In the past, I've been extremely hard on the Roku Express, Roku's cheapest streaming player. It's always functioned more or less as promised, but it's an ugly device that often gets hoisted up by its own HDMI cable. Roku has taken these criticisms to heart, and has come up with a whole new Roku Express design for 2019 — as well as a more powerful refresh of its top-of-the-line Roku Ultra player, and cheaper variations on some of its existing devices.
I went hands-on with the new Express and Ultra at a private press demo in New York City, and the Express looks a lot better than before. (The Ultra looks just the same as before, although it now runs a little faster.) The Express is still a small, rounded rectangle, but now it has sort of a semicircular design, giving it a more stable footprint and a little more visual flair. It sits flat in an entertainment center, although it still has an adhesive strip for viewers who prefer to attach it to the side of a TV. However, it will no longer support analog inputs, as the previous Express did.
As far as performance goes, it seems snappier than before, but I'll need to run it through a few tests in the office to be sure. Beyond that, it's similar to the previous model, with 1080p video resolution, a non-voice remote and an asking price of $30. Viewers who want a voice remote can pick up the Walmart-exclusive Roku Express+ instead, which will run them $40.
Next up, Roku showed off the upgraded Roku Ultra. This is still Roku's premium box, featuring 4K HDR support, a USB port, a microSD slot and a "find remote" feature. It still costs $100. But now, it's got a more powerful processor, which Roku claims can launch channels 17% faster, on average.
The bigger difference is that the Roku Ultra remote now features two programmable shortcut buttons. This is a feature that viewers have been requesting for a while, as Roku remotes' built-in shortcut buttons tend to favor major streaming channels — not necessarily a videophile's favorite channels.
Roku Streaming Stick+ Headphone Edition and Ultra LT
There are two other Roku models that will debut later this year: the Roku Streaming Stick+ Headphone Edition, and the Roku Ultra LT. The former is a Best Buy-exclusive variant of the Roku Streaming Stick+; the latter is a Walmart-exclusive variant of the Roku Ultra.
The Roku Streaming Stick+ Headphone Edition is exactly the same as the regular Streaming Stick+, except that it comes with a private listening remote and a pair of earbuds. Since it costs $60, same as the regular Streaming Stick, it's the better deal if you have a Best Buy somewhere in your vicinity.
The $80 Ultra LT is the more interesting variant of the two, as it changes up the Roku Ultra's price and accessories. While you won't get the fancy new remote with shortcuts, or the faster processor, you will get all the rest of the Ultra's feature set, including 4K HDR streaming and a voice remote with private listening.
The new Express and Ultra are available for preorder right now; the rest of Roku's upgraded models should start hitting shelves in October.
Roku OS 9.2
Roku's OS will also be getting a modest upgrade in the next few weeks in Roku OS 9.2. This update includes a number of small features, but the most substantial ones are Roku Zones and movie quote searches.
Roku Zones is a way for fans to search by genre, rather than just a movie's name or cast. These Zones, such as "Action" or "Horror" will concatenate popular movies and TV shows from a given genre, then show viewers the platforms on which they're available. There will even be seasonal zones for holidays like Halloween, which could shave a lot of time off of heated discussions about what to watch.
The movie quote search is a new functionality that could also help movie fans match their favorite quotes with movies. A Roku rep showed it off by asking a streaming player to search for the movie with the quote, "Show me the money!" A few seconds later, Jerry Maguire popped up on-screen.
Artificial intelligence seems to be the driving force that compiles these quotes, so your favorite line may or may not be in there. (I'm very curious to find out whether it will recognize "Assimilate this!") But it's fair to say that old standards like "I'll be back" or "You can't handle the truth" will probably be present and accounted for.