Roku’s new lineup takes aim at smart TVs: Peter Nowak

Will one category kill the other?



I’m in the process of testing some smart TVs – the kind that connect to the internet and run various apps, such as YouTube and Netflix – which is funny because I just finished reviewing a bunch of media streaming devices, including the Roku XS and Apple TV.

As the thinking goes, the one category is supposed to kill the other. With TVs increasingly connecting to internet apps, smartphones and tablets, there won’t be a need for extra, dedicated devices for much longer, right?

I’m not so sure. I recently wrote about how converged devices such as smartphones might be creating demand for optimized gadgets in the vein of cameras, gaming systems and e-readers. I’m of a growing mind that media streamers might qualify for this trend as well.

I say this as one of the market leaders, Saratoga, Calif.-based Roku, is announcing a new lineup of devices for Canada. The Roku 3, which sells for $109, was released here earlier this month. The new Roku 1 and Roku 2, priced at $69 and $89 respectively, go on sale on Oct. 1.

The differences between them are slight. The Roku 3 is fully featured with a fast processor, Ethernet port on its back and a motion-sensing remote control, which lets you play games such as Angry Birds on your TV by simply flicking it around. The remote on the Roku 2 doesn’t have motion sensing, but it does have the same headphone jack as the Roku 3.

I’ve been playing with the Roku 3 for a while now and the jack is a really cool feature, since it lets you listen to whatever you’re watching without disturbing anyone else in the house. And you don’t have to stretch a cord all the way to the TV – it works wirelessly. The remote on both the Roku 2 and Roku 3 actually connects via Wi-Fi, meaning you don’t have to aim it at the unit under the TV. You can change channels without having to get out from under your blanket, if you so desire.

The Roku 1, however, has a standard infrared controller, meaning you’ll actually have to go to all the trouble of pointing it at the TV (#firstworldproblems). It also doesn’t have the headphone jack, but it does have a pretty small price tag.

All three devices, as well as existing Roku products, are getting a slick new interface (if they haven’t already). The old interface was, well, blah, to put it mildly. Downloaded channels lined up horizontally and you had to scroll through a long line of them. It wasn’t exactly sexy.

The new setup organizes channels vertically into tiles, nine of which are on screen at any time. You can scroll vertically and, if you want to get into a specific category – say, the channel store – you swoosh over horizontally and you’re into a new set of tiles. It takes inspiration from the Apple TV’s interface, which says a lot.

Those two devices are actually cornering the market, and deservedly so. While I was testing out streamers, I found there’s a relatively big selection of them out there – every electronics company under the sun seems to be making them. Apple and Roku, however, look to be the only ones that have figured out that simplicity is key, with most of the others resembling a dog’s breakfast.

That’s actually Roku’s biggest focus, says Lloyd Klarke, director of product management for the company.

“Other smart interfaces on electronic products tend to have multiple things coming in and off the screen, treating it like it’s a PC screen. We’re trying to develop specifically for a TV interface,” he told me during a recent briefing. “We could have put many more things on the screen, but we’re very focused on simplicity.”

Roku is also focusing on adding channels, with now more than 500 available in Canada, covering just about every conceivable interest. Other than Netflix, there are channels such Warner Bros’ movie archive, Entertainment Tonight, Pandora, NASA, IGN and even

When that growing app ecosystem is added to the simplicity of a much smoother interface than that found on many smart TVs, plus the relatively low price, dedicated media-streaming devices such as Roku’s lineup look to be making a strong case for continued relevance among otherwise converged electronics.

Interestingly, Google is continuing to take stabs at this market – and having some success doing so if the constantly sold out Chromecast is any indication. The USB-like stick mirrors content from PCs and smartphones, but its best feature has to be its price: only $35.

Klarke says the Chromecast in some ways validates what Roku is doing and has in fact buoyed the company’s sales, but that it is saddled with limitations.

“We agree with some customers wanting to take their mobile information and display it on screen. We don’t think it’s an entire product on its own,” he says. “We do think there’s a tremendous benefit to having 500 channels and a remote control in your hand.”

That may be the case – for now. But this is Google we’re talking about; Chromecast is likely only the beginning. In the end, it may not be smart TVs that Roku has to worry about.

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