As every year, Roku is going into the holiday shopping season with a handful of new devices: The company unveiled a revamped $30 entry-level Roku Express streaming device as well as new version of its $100 Roku Ultra streamer Thursday. Additionally, Roku also announced a new version of its software platform that puts a bigger emphasis on content curation.
The company’s new Roku Express, which retails for $29.99, offers HD streaming in a new, smaller package that can be stuck directly onto the bezel of a TV set.
Roku director of product management Lloyd Klarke told Variety that the company managed to also make the new Express more energy-efficient than last year’s model, which means that most consumers will likely be able to power it directly from their TV’s USB port. The Express does come with a basic remote that requires line-of-sight.
The new Roku Ultra, which retails for $99.99, is a much more powerful device, capable of streaming 4K HDR content over 8102.11ac Wifi, or via an integrated Ethernet port. Like its predecessor, the Ultra once again ships with a JBL wireless headphone for private listening via its remote control, and the remote now also features 2 customizable buttons that can be programmed with shortcuts.
For instance, consumers can add their favorite Pandora station to a shortcut, and then launch it by pressing one single button. This type of customization had been a much-requested feature among the users of Roku’s high-end streaming device, said Klarke. “These are cord cutters, these are power users.”
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As in previous years, Roku is also once again making special editions of its hardware for one of its biggest retail partners: Walmart will be selling a $40 Express Plus version that ships with a dedicated voice remote, and also a slightly pared-down $80 Ultra LT that ditches the Ultra’s remote finder functionality as well as its second USB port.
As incremental as these hardware updates may be, Roku is actually introducing some significant changes to its software platform. Roku OS 9.2, which will roll out to existing devices in the coming weeks, promises to make content discovery easier through something the company calls zones.
Zones are essentially curated collections of movies and TV shows. For instance, consumers who ask their Roku via voice search for scary movies can explore a curated selection of horror content from a variety of publishers. Other such thematic zones help to discover drama, sitcom, or superhero movies and shows.
Roku first introduced this type of content curation when it launched its 4K Spotlight channel a few years back, and is now also revamping that collection of 4K movies and shows to be based on the same architecture. Roku is launching with a couple dozen zones, and has plans to add more over time, according to a spokesperson.
Roku’s zones are noteworthy because they represent another step towards a more curated content experience for the company’s software platform. When consumers turn on their Roku devices these days, they’re still greeted with lists of apps they’ve downloaded, forcing them to either decide which service to select, search for very specific titles, or browse multiple services for something to watch.
Competitor Amazon in particular has long emphasized individual movies and shows over apps, allowing Fire TV users to directly to jump to the next episode of their favorite show with far fewer steps. Roku has been moving in this direction with its own Roku channel, which aggregates content from multiple publishers in a single app. The launch of zones hints at a much more content-forward experience that moves beyond the need to browse just one app at a time.