Roku just made choosing a new streaming player five times more difficult, and at least five bucks cheaper than the competition.
The giant-killing company’s products routinely slay the likes of Amazon, Google and Apple in ourreviews and in sales. My go-to pick for streaming Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Sling TV and all the rest is the$50 Roku Streaming Stick, which I called “all the streamer you need.”
Evidently, Roku doesn’t agree. Today it debuts five — count ’em, five! — new devices, all of which will go on sale in time for the holidays. Add them to the Stick, the only previous Roku product staying in the line, and you get a streaming six pack frothing over with choice.
Roku Express: At $30 it’s $5 cheaper than Google’s popular, making the Express the least expensive mainstream streaming device around (unless Amazon decides to give its next streaming stick away for free). The Express does everything the current Roku Stick does, like give full access to Roku’s best-in-class app selection, cross-platform search and simple interface. In a quick demonstration with Roku’s reps it seemed plenty speedy.
And unlike Chromecast, it actually includes a real remote control, albeit a standard IR (infrared) version you have to aim at the device. The Express is tiny, kind of “not-a-box,” and I can imagine cables dragging it down.
Roku Express+: For an extra $10 you get the option to output analog audio and video, courtesy of an included yellow-red-and-white breakout cable. The Express+ is designed for people who want to add streaming capability to older TVs that lack HDMI connectors. If your TV already has HDMI, however, it’s better to just stick with the standard Express; the two are otherwise identical.
Roku Premiere: Last year Roku introduced the $130 Roku 4 as its first 4K-capable streamer. The $80 Premiere is its successor minus a few extras. It still has access to more 4K apps than other streamers, including Netflix, Amazon, Vudu and 12 others, and a 4K spotlight app that makes 4K shows and movies easy to find. Of course, you’ll need a 4K TV to take advantage of the higher resolution. The remote is just standard infrared (IR), so you have to aim it at the box, and it lacks the extra features found on the higher-end boxes’ remotes.
Roku Premiere+: Spending $100 on a 2016 Roku gets you access to high dynamic range (HDR) video from streaming apps that offer it. HDR promises improved contrast and color compared to standard 1080p and 4K video, and requires an HDR-capable TV. The remote uses wi-fi technology, so you don’t have to aim it and can stash the box out of sight. It’s also the least-expensive 2016 Roku to offer a aheadphone jack on the remote for private listening (although all of them get private listening via the Roku app). Another extra over the Premiere is an Ethernet port for wired internet connections.
Roku Ultra: The Ultra is Roku’s best streamer yet. It offers everything available on the Premiere+, beefed up with a few more ports and a full-featured clicker. Its remote is the only one in the lineup to offer voice search (available on the other Rokus through its free iOS and Android app), gaming support as well as the cool remote finder function that debuted on the Roku 4.
The new quintet should help continue Roku’s run as my favorite streaming platform. I got the chance to see all of the new boxes in person and a couple in brief action, and all seemed snappy and easy to use — just like the Stick. I’ll know more once I can do some hands-on reviews, which should be very soon according to Roku.
In the meantime? On paper the Express seems like a better deal than the Stick, but I gotta say I like the Stick’s form factor a lot better — it’s so convenient just plugged into the HDMI port directly, out-of-sight behind the TV. Between the 4K boxes I anticipate liking the Premiere+ best. HDR, Ethernet and the remote extras seem worth the extra $20 for sure, while the Ultra’s extras do not.
And if there’s anything else you’re wondering about the new Rokus I haven’t covered here, leave a comment.