Roku's First Streaming-Video TVs Ready Hit

Remote controls for TVs from TCL, Hisense include buttons for Netflix, Amazon Video, Rdio and Walmart's Vudu

For years, Apple has been rumored to be developing an integrated, Internet-connected HDTV designed to make streaming video the first input on the biggest screen in the house.

But now Roku, maker of Internet-streaming video players that compete with Apple TV set-tops, is delivering on the concept with what it’s claiming are the first TVs designed as streaming-first displays — and they’re priced to move.

The initial crop of Roku smart TVs are from Chinese consumer-electronics companies Hisense and TCL, with models in a range of screen sizes slated to begin shipping in a few weeks. Roku announced the deals with the CE makers at the 2014 International CES trade show in January.

By default, when users turn on a Roku TV, they’ll see options for streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu Plus and HBO Go — not a cable box or TV antenna input (although that can be changed after setup). The smart TVs provide “a simple way to access endless entertainment whether (on) pay TV, over-the-air or streamed,” said Jim Funk, VP of product management at Roku.

In addition, the remote controls for the TVs from both TCL include Hisense include one-click buttons for accessing Netflix, Amazon Video, Walmart’s Vudu and streaming-music service Rdio, through deals with each of those content providers. All told, the Roku TVs — as with its existing media players — offer a lineup of more than 1,500 streaming channels.

TCL is selling four Roku TV models with full-HD (1080p) resolution, in varying screen sizes: a 32-inch version with an expected street price of $229; a 40-inch model at $329, a 48-inch model for $499 and a 55-inch unit for $649. The TCL TVs, which each have three HDMI inputs, are available for pre-order from Amazon.com and are expected to be on the shelves of retailers nationwide by late August or early September, the company said.

TCL’s Roku TVs will be priced about $30 higher than comparable feature sets, according to Chris Larson, VP of sales and marketing for the company’s North America business unit.

Hisense’s Roku TV H4 line, set to ship beginning in late September, will be available in 40-, 48-, 50- and 55-inch models via major national retailers. The company is not announcing suggested pricing, because it’s letting retail partners set pricing as they see fit, according to Peter Erdman, VP of consumer electronics for Hisense USA.

The Roku TVs’ specially designed remote controls exclude number keypads and have half the buttons of traditional TV remotes, with setup and navigation functions handled through on-screen menus. The TVs also can be controlled by Roku apps for iOS, Android or Windows, which also let users send personal video, photos and music directly from a mobile device to the TV.

M-Go, the joint venture of DreamWorks Animation and Technicolor, is the default “movie store” partner for the Roku TVs, as it is for the Roku streaming players and the HDMI-based streaming stick.

For Roku — and its content partners — the integrated TVs represent another platform to expand their reach, with the attractive feature of being the default home-screen. In January, Roku said it had shipped nearly 8 million devices to date, mostly in the U.S.; reps declined to provide an updated figure.

Roku’s partnership with the two Chinese CE makers is a natural fit, as neither TCL nor Hisense have entry-level smart TVs and both are trying to boost U.S. market share. Worldwide, the companies have much bigger reach: In 2013, TCL ranked No. 3 in terms of television unit shipments, after market leaders Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics, while Hisense was No. 5 after Sony, according to NPD Group’s DisplaySearch.

Certainly, Roku would like to team up with big-name brands like Samsung, Sony or LG. But those companies have well-established smart TV strategies, and for now they’re not as inclined to work with Roku to embed its software in their product lines.

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