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Roku Streaming Stick Plus with 4K for $70 leads five-player team

The streaming specialist challenges Amazon, Apple and Google with five updated TV players priced from $30 to $100.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Roku specializes in streaming, and so far that focus is paying off.

The scrappy Los Gatos, California-based firm just came off a big initial public offering, but as a company it's still dwarfed by its main rivals in the streaming hardware game: Amazon, Apple and Google. Roku's streaming sticks and boxes are more popular than their competitors, however, and they routinely earn my top recommendations.

Roku's latest hardware lineup, with five players ranging from $30 to $100, looks capable of winning a streaming championship once again. Four have the same names as last year but they've been working out in the offseason, bringing upgrades like faster processors. And three of the five get a new feature so smart and basic it could finally tempt owners of old Rokus to upgrade: their remotes can control your TV's volume and power.

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The fifth, the Roku Streaming Stick Plus ($70), is completely new yet could be an all-star. It builds on my favorite streamer of 2016, the Roku Streaming Stick, by adding 4K HDR playback at a price that matches competitors from Amazon and Google. It also includes that TV control remote, as well as a new antenna attachment said to improve Wi-Fi reception in problem areas.

Roku's 2017 streaming lineup

Model Price Streaming quality Key extras
Express $30 HD Faster than 2016 version
Express Plus $40 HD Includes analog TV cable
Streaming Stick $50 HD New TV control remote with voice
Streaming Stick Plus $70 4K HDR Wi-Fi boosting cable
Ultra $100 4K HDR Remote headphone jack, remote finder, Ethernet, USB, SD slot


Initial impressions

I got the chance to play around with the new Rokus in a brief hands-on session. Here's what I think so far.

Express/Express Plus ($30/$40): My main complaint about last year's Express, a tiny box just slightly bigger than a streaming stick, was pokey operational speed. The new version with the faster processor, which Roku calls "5x faster," is a big improvement. It blazed through Roku's menus and heavy apps like Netflix and Sling TV, which choked its predecessor. It seems like an ideal "basic" streamer now, and it costs less than Chromecast ($35) and Amazon's Fire TV Stick ($40). The Express Plus is identical and equally fast, but includes an analog cable for older TVs, just like last year.

Roku Streaming Stick Plus

The remote on the new Streaming Stick and more expensive 2017 Roku players has voice search and can control your TV's volume and power.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Streaming Stick ($50): The signature addition, a remote that with buttons that control your TV's power and volume, is great. For many people it's easily worth the $20 extra to ditch their TV's remotes (sorry, Sideclick). Some other streamers, including Apple TV, Fire TV, Chromecast and even Roku offer some TV control already, but the new Roku remote is different. Instead of HDMI CEC, a system that depends on your TV's compatibility and can be spotty in my tests, Roku's clicker uses standard infrared (IR) commands, so it should work with just about any television. Roku says setup is easy and codes are beamed to the clicker so you don't have to input them manually. 

The Stick is also the cheapest Roku with voice capability on the remote, another feature not found on the 2016 stick. It works fine for search and adds new capabilities like input switching and natural language (see below), but it's a far cry from Alexa. Roku is not selling the new remote separately.

Streaming Stick Plus ($70): This is the only 2017 Roku player that looks different, with a glossy finish and an included "advanced wireless receiver" that's an extension of the power cable. Roku says it's designed to improve reception in weaker Wi-Fi areas, delivering 4x the range for a stronger signal and faster speeds. The receiver is incompatible with other devices, Roku or otherwise.

The Plus has the same clicker as the standard Stick and adds 4K resolution with high dynamic range HDR, just like the Premiere Plus I liked from last year. Its biggest competitors are Amazon's new Fire TV and Chromecast Ultra, two similarly tiny 4K HDR streamers that also cost $70.  

Roku Streaming Stick Plus

The Wi-Fi extender on the Streaming Stick Plus is designed to help improve reception.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Roku Ultra ($100): The only full-sized box for 2017, the Ultra is similar to last year but $30 cheaper, and without the optical digital audio output I liked so much. (Roku says it's because very few people ever used it.) It adds TV control to the remote, however, and is now the only Roku with the company's signature remote headphone jack for private listening and the remote finder function so you don't lose it among the couch cushions. There's also an SD card slot to expand the memory for faster app loading, and a wired Ethernet port. Roku missed a trick by not including Dolby Vision HDR, but the only streamers that currently have it the $170 Apple TV 4K and Chromecast Ultra.

The new players are available for preorder now and hit stores around Oct. 8.

New software: single-sign, antenna tricks for Roku TVs

Roku also is also rolling out its latest software version, Roku OS 8, in October to all of its streaming sticks and boxes (save a few older models) and in November to its Roku TVs.

The players get single sign-on, similar to Apple TV. Signing on to one TV Everywhere app that you have rights to as part of a cable subscription (like Watch ESPN) automatically signs you in to others, like Watch TBS or ABC (30 are available at launch). The catch? Not every cable or satellite provider is included. Just like Apple TV, Comcast and Spectrum are major holdouts.

roku-tv-fall-2017-update-009

Sarah Tew/CNET

There's also an improved support for natural language voice search, and a tweak to the 4K Spotlight app for 4K and HDR devices that breaks available 4K and HDR TV shows and movies into different categories.

Roku-powered TVs get even more upgrades from OS8, including a full program guide for over-the-air antenna channels. It includes a novel integration of the company's More Ways to Watch feature: click on a show title and immediately be taken to the streaming version. There are also new voice commands beyond search, for example turning on and off the TV, switching inputs and tuning to antenna channels.

I look forward to more time testing Roku's new gear and comparing it to the other streamers on the market. Expect full CNET reviews soon.

Updated with more details on Roku OS 8, and additional information on Roku's new TV control remote system.