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If you need evidence that 4K TV is now mainstream, look no further than Roku’s brand-new batch of streamers. A year after the company unveiled the Roku 4, its first 4K set-top streaming box, it now offers three 4K-capable boxes. As of today, there are more 4K Roku boxes than HD Roku boxes—and two of the new devices play HDR content, too.
According to Roku, the new lineup is due to 4K TV sales finally hitting critical mass. The company says 55 million 4K sets are projected to be sold worldwide in 2016, and Roku represents nearly 50 percent of the U.S. streaming-box market, according to ComScore research.
The five new Roku devices represent a complete refresh of the company’s streaming-box lineup. There’s also a major change to the naming conventions you may be used to. Essentially, three boxes replace the Roku 4. The new highest-end model is the Roku Ultra ($130), which does 4K at 60fps and supports HDR streaming on compatible TVs, offers USB and Ethernet ports, and has optical-out audio. The remote also supports voice search, and the box shares the beeping remote-control finder of the Roku 4.
The lower-priced Roku Premiere+ ($100) shares many of the same features, including a quad-core processor, Ethernet connectivity, and a headphone jack on the remote for private listening. Like the higher-end Ultra, it also does 4K and HDR streaming, but it’s missing the optical-out audio, the USB port, and the voice-search feature on the remote. Cheaper still is the Wi-Fi-only Roku Premiere, another quad-core box that does 4K at 60fps but not HDR. It lacks the headphone jack on the remote, it doesn’t have the Ethernet port, and its remote works via infrared instead of Wi-Fi.
So think of it this way: Instead of having to choose between the Roku 1, Roku 2, and Roku 3 box, there are now tiered versions of Roku’s 4K streamer. The Ultra offers the full slate of Roku options, the Premiere+ lacks some of the advanced I/O options, and the Premiere lacks HDR, the ability to stream over Ethernet, and some of the advanced remote features.
But Roku also isn’t leaving HD or even SD TV owners in the lurch, either. All those 4K boxes also stream in HD, and they’ll likely offer faster performance due to their processing muscle. But there are also a pair of super-cheap, Wi-Fi-only HD boxes if that’s all you need.
The new Roku Express is the smallest and cheapest Roku box yet, more akin to the size of the company’s streaming stick than its set-top unit. It’s also crazy cheap: At $30, it does Roku’s full slate of 3,000 channels in HD over an HDMI cable. If you have an older TV with RCA inputs, you’ll need the $40 Roku Express+, which offers those old-school connectors in addition to HDMI.
But all that new hardware is only part of the story, as Roku wants to make it easy for viewers to find Ultra HD content. The new 4K-capable boxes offer a “4K Spotlight” channel, which pulls in Ultra HD content from multiple channels instead of having to seek it out yourself. And thanks to an OS update for all Roku boxes, system-wide search features will get smarter for all other Roku devices, as well. The company is expanding its cross-channel search feature to support 100 channels—up from about 20 or so earlier this year.
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