Roku, purveyor of smart TV platforms and streaming sticks, seems to be on a roll.
Back in 2016, Roku first announced its intention to refresh its entire lineup of streaming players, overhauling the hardware and giving them a set of new monikers that included the Roku Express, Roku Premiere and Roku Ultra.
In 2017, Roku again refreshed the HD-ready Express and 4K HDR-powered Ultra – but the Premiere, the middle-child, wasn’t destined for an update. Until now.
The recently unveiled Roku Premiere and Roku Premiere+ will once again pick up the mantle of the middle-child by producing 4K HDR images at a price most people can afford.
We got a chance to see them during a recent press demo held in San Francisco and, alongside them, a slew of updates coming to the software side that will make finding something to watch a significantly less expensive process.
When the Roku Premiere first launched in 2016, it looked a lot like the Roku 4 and Roku Ultra: It wasn’t quite a full-size player, but it was a far cry from the Roku Express, the smallest member of the Roku family.
Now, in 2018, the reverse is true: the new Premiere will take the shape of the Roku Express – i.e. a petite, crescent-shaped player with rounded edges. It’s only a few inches wide, an inch-and-a-half tall and an inch-and-a-half deep.
That said, despite sharing the same exterior as the Roku Express, the Premiere is still a more powerful player. We’ll cover exactly what it can do in just a second but you can expect 4K HDR support – the same as the Roku Ultra.
The differences between the Roku Premiere and Roku Premiere+ are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things: They have the same form factor, the same processor and the same performance.
The only difference is the remote and where you’ll be able to actually buy the devices when they come out. In the Roku Premiere+, you’ll find a Bluetooth remote, similar to what you’d find included in the Roku Ultra.
It doesn’t need a direct line of sight to the box, a power button that can control your TV through HDMI-CEC and comes with a microphone built-in. The Roku Premiere, on the other hand, will just have a standard IR remote without voice support … which would be kind of a disappointment if it wasn’t so cheap.
There's a small difference in price and availability, too: The Roku Premiere will be available at all major retailers for that $39.99 price point while the the Premiere+ will only be available exclusively through Walmart for $49.99. Sorry UK/Australia, unfortunately, it's just a US-exclusive for now.
Like the Roku Streaming Stick+, the Roku Premiere’s strong suit is providing 4K HDR performance at a reasonable price. You’d find it the most useful if you bought an ultra-cheap 4K TV during Black Friday or Cyber Monday, only to realize after that it doesn’t have the best on-board operating system.
Now, if the whole “4K HDR on a budget” promise sounds familiar, it’s because Roku introduced the Roku Streaming Stick+ a year ago that delivered just that.
The differences between them, according to Roku, is that the Roku Streaming Stick+ offers four times the range thanks to its antenna and supports 802.11ac wireless compared to the 802.11b/g/n that will be supported on the Premiere and Premiere+.
But no matter which device you decide to go with you’re getting Roku’s egalitarian OS that’s second to none. Whether you’re an Amazon Video watcher, a Hulu enthusiast or would rather stick to the half-dozen or so free, advertisement-driven video services, Roku has you covered, and it’s only getting better.
The latest slew of updates Roku’s Director of Product Management Lloyd Klarke had to show us were subtle tweaks on an already great platform. There was the Featured Free section of the Roku screen that rolled out recently to players that adds a dedicated section for free content. You’ll find dozens of shows and movies here – all of which can be streamed without paying a dime.
Also new was Google Assistant integration – a first for the platform. While Klarke couldn’t divulge all the info or give us a demonstration during our meeting, he told us Roku players will soon work like Cast-compatible TVs, allowing you to raise or lower the volume, and play content without ever picking up the remote.
Key to Roku’s success, search will also see an improvement in 2018 with the addition of a ’search free’ feature. This would allow you to, say, search for free comedies, combining Roku’s abilities to comb through content and find whatever’s free.
If there was one early disappointment with the performance of Roku’s newest model, it’s that the Premiere/Premiere+ won’t support Dolby Vision. This is something Apple supports on the Apple TV 4K, Microsoft supports on the Xbox One S and Xbox One X, and myriad TV manufacturers support via their built-in operating systems. For it to be missing here seems like a big misstep.
Our disappointment over Dolby Vision aside, the Roku Premiere looks like an impressive (and, impressively cheap) piece of kit. 4K HDR streaming for $40 opens the door to discount cord-cutters in a way that hasn’t happened before. (Chromecast Ultra, the latest Amazon Fire TV and Roku Streaming Stick+ might’ve held the previous low-marks at $69, but Roku’s on track to shatter that.)
To get to that price point it looks like Roku has cut a few corners – the IR remote in the basic Premiere, for one, and the lack of Dolby Vision for another. It can also become slightly convoluted for consumers when you toss the Roku Streaming Stick+ in the mix – a device that’s nearly identical outside of the Wi-Fi antenna.
All that said, we’re excited to get Roku’s latest hardware into our own homes for more in-depth testing. Paired with the new Roku TV Wireless Speakers that are due out later this year and we could finally see a complete AV solution for just pennies on the dollar.