Roku Refreshes Hardware and Software

ROKU LogoRoku today announced a significant refresh of their streaming package with enhancements to both the software and hardware across the US, UK and Canada. Starting with the software, voice search lets owners search for films, TV programmes, actors and directors across the main streaming channels. For the US, that seems to mean CBS News, HBO Go and Sling TV and while the UK channels aren’t mentioned explicitly, let’s hope that it includes iPlayer, ITV Player and 4oD (or All 4).

The other new software feature is “Roku Feed” which will monitor the streaming channels for upcoming films and then let the owner know when it’s available, along with the price. Let’s say you missed Ex Machina at the cinema but want to catch it as soon as it comes out on pay-per-view. Roku Feed will keep an eye out for Ex Machina hitting the movie libraries and then let you know. I use this kind of feature with Sky for upcoming TV programmes and it is really useful.

On the hardware front, both the Roku 3 and Roku 2 have been given a hardware bump. The new Roku 3 now includes the voice search and remains the company‘s top-of-the-line streaming player. The included enhanced remote control now features a button to activate voice search and retains the headphone jack for private listening and motion control to play casual games. The new Roku 3 is available today from Roku.com and retailers for an MSRP of $99.99 in the US. UK distribution or pricing was not disclosed.

Roku 3

The Roku 2 has also been refreshed and the new Roku 2 matches the speed and performance of the new Roku 3 without the enhanced remote. The new Roku 2 is available today for $69.99 in the US and £69.99 in the UK from early May. (Don’t think much of that exchange rate!)

Roku 2

Finally, the Roku app for iOS and Android will be updated as well, rolling out in the US shortly and to other territories in the coming weeks. Free!

Roku TV is Just $299 for a Limited Time

ROKU LogoThose of you who have been considering buying the Roku TV might want to purchase it soon. It is currently being sold for $299.99 on Amazon.com The Amazon details note that you will save $50.00 off the original price. The lower price is being offered “for a limited time”.

The TCL 40FS4610R 40-inch 1080p-Smart LED TV (or “Roku TV) has a native refresh rate of 60Hz and an effective Clear Motion Rate of 120. Its inputs include 3 HDMI, 1 USB, composite, headphone jack, and optical audio out. The Roku TV comes with a remote (that has batteries in it) and a detachable power cord. The product dimensions are 36.5 x 7 x 23 inches and it weights 22 pounds.

Roku is also having a contest called “Roku Resolutions Sweepstakes New Year, new You!” To enter the contest, you must visit Roku’s Facebook page.

Choose one of the prizes that is being offered. They include: Roku Streaming Stick (HDMI Version), 1 year membership of CosmoBody and 1 hour virtual training session, FOX prize pack (includes a Fitbit Flex,American Idol tumbler, t-shirts with logos of FOX shows on them), Nat Geo TV prize pack (GoProHero, Eddie Bauer Weather Jacket), a one year membership of DailyBurn Video Workouts (and 1 on 1 coaching), a 60-day membership of DailyBurn Video Workouts (and 1 on 1 coaching) or a one year subscription to Gaiam TV (and a yoga mat). Pick your prize before February 6, 2015. A total of 21 Grand Prize winners will be randomly selected. More details can be found in the Official Rules.

Those of you who are fans of FOX NOW have another reason to check out Roku. As of January 13, 2015, DirecTV customers can add FOX NOW to their Roku player or Roku TV. In other words, Roku is providing an option for people who were annoyed by the Fox/DirecTV contract dispute.

Roku Heads To 4K at CES

Roku LogoArguably the market leader in the media streaming market, Roku hasn’t been resting on its laurels. At this year’s CES, Roku has announced a raft of news reinforcing its platform’s position for both Roku TV and the move to 4K transmission.

After announcing Roku TV at last year’s CES, 2014 has seen Roku TV available on both TCL and Hisense TVs available from major retailers like Walmart and Best Buy. For 2015, TCL is going to release 12 models over the year with Roku TV built-in, which is good news from one of the fastest growing brands in the US.

Extending the availability of Roku TV, two new partners have been unveiled – Haier and Insignia. Insignia TVs with Roku will be on sale in the spring exclusively in Best Buy, with Haier models arriving in the summer. For non-US readers, Insignia is a Best Buy brand.

The Haier Roku TV 4 Series Smart LED TVs will be available in sizes ranging from 32″ to 65″. The 40″ to 65″ models will come with Full HD resolution and a Sound Chamber that produces enhanced sound quality, with superior dampening, improved mid-range response, cleaner and deeper bass, as well as overall richer sound texture.

The Roku TV OS has been named a 2015 CES Innovation Awards Honoree in the Software and Mobile Apps category and TCL Roku TV will be displayed in the Innovation Showcase located at CES Tech West, Booth #75545. The new Insignia Roku TV models will be shown tonight at Pepcom’s Digital Experience media event.

Finally, and this is the kind of news the geeks have been waiting for, Roku has announced the availability of a Roku TV 4K reference design for Roku TV manufacturing partners. TCL is the initial partner working to deliver a Roku TV 4K model in the future and Roku is working with Netflix to provide 4K content for streaming on the Roku platform.

As one of the first streaming services to offer 4K Ultra HD content to our customers, it’s important for Netflix to work closely with partners like Roku to give consumers more streaming options,” said Neil Hunt, chief product officer of Netflix. “We look forward to bringing Netflix 4K Ultra HD content to Roku customers.

While there’s no news on a new flagship Roku box, I think we can assume that there will be a Roku 4K in the not too distant future. Fingers crossed.

Roku “Stuff Your Stocking”

Roku LogoOur friends at Roku are indulging in a bit of Christmas fun with their Stuff Your Stocking promotion. It’s a straightforward draw to win goodies such as a 40″ Hisense Roku TV, Roku 3 and Roku Streaming Stick (HDMI Version) along with subscriptions to Sky NowTV, Netflix and Rdio. The exact prizes vary from country and the competition is open to residents of the US, Canada and UK. There are different draws for each country so make sure you follow the right link.

Roku 3 Present

Long Term Hulu Plus Thoughts

hulu_plusI have been using Hulu Plus for several months, and I have a few additional comments about the service.

I tend to watch lots of science documentaries. Over time, I’ve seemed to nearly exhaust the documentaries available on Netflix and Amazon videos. One of the things I really like about the Hulu Plus is that it includes shows from the BBC, Canada and Australia. This opens up a new world of high quality documentary material that isn’t available to me otherwise.

From a technical streaming point of view, the service always seems to stream well. I have encountered no server issues streaming either via DSL or mobile data connections.

The various Hulu Plus apps themselves do have a few issues. I regularly use the iOS, Android and Roku versions of the Hulu Plus apps. The interfaces seem mostly straightforward, though there are a few quirks and differences from one app to the next.

The biggest problem I’ve encountered is the service being able to remember where I’m stopped at in an individual video as well as a series of videos. For example, let’s say I’m in the 5th episode of a season. The service may or may not remember that I’ve already watched the previous 4 episodes.

Additionally, if I pause in the middle of a video, there’s at least a 50% chance that if I come back to the series later, instead of starting me out exactly where I was in the paused video, the service will kick me to the next episode even though I haven’t finished watching the prior episode.

These synching problems seem to be consistent across all of Hulu Plus’ apps. I can use only one app, say on my iPad Air, and will likely encounter the synching issue the next time I open the app to try to get back to where I left off. Moving to a different device entirely I will still encounter the same synching problem.

These synching issues are areas where Netflix and Amazon really seem to have this nailed down and leave Hulu Plus lagging behind.

Even with the synching issues, I really like Hulu Plus and make extensive use of it. In my view it is well worth the $8 monthly charge.

ITV Player Comes To Roku

Roku LogoUntil today, the big absentee from Roku‘s line-up of catch-up services in the UK was ITV and its regional partners STV and UTV in Scotland and Northern Ireland. At #2 in terrestrial broadcasting behind the BBC, it was a fairly glaring omission, especially as Channel 4 and Five have been on-board for ages. Now UK Roku viewers can use ITV Player to catch-up with the last 30 days of ITV’s content across ITV, ITV2, ITV3, ITV4 and CITV with programmes such as Britain’s Got TalentCoronation Street and The Americans in addition to coverage of this summer’s World Cup and Tour de France sporting events. Hurrah!

Roku Streaming Stick Review

This is Gonna Be FunRoku‘s streaming media boxes have been around since 2008, arguably taking the #2 spot behind the Apple TV. This is an impressive achievement considering the absence of a major brand behind the product line. Here in the UK, set-top boxes like Apple TV, Roku, and Google TV have a relatively low-profile: the BBC’s iPlayer catchup service is massively popular, but as the app is widely available on satellite decoders, cable boxes, games consoles and laptops, there is little demand for an additional streaming device. The latest generation of low cost, plug-in streamers from Roku and Google may well change this. Let’s take a look.

Roku Box

What I have here is the UK edition of Roku’s Streaming Stick, a thumb-sized streaming device that plugs directly into a TV’s HDMI port, bringing Roku’s wide range of content and 450+ channels to a British audience. We’re used to a high quality TV service from the likes of the BBC, so the content has to be there, and we’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s get it out of the box first.

Roku in Box

The Streaming Stick is presented in Roku’s trademark purple with neat packaging that promotes “This is going to be fun”. In the box is the Streaming Stick itself, a remote control (including decent batteries) and the power supply, which is actually a USB charger, connecting to the Streaming Stick via microUSB.

Streaming Stick and Controller

The remote control is slightly different to the previous generation – there are no game buttons, motion controller or headphone jack, and it uses WiFi Direct rather than Bluetooth to communicate with the Streaming Stick. Admittedly of little consequence unless you are an existing Roku owner expecting those features.

Getting started is easy – plug the Stick into the TV’s HDMI port, power it up with the microUSB cable and put the batteries into the remote control. Switching over to the HDMI channel, the Roku Streaming Stick initially asks for the password to a local wifi network. Once connected to the wider internet, existing Roku owners can can login with their credentials or new owners can sign up for a user name and password. Apart from having to use the remote control rather than a keyboard to do the finger work, it’s painless.

Roku uses the metaphor of channels to deliver media and content. For the smartphone generation, these are more easily thought of as apps which mostly deliver video content. In addition to programmes, there are games, weather forecasts and picture viewers. From the hundreds of channels available, you add favourites to your account to build up your collection. Some channels / apps cost a few pounds, but the vast majority are free.

My Roku Channels

From a UK perspective most of the major players are on-board with apps for BBC iPlayer, 4oD, Demand 5 and Sky Store. ITV player is noticeable in its absence. There are apps too for Netflix, Spotify, YouTube, Flickr and the Roku Media Player which does what it says, playing locally available pictures, music and video. There are lots of other apps and channels to choose from, categorised by type to help you find what you want.

Channel Categories

Many of the channels are US-centric and there’s a ton of faith-based programming, mostly Christian with a smaller number of other faiths. Local US TV stations are also present, which can be fun if you are going to be visiting an area on holiday or business.

US Local News on Roku

Of course, there are plenty of independent content producers as well. GNC is right at home on the Roku….

Geek News on Roku

To complement the content, there’s also an app for smartphones, which lets your device replace the remote control, both at a simple button pushing level and for more advanced features such as choosing new channels.

Roku App Remote Control Roku App

But the real trick is the “Play on Roku” feature which pushes content from your smartphone to the Roku, including music, photos and videos. All you do is select the content on your phone and, bang, it’s up on the big screen in glorious HD. It’s a great feature and a fantastic way to review photos and short videos on a larger screen, especially after a holiday. If you take a lots of photos with your smartphone, it’s almost worth getting a Roku for this feature alone.

One final thing…as I mentioned, the Roku Streaming Stick is powered by microUSB via a provided USB charger. I found that the Streaming Stick wasn’t terribly fussy about the power source and that you can easily run the Stick from other sources, such as a USB battery pack or even the TV itself, if equipped with a USB port. Could be handy to know if you are travelling or simply want a tidier entertainment unit.

MicroUSB Roku

Overall, the Roku Streaming Stick is a great little gadget that provides loads of extra content for UK viewers. It might be a more expensive at £50 than the Google Chromecast at £30, but there’s more content and the Roku has a remote control, which I think is a plus point. It’s handy too for a second TV that perhaps doesn’t have a satellite or cable connection, and can now use iPlayer or Netflix. It’s a neat, plug’n’play solution that is about as simple as it can be.

Thanks to Roku for the review unit.

Deal of the day — Roku 3 hits Woot at $64.99

roku-3Recently Roku released its Chromecast-like steaming stick. This comes on the heels of a version 3 release last year of the set-top box, an update that came with a remote that has a headphone jack built-in, allowing private watching for those times when the house needs to be quiet. The box retails for $99.99, but if you act today, you can get a deal.

Today only, Woot, the daily deal site now owned by Amazon, is offering the little set-top box for the price of $64.99 — a savings of $35 over the regular price.

“Faster and more powerful than ever. Enjoy 1,000+ channels of movies, TV shows, sports, and more. Plug headphones into the motion-control remote to play games or watch late-night flicks without disturbing the household. Fully loaded with one-stop search, 1080p, dual-band wireless, Ethernet, USB, plus a free Roku app. The Roku 3—the new streaming standard”, Woot describes it.

Roku is perhaps the prime player in an increasingly competitive market that includes Google and Apple as the other big players, though Microsoft’s new Xbox One is also a part of this, though it does more than just video. And remember, you can watch the Geek News Central podcast on it as well!

Tablo Takes TPN Award at CES

Tablo LogoDigital video recorders (DVRs) are commonplace but usually they’re integrated with a cable decoder. Tablo’s offering records OTA (over the air) HD broadcasts that are transmitted from local TV stations, free of charge. Still not excited? The Tablo can stream both live and record programs to any connected device including Android and Apple devices, and set-top boxes like the Roku or AppleTV. Now that’s cool.

The Tablo contains two tuners (with a four tuner option), so can record two broadcasts at once. There’s no built-in storage but there are 2 USB ports for external HDD units to provide whatever space is needed. It’s perfect for cord-cutters. I’d love to see this come to the UK too.

The Tablo is on pre-order for US$219 and will be available in February 2014.

Interview by Daniel J Lewis of The Audacity To Podcast and Todd Cochrane of Geek News Central for the TechPodcast Network.

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Roku teams with Hisense and TCL, shows off new TVs at CES

The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is now in full swing, despite that it doesn’t technically start until tomorrow. Products are already being announced at a blistering pace. One that comes as a bit of a surprise is a new TV from set-top box maker Roku.

The company has teamed with Hisense and TCL, who will actually build the hardware. The smart TVs will be powered my Roku software, allowing the interface to work in the same way as having a box hooked to a current set. “Roku TV removes all of the complicated layers and menus, and unnecessary features and settings that plague smart TVs today, and instead provides a Roku home screen that brings together all content sources. Just like Roku streaming players, Roku TV will have full access to the Roku Channel Store filled with more than 31,000 movies and 1,200 channels that feature TV shows and live sports plus news, music, kids, food, science, tech, fitness, foreign language and other programming”.

roku-hisense-tv

Customers will be able to control the TV via mobile apps for both Android and iOS or via the included standard remote control, which Roku promises will be less complicated than many of those currently on the market.

The sets will come in a range of sizes, starting at 32-inches  to going up to 55. The first units will hit the market in the fall of this year.