Roku’s New Box Will Stream 4K and Find Your Remote
4K ubiquity is quietly, surely sneaking up on us. 10 years from now, shopping for a 1080p HDTV will be like shopping for a standard-definition set now—your best bet will at be the local curiosity shoppe.
Roku is preparing for that impending 4K sea change, and the company has plenty of experience anticipating these kinds of things. Back in 2008, when the first Roku set-top box became available, streaming video over an Internet connection to your TV was a novelty. In fact, the first Roku box was the first TV peripheral that tapped into Netflix Instant. Since then, the company has added nearly 2,000 channels, honed its interface, streamlined its hardware, and sold more than 10 million Roku devices.
Now, it has its first 4K streaming box. The Roku 4 will cost $130—$30 more than Amazon’s new 4K-capable Fire TV—and it has a much bigger footprint than previous versions of the company’s hardware. But the bigger story is what Roku is doing at the ground level to prepare for the Ultra HD onslaught: It’s making it easy to find things to watch in 4K, it’s beefing up its components to handle the load, and it’s opening up its universal search capabilities wider than any competing player.
The new look of the hardware is the first indication that under the hood, things are different. The 0.9-pound Roku 4 measures 6.5 inches long, 5.5 inches deep, and 0.8 inches tall—just a bit smaller than four Roku 3 boxes arranged in a 2×2 grid. Roku chief marketing officer Matthew Anderson says that wider, flatter design helps keep the box’s new quad-core processor cool with the extra surface area and venting system. Anderson also says the Roku 4’s ability to stream Ultra HD video at 60fps is a key differentiator between it and the new Amazon Fire TV, which only supports 4K at 30fps.
Connectivity options on the box are also prepped for 4K ubiquity. Along with an HDMI 2.0 port with HDCP 2.2 copy protection for 4K content, dual-band 802.11 ac Wi-Fi, an Ethernet port, and optical audio out, the new Roku box has decoders for HEVC and VP9 video. Of course, you won’t get 4K video if you hook the Roku 4 up to a regular HDTV, but the box will play 1080p video and upscale it for 4K sets.
On the remote-control side of the equation, the Roku 4 has a similar remote to the Roku 3. There’s a headphone jack for private listening, the ability to play games with a D-pad controller if you flip it sideways, and a microphone built into it for voice searches.
According to Roku, the new device will make discovery easier—in the app and in real life. In the Roku Channel Store, there’s now a special section for 4K services, and Roku is also curating a “4K Spotlight” section that will highlight Ultra HD movies and shows across several channels. There’s also a new “Remote Finder” button on top of the box: You press it, it makes the remote emit a customizable sound, and then you can pinpoint exactly which two couch cushions it’s lodged between.
Those are all features unique to the new Roku 4 box, but all Roku devices released after April 2011 will receive new tricks with a firmware update rolling out in mid-October. The latest version of the Roku interface, OS 7, will expand each device’s universal search functionality and other features. Roku’s Anderson says the roster of channels supported in the new OS’s search functionality has been expanded to 20, with search results displaying which shows are available on which services at what price.
There are enhancements to the relatively new My Feed queue, as well. You can now add programs directly from the search interface and receive push notifications to your mobile device and Roku device when they become available or the price drops. And at long last, your dreams of watching Roku in a hotel or via a public hotspot with browser-based login tools are a reality: A new “Hotel and Dorm” connection feature lets you use your phone’s browser to enter login information.
Also adding firepower to existing Roku boxes and sticks is a revamped app for iOS and Android. Voice search is now the marquee feature on the app’s home screen, a “Play on Roku” option lets you beam photos and videos from your phone to your set, and you can tap any My Feed notifications to launch them quickly on your TV. One option in the new app is only available to Roku 4 owners, though: You can use your own photos as a screensaver, complete with Ken Burns-like pan-and-scan effects.