Media Streamers

Staring down giants, Roku launches $129 top-end streaming box

Streaming-device maker Roku bets again that putting on blinders to anything but streaming video will make the difference when it faces off with fresh rival products from Apple, Amazon and Google.

Roku 4 is the company's first new box in more than two years. Sarah Tew/CNET

Roku unveiled its first new set-top box in more than two years Tuesday, aiming to distinguish itself from bigger competitors by hawking streaming devices and nothing else.

The Saratoga, California, company, which makes devices that connect your television to Internet video and music, also unveiled updates to the software that runs its devices and to its app that turns your smartphone into a high-tech remote.

Of the four companies behind the biggest-selling streaming devices, Roku is the last to introduce new items before the crucial holiday shopping season. Roku also lags behind in consumer recognition versus its competitors, which are some of the biggest companies in the world. Over the past few months, Apple unveiled a new Apple TV, Amazon updated its Fire TV box and Fire TV Stick, and Google added some color to its new Chromecast dongles. Roku's pitch to consumers is that it's the only company solely focused on streaming television.

"People feel that we're on their side," said Matthew Anderson, Roku's chief marketing officer. "It's why we're growing so quickly." He wouldn't specify Roku's sales, other than to characterize them as good.

Apple, Amazon and Google all hope the TV will lock consumers into their bigger universe of businesses, be it iPhones, Prime membership or purchases from the Google Play store. Roku, the company said, simply wants to stream video best, and it's betting its survival on it. So far, the strategy worked. Its devices were the the biggest sellers last year in the US, according to researcher Parks Associates.

Called the company's "best streaming player ever" by CEO Anthony Wood, the Roku 4 box supports ultra-high-resolution 4K video, unlike Apple's box, at a higher rate of frames every second than Amazon's latest device. It also introduces a channel that curates 4K videos, so viewers won't need to hunt for the content.

The company also wanted Roku 4 to solve an age-old television problem: "Where the heck is my remote?" The box has a button that makes your remote call out to you from its hiding place beneath the couch cushion. The sound the remote makes, as well as the interface on the TV screen itself, can be personalized from a few options.

At $129, Roku 4 is priced higher than Amazon's $100 Fire TV but undercuts the Apple TV, which ranges from $149 to $199. It will be available this month and can be preordered starting Thursday from roku.com. It will be for sale at retailers including Amazon.

The company is also rolling out a new operating system, which is the software that runs all its devices. Roku OS 7 will let customers follow movies, directors and actors so they are alerted when new material from favorites is available or comes down in price. The software update will be rolled out to current-generation Roku players and Roku TVs beginning in mid-October and is expected to be completed in November.

Roku is also releasing an update to its free mobile app, making it easier for consumers to access features including remote control and voice search. The addition of "Pinch to zoom" capabilities let consumers show off personal photos in closer detail.

Roku also adds a "Hotel and Dorm Connect" feature that helps people who are traveling or living on campus to quickly get hooked into networks that require a log-in.