Roku is the quiet streaming giant that’s slowly taking over the world. It’s part of millions of new 4K TVs sold every day from rising companies like TCL, Sanyo, Sharp, and Hisense, and its low-cost streaming boxes with support for almost all the major streaming platforms (except HBOMax, for now) have helped Roku gather more than 43 million active accounts.
Despite that market power, Roku doesn’t hold major product events or have a recognizable CEO. It just quietly releases a new collection of products every fall that help position it as the streaming market player everyone from Apple to Google and Amazon must contend with.
Last year, Roku stepped outside of platform licensing and streaming boxes with the Roku Smart Soundbar (with optional subwoofer), a $180 audio device that undercut most competing soundbars, while delivering decent sound and, naturally, a built in Roku Streaming platform.
This year, Roku is raising the bar on 4K TV audio enhancement with a new Roku Streambar, which is notable for its diminutive size (it’s 14 inches wide x 2.4 inches tall x 4.2 inches deep) and affordable price ($129.99). Like the Smartbar before it, Roku Streambar integrates Roku’s 4K streaming platform (it’s similar to the Roku Ultra, but not the same).
While I haven’t heard the new Streambar in action, I am intrigued the driver configuration. The design, which is relatively flat in the front but curves on both sides allows the four high-excursion, full-range drivers to project audio out the front and toward the corners of the room. The Streambar works with any TV (its includes both HDMI and optical cables), also works with Roku’s other existing wireless speakers.
The are some nice extras like Dolby Audio, and included voice remote, a night mode that can turn down explosions and car crashes, and Bluetooth support, which allows you to pair it with, for instance, your smartphone.
Platform update and Ultra
Roku’s platform is also getting a major upgrade this month. Version 9.4 finally brings Apple AirPlay 2 support to all of Roku’s 4K streaming devices so you can pair the player with your iPad, iPhone, or Mac. This also means you’ll be able to control your Roku device with Siri to turn on your TV and launch channels. Roku systems already work with Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa voice assistants.
Roku is also promising a performance boost with 9.4 for better buffering and launch times. I imagine some of your mileage will vary depending on the quality of your home broadband connectivity.
Of less importance but possibly more fun is the addition of some new Theme Packs (themes are the platform’s home screen styles) that now include mix and match wallpapers and new audio tones to replace the beeps and bongs you usually hear when operating your Roku box.
Roku flagship box, the Roku Ultra ($99.99), which supports 4K at up to 60 fps, is also getting an upgrade. It’s got a sleeker look and more memory for better performance. Even though the box includes an Ethernet port, most people are probably using their home Wi-Fi for connectivity, which means they’ll probably appreciate the enhanced wireless range. The box also supports Dolby Vision and the emerging AV1 One open source streaming CODEC. It promises better quality even at constrained bitrates, however, most content providers aren’t currently using it (Netflix is test driving it on Android).
The OS update arrives before the end of September and the new hardware is coming in October.