Disruption is overrated. Just ask Roku. The device maker doesn’t want to change the game; it likes its game just fine, thank you very much. And that’s why the streaming device maker hasn’t gone back to the drawing board with its very first lineup of smart TVs, announced late Tuesday night.
These televisions, manufactured by TCL and Hisense, are pretty much what Roku first showed off last January at the Consumer Electronics Show: These are flat-screen Wi-Fi-equipped televisions with a Roku streaming box crammed inside.
That approach means that users of its existing set-top boxes can feel right at home with its new smart TVs. And it has a decent chance of tempting newcomers looking for an easy-to-use set that eschews pointless flashiness and experimentation. If that doesn’t do it, then the low prices, starting at $229, just might.
In other words, by giving consumers what they want without the clutter—and for an affordable price—Roku may have just created the smartest smart TV yet.
If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It
You won’t find curves or prototypical voice control in this crop of Roku TVs. In fact, these units offer an experience that seems almost indistinguishable from standard dumb TVs with a Roku box attached. That’s not a failing. It’s a strength.
When you have something that works, you don’t want to mess around with the formula. Roku has attracted a large following for its streaming platform, having sold a total of 8 million players in the U.S. and handled 3 billion hours of streaming media.
According to a report by research firm Parks Associates (paywalled link), Roku was the best-selling TV streaming media gadget in the U.S. last year, nabbing 46% of such purchases. Among U.S. homes equipped with a streaming device, 44% have and use a Roku set-top box.
With so many customers already accustomed to the Roku environment, bold changes could have alienated them. That likely played into the company’s keeping a consistent feel that extends to its new television.
Roku TVs will get the familiar grid of streaming apps—er, channels—M-Go streaming movie rentals, and an app store that boasts more than 1,500 sources of online programming. The device also comes with Roku’s user-friendly remote control—although it unfortunately ditches the very useful headphone jack featured on the Roku 2 and 3 remotes. That means you can’t plug in headphones for individual listening. The Roku remote also can’t control peripherals or other devices. However, users will be able to program existing universal remotes to control their Roku TVs.
But Do Tweak, To Make TV Less Annoying
Roku may have largely stuck to its formula, but that doesn’t mean its smart TV doesn’t bring anything new to the table.
On the right side of the interface grid, above apps like Netflix, Pandora, Hulu Plus and others, there are three squared-off boxes that represent alternative TV input sources. They sit on the screen as though they were apps, letting people easily click to access their game consoles, Blu-ray players and a cable box or TiVo.
The boxes are customizable, depending on the particular secondary devices you have hooked up. Just highlight one of them to see a tiny video preview of what’s happening on that unit—without leaving the Roku interface. It’s similar to the way some televisions handle picture-in-picture, but it doesn’t stay on the screen to distract you. When you move away with the remote control, the picture vanishes and the box becomes a static icon again.
Any partnerships Roku lines up for its streaming devices—like the recent addition of NFL Now—also comes to the TV. In fact, according to Roku Product Manager Jim Funk, it’s the only smart TV that will offer the app. “NFL Now didn’t announce any smart TV platforms,” he told me last week. “Only set-top boxes. But it will be on this one.” So will support for Roku’s existing remote control smartphone apps.
The decision to pursue an integrated smart television was inevitable for the company. According to Ofcom Communications Market Report, smart TVs account for 45% of all television sales. With that kind of momentum, it made sense for Roku to expand beyond its standalone streaming TV gadgets.
Squaring The Obsolescence Circle
Manufacturers Hisense and TCL, global companies with a strong presence in Asia, both hope the Roku partnership will give them a stronger footing in the U.S.
It just might. Roku’s known for affordable set-top boxes and streaming sticks, and its TVs follow suit with the savings. TCL’s Roku TV series will sell at a remarkably low price, starting at a little over $200 dollars for the smallest 32-inch base model with 720p resolution. The larger models offer 1080p. The specific suggested retail prices are as follows: The 32-inch 32FS4610R ($229), 40-inch 40FS4610R ($329), 48-inch 48FS4610R ($499), and 55-inch 55FS4610R ($649). Pre-orders started Tuesday night.
Prices for the Hisense versions will be up to retailers to decide, but will likely be wallet-friendly as well. Its Roku TV H4 Series, available in late September in big box retail stores, will span 40-inch, 48-inch, 50-inch and 55-inch models.
A final thought: I asked Roku’s Funk how the company plans to squelch consumer concern about smart televisions that go obsolete too quickly. After all, TV sets can easily last for a decade or more, during which time digital technology could go through a half-dozen or more cycles.
In response, Funk gave me an example. “Roku’s first boxes still work with some apps,” he said, referring to the company’s original 2008 streaming device. “Some apps won’t work, but some still do. We haven’t ended them.”
That’s not a promise that Roku TVs will last that long. And Funk didn’t say that concerns about technological obsolescence might be eased by low prices (though they might). But it’s a hopeful sign for anyone worried about shelling out big bucks for a smart TV that risks looking stupid in just a few years.
Lead photo and Roku box image by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite. All other photos courtesy of Roku