Roku's newis the company's biggest update in years to its controller. In typical Roku fashion, it largely keeps the same look and feel of the company's other remotes, but the $30 accessory has some big under-the-hood improvements -- most notably a mid-field mic for voice control and a rechargeable battery.
Both of these features are great additions on paper. The new mic enables the ability to simply say "Hey Roku, find my remote" to make the clicker beep from wherever it is -- a game-changer for those who are constantly scouring the couch cushions. Roku remotes can chew through batteries quickly, and the ability to recharge instead means you no longer need to keep a stash of AAs on hand. And Roku's other extras, namely the, are as welcome as ever.
- Excellent lost remote finder
- Rechargeable battery
- Physical privacy switch for turning off the microphone
- Micro-USB for charging is a miss in 2021
- Weak voice assistant software
- No chime to alert you when the remote is listening if the TV is off
On the other hand, the remote still has work to do particularly when it comes to executing voice commands. If you like using your voice instead of buttons, especially if you're used to the flexibility of Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa, Roku's assistant can seem a bit dumb. The new remote has plenty of perks and provides an inexpensive way to make your Roku TV or streaming device better, but I don't recommend it as a "must-have" Roku upgrade.
After spending the last few days testing the new remote, here's the good, bad and everything you need to know if you're thinking of giving your home theater a small boost.
The good: Convenience is key
I'm a fan of the simplicity of Roku's controllers, which work really well with the company's easy-to-use software. Setting up this remote is unsurprisingly fairly simple, just go to "Remotes and Devices" in Settings on your Roku and follow the on-screen instructions after choosing "Set up a new device."
For those used to using one of the company's "enhanced" remotes (also a $30 accessory or bundled with the Roku Ultra box), the front layout is identical. There is the usual array of power, home, back buttons and a microphone up top with a directional pad and the regular jump back, mic, star and play/rewind/fast-forward below.
Under that are the two customizable shortcut keys labeled "1" and "2" which can be configured to open apps, switch inputs (on a Roku TV) or do tasks like jumping to a specific show. You can set this up by saying a voice command and then pressing and holding one of the two buttons. Roku's famous four streaming shortcuts lay at the bottom (for me and early versions of this remote that is Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu and Sling TV. Roku is in the process of.
It isn't until you turn to the left side that you start to see something new: A switch for turning on a hands-free mid-field microphone above the 3.5mm headphone jack. With a range of around 12 feet, the microphone did a nice job in my fairly quiet apartment hearing my commands to turn the TV on, switch inputs, muting volume and playing shows. It even heard me over a TV on full blast.
I loved the remote-finder function and hope that Roku and others make this a standard feature going forward. It is to me by far the most compelling part of this product, with uttering that simple "Hey Roku, find my remote" triggering a beeping sound out of the remote's back speaker.
Even with the remote buried under a pile of clothes and a Yankees game blaring from the TV I was able to get the remote to respond and start beeping, even if the speaker in that scenario is a little faint. You may want to use the Roku app on a phone to mute your TV if you find yourself in need of searching.
The rechargeable battery is also nice and for those who find themselves frequently swapping batteries could have that aspect alone quickly justify the $30 price. Roku says it should last around two months, with a full charge taking two-to-three hours. I couldn't test out the battery life in my few days with the remote.
The bad: It's not smart enough
Although Roku added a few nice features to the Voice Remote Pro, it's not without faults.
First, the obvious: the use of micro-USB for recharging. Once the default charging standard for BlackBerrys, Galaxys and nearly anything small, rechargeable and non-Apple, if this remote came out a few years ago this port would've been a nice plus. In a 2021 world with the increasingly more popular USB-C? It's a big miss, even if Roku includes a cable in the box.
I can understand Roku keeping micro-USB on its sticks and small streamers, devices meant to just be plugged into your TV and left alone. With a remote you're supposed to use for years, opting to go with a standard that is becoming more obsolete by the day -- especially when its successor is so readily available -- just doesn't make sense. It's asking people to keep another special cable around for the few times a year you need to charge this device, as opposed to going with the cable they likely already have to charge their phones, tablets or computers.
Where the Voice Remote Pro really let me down, however, is in Roku's voice assistant. While the company plays nicely with Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri for controlling its OS with this remote, the company relies on its own voice assistant. While functional for playing shows or movies, I found it much less reliable and significantly more limited than using Alexa or Google Assistant. It can't tune to a specific live TV channel on a service like YouTube TV or Sling TV, and you can't control smart home devices such as lights.
Asking for seemingly simple requests like showtimes, sports scores or the weather is also a no-go. When I asked for the weather, an indicator said that functionality is "not yet supported," suggesting it may be coming at some point.
Switching inputs also needs to be very specific and clear. Switching to cable TV requires saying "Hey Roku, go to cable TV." I tried saying "Hey Roku, go to TV" and "Hey Roku, go to cable" but neither worked the way I wanted -- the latter just searched for an app called AnthymTV, which has "cable" in its description.
When I requested playing The Beatles or Taylor Swift, the software insisted on opening Pandora even though I don't have that app installed. Roku says that you have to set up which music provider you'd like for voice commands on its website (there is no way to do this on the Roku itself), but those options are currently limited to Pandora, iHeartRadio and TuneIn. If you don't use any of those services (I have Spotify on my Roku), you're out of luck right now.
Unlike Google Assistant on a smart speaker, which plays a chime when you say "OK, Google," you won't hear a sound alerting you that the Roku remote is listening when your TV is off. (A Roku TV will go on with a little notification in the corner to alert you it's listening, but the screen on a Samsung TV I tried it on stayed dark even though the Roku was listening.)
Roku says this is because it relies on the TV speakers for sound -- but given the always-on nature of this remote, having a chime come from the remote speaker would be nice.
- Asking the Roku TV to play a show or movie, such as WandaVision on Disney Plus, won't open the show right away even if you have profiles set up. While there is no way to set a default profile, you can say "Hey Roku, OK" to choose the highlighted option and get streaming.
- Unlike with its Ultra boxes, no headphones are included in the box. Not a big deal, but it would've been a nice gesture.
- One time, the TV randomly turned on when seemingly nothing was said and did its own search for The Alchemist.
- I had issues opening the MLB app by voice, with the assistant either not recognizing the command or searching for unrelated things.
- There is no battery life indicator on the home screen: You check by saying "Hey Roku, tell me my battery level" or by going into the Remotes and Devices section in Settings. Roku says the "battery level will also flash occasionally on the upper right of the screen when low" with indicators briefly appearing when it drops to 75%, 50%, 25% and "more persistently below that."
First published April 19.