Earlier this year, the Roku 3 was released to nearly unanimous rave reviews (including CNET's), thanks to its speedy processor, refined looks, and nifty remote with a built-in headphone jack.
Now the company is bringing some of the Roku 3's improved hardware and styling to the rest of its line. Roku has taken the wraps off three new budget streaming boxes: the $60 Roku 1, $80 Roku 2, and a refreshed $50 Roku LT. These new streamers replace the Roku's old entry-level models (Roku HD, Roku 2 XD and the existing Roku LT, respectively), offering less expensive options for those who don't need all the bells and whistles available on the flagship Roku 3, which has been on store shelves since March.
All of the new Roku boxes are available to preorder now at Roku.com and should hit retailers in October.
New, sleeker hardware
Like Roku's old line, the differences between the models are slight. A quick breakdown of how the features step up in the line is as follows:
Roku LT ($50): 720p video, HDMI and analog video outputs, available only at online retailers
Roku 1 ($60): adds 1080p video
Roku 2 ($80): adds Wi-Fi Direct remote with headphone jack, dual-band Wi-Fi
Roku 3 ($100, already available): adds dual-core processor, motion control remote, Ethernet jack, USB port, SD card slot; no analog video jacks
Specs aside, the boxes also sport a refreshed, Roku 3-esque curvy look. In a way, they look even sleeker than the Roku 3, with a sloping case that gets thinner toward the front, while still maintaining enough room in the back for the analog jacks. It's a welcome face-lift for Roku's less expensive players that were beginning to look bland next to the sleek Roku 3.
The Roku LT and Roku 1 remotes are slightly different than those of the past, featuring direct-access buttons for Netflix, Amazon Instant, Blockbuster, and M-Go. Eagle-eyed Roku fanatics will also notice that the "jump back" button has been restored to the cheaper models, which previously was only available on the Roku 3.
The Roku 2 remote includes the same buttons, but adds two killer features that made the Roku 3 a hit: a headphone jack, for private listening, and Wi-Fi Direct, so you don't need line of sight to send commands to the box. It doesn't have the motion-control functionality or gaming buttons that the Roku 3 has, but given the scarcity of quality games available for Roku, it's not a big loss.
What you won't find on any of these boxes are significantly upgraded processors; lightning-fast responsiveness remains limited to the Roku 3.
Along with the new hardware, Roku has a software update on the way, adding two categories in the left-hand menu: movies and TV shows.
These new content portals let you browse content for rental and purchase from M-Go, which includes some relatively new releases. (For example, you can purchase the most recent episode of "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" in HD for $3 or rent "World War Z" in HD for $5) While the new menus do give you faster, top-level access to TV and movie content (similar to what the Apple TV does with iTunes), M-Go doesn't have quite the same adoption as some of the other major service available on Roku, such as Amazon Instant and Vudu. (I doubt I'm the only one who wishes it was powered by Amazon, which at first glance seems to have a very similar catalog.)
The new menus also don't have any cross-platform capabilities, so if you browse to a movie you're interested in, there's no immediate way to tell if the same content may be available for "free" on subscription services like Netflix, Amazon, or HBO Go.
The upside with M-Go is that Roku owners won't need to sign up for any new account, as it works with your Roku account and the credit card that's required during setup. (This fact still irks some Roku buyers.) M-Go will also allow you to link your UltraViolet account, giving you access to any content have stored in your digital locker.
The software update is coming in October to all "current-generation" Roku boxes, which includes the Roku LT, Roku HD, Roku 2 HD, Roku 2 XD, Roku 2 XS, Roku 1, Roku 2, Roku 3 and Roku Streaming Stick.
Strong update for Roku's streamers
In all, it's a solid update to Roku's lineup, with the Roku 2 standing out as a particularly wallet-friendly option if you want the awesome headphone jack-toting remote, but don't necessarily need the speed and geeky upgrades of the Roku 3. The Roku LT will likely also remain an excellent ultra-budget option that's particularly nice for secondary rooms that get less use.