TV's HDMI port, meaning you've got less to carry with you during your work trips or getaways. The Streaming Stick Plus also gets a Roku voice remote, though with a price tag of $59, you're certainly paying for the convenience.

Best Buy will get its own version of the Streaming Stick Plus for $59 that will include a remote with private listening via its headphone jack.

Above that is the Roku Ultra. This $99 streaming box is the company's top-of-the-line offering and features 4K, HDR streaming, as well as an Ethernet port for improved connectivity, on-board storage, and a USB port and microSD card slot so you can add storage or watch TV shows and movies you've downloaded from other sources.

The Ultra also gets Roku's best remote, which includes voice capabilities and a headphone jack for private listening. For this year's model, Roku is adding two new features to the Ultra's remote — programmable buttons and a mute button.

The programmable buttons, something that Roku says customers have been asking for, can be set to either launch a channel, or perform tasks like turning on closed captioning. It's certainly a welcome addition to the remote, since the current model's hot buttons are set to four video services chosen by Roku.

The Roku Ultra is the company's top-of-the-line streaming box. (Image: Roku)

Walmart will also get an exclusive version of the Ultra called the Ultra LT, but that model, which will cost $79, will use the same processor as last year's offering and won't get that new programmable remote.

Roku OS 9.2

In addition to Roku's new players, the company is rolling out the latest version of its Roku OS. Version 9.2 features a handful of changes including the ability to add shortcuts to the Roku home screen. Those shortcuts can include things like commands to turn off your TV from your Roku streaming device, or add new channels, something that's currently a bit of a pain.

The updated OS will also get expanded voice search capabilities. So now you'll be able to do things like ask your Roku to play "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," and it will automatically begin playing the show. If the show or movie is available through multiple services, your Roku will list them and let you choose the one that works best for you.

Finally, the OS 9.2 includes a new feature called Roku Zones. This allows you to search for content based on genres. Search for the Action Zone, and Roku will provide you with everything from "Rambo" to "Jurassic Park."

Hardware is still important to Roku's growth

Roku generates revenue in two ways: through its players and via ads served up on its platform. The company's platform business acts as a reliable and continuous revenue stream, while the player business is more cyclical in nature, tied to major holidays like many electronics manufacturers.

And while the platform business now earns more than the player business: $167.7 billion versus $82.4 billion in Q2 2019, the company still needs to get its players in the hands of consumers to ensure that it can sell ads on its platforms.

But with the U.S. nearly saturated in terms of streaming options, Leichtman Research Group says 74% of U.S. households have access to a streaming service, Roku has its eyes on the international market.

The company recently announced that its Roku-powered TVs are hitting store shelves in the U.K., to combat Amazon's Fire TV-powered sets. International growth is key to Roku. The company is actively looking to expand internationally, and a Variety report pegged Brazil as a key new market for the streaming giant.

We'll have to wait to see, however, if the new players go on sale in those new markets.

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