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Roku updates streaming boxes with voice search, new movies feed (hands-on)

CNET's favorite streaming boxes get minor makeovers, with voice search coming to the new Roku 3 and faster performance to the new Roku 2. Plus, a Facebook-like data feed lets you "follow" new movies as they transition through availability windows.

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Roku's mildly updated new boxes and software won't satisfy tech enthusiasts who wanted a Roku 4K or an interface worthy of Minority Report, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Today the company makes officially available in the United States its first new Roku box hardware in two years, debuting slightly revamped versions of the Roku 3 and Roku 2 . (The boxes apparently were already on sale in some locations yesterday.) Both new devices are shipping to the US today for $99.99 and $69.99, respectively--the same prices as the current boxes. The Roku 1 and Roku Streaming Stick remain available for $49.99 each.

Meanwhile, UK customers will only get the new Roku 2 for now. It will be available in May for £69.99.

Roku, of course, is CNET's favorite streaming platform, delivering thousands of apps, comprehensive search and a dead-simple, refreshingly agnostic, interface that doesn't push a particular content provider (we're looking at you, Amazon , Apple and Google ).

Sarah Tew/CNET

Voice search from the Roku 3 remote

The new Roku 3's big feature addition is voice search from the remote, something its rival Amazon Fire TV box had had for a year.

In the demo we tried it works in pretty much the same way as Amazon: touch the dedicated button and a dialog pops up to indicate that the mic is listening. The system was pretty good at recognizing the terms we tried, and as usual Roku's search results were relevant, comprehensive and organized by price so you don't accidentally buy something you already get for "free" from a subscription service.

We're looking forward to further tests in the review, in particular whether it can better Amazon's excellent voice search, not to mention that of the Google Nexus Player . Assuming they're each similarly decent at voice recognition, Roku seems to have a big advantage because its voice search hits all 17 services covered by Roku's current text search, including major services Netflix, Amazon, Hulu Plus, Crackle, Fox Now, FXNow, HBO Go, M-Go, Time Warner Cable and Vudu. Amazon and Google's voice search catalogs are more limited; both still omit Netflix results, for example.

New Roku 2 equals the speed of Roku 3

The new Roku 2 has been upgraded to the same lightning-quick level of speed as the current (and new) Roku 3, according to the company. We found the 2013 version decidedly pokier than its more expensive brother, so the speed boost, if it truly does bring the two to parity, is a real boon.

So what do you trade to get faster performance and keep the same price? The new Roku 2 omits the headphone jack-equipped remote found on the current version. Now the only way to get that marriage-saving extra is to pony up for a Roku 3. Sad trombone.

And no, you can't buy the new Roku 3 remote separately yet, but it is capable of working with the new Roku 2 as well as the existing Roku 3. Amazon, if you're keeping score, sells a separate voice-control remote that works with the Fire TV Stick . For now, voice search is a US-only feature and won't be available in the UK.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Roku Feeds your new release needs

Rather than revamp its software with an entirely new interface, Roku decided to keep the same fully customizable, tile-based view and add a new option to the main left-hand menu. It's something called "Roku Feed."

If you want to watch a new movie that's not yet available to stream on a Roku channel -- for example, a film in theaters today -- you can "follow" it by adding it to your feed. You can check the feed for updates and you'll receive a notification for when the movie is available to stream, and how much it costs. If the price or availability changes, you'll be notified again.

It seems like a clever approach to the confusion of release windows, where a movie becomes available during different times to different outlets (theaters, disc, streaming, cable VOD, etc.) and for various prices. It's also a feature no other device offers, and further leverages Roku's channel-bridging approach. Feeds will start with Movies Coming Soon, but Roku intends to add other kinds of windowed content in the future.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Another worthwhile interface addition is the separate option to search for individual apps from the main Channel Store page. Previously apps would come up as results from the main global Roku search, but adding a dedicated app search is a welcome change, given Roku's catalog of more than 1,700 channels.

The new updated software will roll out to to all current generation Roku devices starting today and will be completed in the US by the end of April. UK customers will get the update in May.

Current generation Roku devices are those introduced after April 2011 and include the Roku 3, Roku 2, Roku 1, Roku Streaming Stick (both HDMI and Roku Ready versions), Roku LT , Roku 2 HD, Roku 2 XD, Roku 2 XS and the Roku HD.

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New Roku Remote app: Feeds and voice

Roku's Remote app for iOS and Android also get an update that among other changes will include a Feeds view. Roku told me the app will not offer notifications for new movies, however; apparently you'll have to open the app and look at your Feed for that.

The Roku Remote app will also offer voice search (in the US only for now), something the Amazon Fire TV Remote app had had since day one. It will work with all current Rokus. That's a nice addition for phone-centric users, but hardly as convenient as having voice search on the remote.

Sarah Tew/CNET

So which Roku do I buy now?

Our preliminary buying advice is pretty simple: if you want the fancy new remote with voice search and a headphone jack, pay the extra $30 for the Roku 3. Otherwise the newly speedy Roku 2 seems like a fantastic bargain.

Of course, with competitors like Amazon Fire TV and the cheapest-ever Apple TV raising the bar, Roku has more competition than ever.

We'll know more once we've had the chance to review the new boxes.