While other smart TV systems rarely receive substantial upgrades, especially after year one, Roku TVs just keep getting better.
Today our favorite smart TV system will begin sending out its latest free software update to every Roku TV model, even the first generation sets from 2014. It brings two major new features, one that will appeal to cord cutters who use an antenna and another to those who occasionally want to listen via headphones.
People who depend on the built-in tuner and an antenna for live TV typically have to forgo the the ability, long taken for granted by DVR and streaming video users, to pause the action. Now Roku TVs can pause live TV that comes via their built-in antennas, no DVR required.
Fun with antennas
To use the feature you'll need to insert a USB memory stick into the TV's USB port, and of course be watching a show broadcast live over the air (as opposed to streaming). Hitting the pause button on the Roku remote pauses the action, and it will remain paused for up to 90 minutes. You can then fast-forward up until you catch up to the live broadcast, or rewind back to when you first hit pause.
In a hands-on I had with Roku's reps the feature worked just as it should. No other DVR-like features are included -- you can't schedule recordings, for example -- and it requires a USB stick of at least 16GB ($5-$10). Roku told me most USB sticks will work, but if the one you insert isn't fast enough, for example, you'll get a pop-up message.
It's a pretty cool feature, and one I've never seen built into any other TV -- especially as a free software upgrade. It's also worth mentioning that many streaming apps that offer live TV, such as Watch ESPN or CBS All Access, don't allow you to pause or skip commercials on the live feed.
Private listening comes to Roku TV
People who couldn't care less about antenna support also get something cool with the new update: private listening. Just like on Roku's other 2016 devices, Roku TVs will now allow you to listen to audio from the TV via your phone's headphone jack.
The Roku app for iOS and Android devices gets a little headphone icon when it connects to a Roku TV. Inserting headphones into your phone, or clicking the icon, mutes the TV and sends the audio to your phone instead. It can play through your phone's tiny speaker or (more common) via the headphones, so you can watch without disturbing others.
When we tested it on other Roku devices it worked like a charm with wired headphones. Some Bluetooth cans, however, introduced lip-sync delay, a common issue with wireless headphones and video.
Other upgrades: 'Party' photo sharing, volume control via CEC, more mirroring
Other improvements are coming at the same time. Roku is adding a sort of "party" mode to the Play On Roku feature of its app, which allows users to easily send photos from their phones to a connected TV. Now multiple users can connect to the same TV simultaneously, bumping each others photos on and off the screen.
Roku boxes that have remotes with volume controls can how use those buttons to control volume on a compatible TV via the HDMI CEC protocol, eliminating the need to use the original TV remote. And Roku's 2016 4K boxes, namely Roku Premiere, Roku Premiere+ and Roku Ultra, can now mirror the screens of compatible Android or Windows Mobile devices onto the TV screen.