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New Roku streamers add tricked-out remotes, remain affordable

The 2019 lineup of Roku's popular players starts at $30 with an all-new Express and ends at $100 with a more-ultra Ultra.

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Programmable shortcut keys "1" and "2" grace the new Roku Ultra remote.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Fresh off introducing its first soundbar with built-in streaming, Roku has taken the wraps off its complete lineup of new 2019 media streamers -- the little boxes and sticks you hook to your TV to get Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, YouTube TV, Sling TV and, coming soon, Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus. As befits that bewildering array of services, Roku has a wide selection of streamers this year: seven in all, ranging from $30 to $100, which is pretty much the same price range as previous models.

Roku makes our favorite streaming players, with thousands of apps, a dead-simple layout and constant updates. It's available in smart TVs from TCL and others, but players like the Roku Streaming Stick Plus, our current Editors' Choice, provide an easy upgrade to any TV. If you have somewhat less-than-current set, or you're unhappy with your TV's built-in apps, getting a Roku is your best bet.

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All of the new models handle basic streaming, so the differences lie in design (stick or box), 4K HDR capability and, most of all, the remotes. Most of the clickers, starting with the $40 Roku Express Plus, handle voice commands and can control your TV's volume and power -- an awesome extra that lets you ditch your TV remote. Nobody told Roku that headphone jacks are going away, because the three higher-end remotes include a port that allows you to listen privately via wired headphones (included). And Roku's best remote, shipping with the $100 Ultra, has an all-new convenience feature: two keys you can program with your own shortcuts.

Here's how the models break down.

Roku's 2019 streaming players

Model Price Design Streaming quality Remote Retailers
Express $30 Mini box HD Basic All
Express Plus $40 Mini box HD Voice and TV control Walmart only
Premiere $40 Mini box 4K HDR Basic All
Streaming Stick Plus $60 Stick 4K HDR Voice and TV control All
Streaming Stick Plus Headphone Edition $60 Stick 4K HDR Voice and TV control, headphone jack Best Buy only
Ultra LT $80 Bigger box 4K HDR Voice and TV control, headphone jack Walmart only
Ultra $100 Bigger box 4K HDR Voice and TV control with mute button, headphone jack, remote finder, programmable keys All

During Roku's demo session in New York, I got the chance to try the Ultra's shortcut buttons and they worked as promised. I used a voice command to call up a genre -- a feature Roku is calling Zones with curated content, e.g., Comedy, Horror and so on -- and a search result list appeared. I held down the "1" shortcut key and the remote emitted a chirp, confirming that the command was registered. Clicking the key again caused the results list top appear, exactly as if I had used that voice command.

Roku's rep told me voice commands were chosen because it makes programming the keys easy. Pretty much any command, from launching apps to turning on closed captions, can be paired to one of the remote's two programmable keys. The feature is only available on the new Roku Ultra, and Roku isn't selling that clicker separately to use with other Roku devices (yet). And unfortunately, you still can't change the functions of any of the four app shortcut keys -- they're still bound to Netflix, Hulu and other spps that vary per remote, like ESPN Plus and Sling TV in the clicker seen below.

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Hold down a shortcut key after using a voice command programs that command as the shortcut.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The new Ultra is faster than the 2018 version -- Roku claims the top 100 apps launch an average of 17% faster, news apps 20% faster, and some much more quickly than that. Otherwise the Ultra is the same, down to the slick remote finder: Click a button on top of the box and the remote emits a tone, so you can can find it from under the couch cushions, for example. 

All of Roku's 4K streamers have Dolby Atmos audio capability (just not on Netflix) but none of them, including the new Ultra, support Dolby Vision HDR video, which is available on the $50 Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K and $180 Apple TV 4K. Dolby Vision is hardly a must-have, but its omission helps cement the Apple TV 4K's place as the best high-end streamer in my book.

The Roku LT, available only at Walmart, loses the programmable keys, fast app launching and remote finder. It's the cheapest Roku with an Ethernet port, but otherwise tough to justify over the Streaming Stick Plus.

That stick comes in two flavors: the venerable model from 2017 that's unchanged yet nonetheless remains our favorite, and a new spin-off, exclusive to Best Buy, that ships with a headphone jack remote. For now the two are priced the same, but the standard Plus routinely falls to $50, so it's a safe bet that that price (or a lower one) will recur for holiday shopping season.

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Just like the original, the new Roku Express is tiny.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Roku gave the $30 Express mini-box a new shape that's slightly curved. It has also improved USB power management to the point where the rep claimed 98% of TVs would be able to power the Express from their USB ports. The advantage -- not having to plug in the separate (included) power adapter -- is arguably outweighed by having to wait for it to boot up each time. Otherwise it's the same as the 2017 Express, my go-to recommendation for budget streamers.

Meanwhile Roku dropped the big feature I loved on the 2017 Express Plus: the analog video output. Instead, the Walmart-only Express Plus 2019 has the voice remote with TV control, effectively replacing the 2017 Streaming Stick (which is going away) as the best non-4K Roku. 

Good news for people with legacy TVs that lack HDMI ports and want to infuse them with streaming: the 2017 Roku Express Plus isn't going away entirely. It will continue to be sold at Roku's web site.

For the same $40 you can still get a Roku Premiere, which lacks that remote but does stream in 4K HDR. Not so much the 2018 Premiere Plus, another Walmart exclusive, which is being discontinued. Pour one out for the best value in 4K streaming.

Roku's new players start shipping in October.

So which Roku should I buy, Katzmaier?

I just found out about these things three days ago, and my opinion could change once we review the new ones, but right now my favorite is... [drumroll]... the Roku Streaming Stick Plus. Yep, the one from 2017, still. For 4K HDR TV owners, or those who will get such a TV in the near future (and pretty much every new TV is 4K HDR), it continues to offer the best combination of features for the money.

As for the other players I'm happy to see Roku's great headphone jack feature appear on more devices (last year it was restricted to the Ultra only), and the shortcut keys on the Ultra are pretty sweet if you have a command or two you keep having to use. But for high-end buyers I'll likely continue to recommend the Apple TV 4K instead of the Ultra.

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Roku Zones feature curated content from a variety of genres and sources, just not Netflix.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I already have a Roku. Any new software upgrades coming? 

Glad you asked, Mr. Straw Man. In Roku OS 9.2, rolling out to players and TVs in the coming weeks, there's the aforementioned Roku Zones -- curated sections like "Drama Movies & TV Zone" and "News and Sports Zone" that gather apps and individual shows and movies for easy browsing -- and an update to Roku's 4K Spotlight section, which features 4K content (neither it nor Zones feature Netflix content, however). New voice commands include sleep timers on Roku TVs ("Go to sleep at 1 a.m."), a search dedicated to movie quotes ("What movie said 'I love the smell of napalm in the morning'?") and another for "4K movies," the ability to say "Play," "Skip," and so on, with files on the Roku Media Player and, for users of Google Home and Amazon Alexa speakers with Roku, an option to control multiple Rokus in the home. 

Roku's tips and trick videos gets a new tile on the home page, and it also showed a new shortcut row that appears in the main app section, with icons labeled "TV Off" and "Add channel." The latter is self-explanatory, but I was surprised to see the former on a media player. Roku's rep explained that it worked as you'd expect: Click it and the TV turns off, via the same HDMI-CEC magic that helps Roku's power-button-equipped remotes.

Look for the full reviews of Roku's new players on CNET soon.

Updated to include availability of the 2017 Roku Express Plus.

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