Not to be outdone by Apple, Amazon and Google’s recent updates to their streaming media players, Roku unveiled new a device of its own Tuesday: The Roku 4, the company’s first device to deliver 4K video. It’s also the first streaming device to come with a dedicated remote control finder, and it coincides with updates to both Roku’s operating system and its mobile app.
Priced at $129.99, the Roku 4 is the most expensive device in the company’s current lineup. For that money, consumers get not only 4K, but also a quad-core processor that should make for a snappy experience, 802.11ac MIMO Wi-Fi, a remote control with integrated microphone for voice search, and something else that’s been missing from Roku players for some time: optical audio out, which should make home-theater fans happy.
Roku 4 is the company’s first device to run version 7 of its operating system, which looks very much like previous versions, save for a few additions: The company is expanding Roku Feed, which allows users to discover and follow movies and TV shows, and has added the ability to connect to wireless networks with captive portals, which are commonly used in hotels and dorm rooms. Roku also is giving its mobile app a face-lift, adding mobile notifications for when a user’s favorite movie becomes available on one of Roku’s channels, and expanding support for personal media playback.
Roku 4 stands apart from the company’s other streaming players with a bigger physical footprint. Existing Roku streamers are about the size of a hockey puck, while the new Roku 4 is more the size of a bathroom tile (or a hot plate, as always-sneaky gadget blogger Dave Zatz mused after stumbling on some images ahead of Roku’s official announcement).
The bigger form factor is necessary to cool the faster new processor, according to Roku director of product management Lloyd Klarke. But he was quick to emphasize another unique feature: The Roku 4 features a dedicated button to find the device’s remote control. Press it, and the remote will start beeping from in between those couch pillows. Klarke said Roku will let users customize their remote-finder sound, and said the company worked a while on perfecting this feature. “We bought several couches to test this,” he said, without the hint of a joke.
In many ways, that remote-control finder embodies what Roku is all about, and why the company has been successful despite competition from juggernauts like Amazon, Google and Apple. Roku’s streaming boxes aren’t cool or stylish, at least not in a threatening way. Instead, Roku shoots for the average Joe Consumer. Apps are called “channels” on Roku’s devices, as to make them feel more like the traditional TV experience.
Higher-end Roku devices, including the Roku 4, feature a remote control with a headphone port for private listening. It’s a feature that’s hard to explain to younger audiences, but it’s apparently been a hit with families and hard-of-hearing consumers. And now the remote-control finder: This box isn’t made for stylish designer living rooms but for family homes, where remotes do get lost in the daily shuffle.
This approach has worked really well for Roku, with the company now touting 7.5 million monthly active accounts. Roku’s users have collectively streamed 2.5 billion hours of audio and video in the first six months of this year, compared with 3 billion for all of 2014, and active accounts stream more than 60 hours per month.
However, the flip side of Roku’s pitch is that those consumers tend to be price-conscious. Will they go for a $130 device, if Amazon offers its 4K player for $100? Granted, Apple is also selling its new Apple TV for $130, without 4K support. But Apple TV puts a big emphasis on gaming, and so does Amazon’s Fire TV. Both devices essentially double as lightweight game consoles, capable of delivering pretty impressive gaming experiences.
Roku has dabbled in gaming in the past as well and still has some casual-gaming titles on its platform, and the Roku 4 remote can be used as a Wii-like gaming remote. But the company clearly doesn’t put a big emphasis on games these days. “The focus of our products is video,” said Klarke, adding: “The killer app for TV is TV.”