Forget the Christmas decorations that have already shown up at your friendly neighborhood retailers. In T4L Land, the big sign that the holidays are almost upon us is the announcement of new models of streaming media players, one of the most popular gifts that will be showing up under trees in the homes of entertainment lovers everywhere.
Here’s what we know about the Big Four of streamers so far for 2016.
Amazon Fire TV
Last year, Amazon released a new generation of their Fire TV streaming box but didn’t upgrade the hardware for their Fire TV Stick. This year this seems to be the opposite: there’s a new generation of the stick but no news about upgrades to the box (yet…).
The new Fire TV Stick looks pretty much the same as the old one but packs more power and better connectivity inside. There are no longer two remote options—all of the new models come with an Alexa-enabled voice remote—but the price with the voice remote is the same as the old model’s non-voice option, so that’s basically a $10 savings right there.
In addition to the “better specs at a better price” good news, Amazon is also offering some special deals on video content if you activate a new stick before October 31, 2016 (U.S. customers only). Everyone gets a promo code for $10 for Amazon Video purchases and new customers of Hulu and Sling TV get longer free trial periods than the standard offer.
The new stick is available to pre-order now and will begin shipping on October 20th.
NOTE: A lot of articles I’ve read about the new stick are emphasizing that the remote includes Alexa support. The current Fire TV stick also uses Alexa if you have the voice remote or the mobile app. However, it doesn’t have all the Alexa capabilities that the Echo family of speakers does. I’m not sure at this point if the new stick will add those extra capabilities.
The product marketing people at Roku seem to think that four models of their streaming box plus a stick plus a TV with Roku built in just weren’t enough options for consumers. So this year they are offering FIVE box models in addition to the stick and TV models.
They’ve also changed the naming system for the boxes so instead of Roku 1, 2, 3, and 4, they now have the Roku Express, Express+, Premiere, Premiere+, and Ultra. Unfortunately, they no longer have their nice chart comparing the features and specs of all the models. Instead they have a mini-chart that only lets you compare a model to one of the other models (of their choice) plus one competitor.
Here’s what I’ve gleaned as the most obvious differences between them.
NOTE: All the models provide access to the 3,500+ Roku channels and let you search across most of the most popular channels at the same time.
Roku Express: This is Roku’s entry-level model at an amazingly low list price of just $29.99. It has a completely different shape from previous boxes; it’s now a small rectangular-ish shape. Its tech specs are obviously on the lower end but it does still support 1080p HD video. It uses a line-of-sight remote (as opposed to pointing it anywhere).
Roku Express+: This is basically the same as the Express model with one very important difference: you can also use it with older, non-HDTVs as long as they have composite cable ports (yellow/red/white connectors). This is the only streaming player of all of the current Big Four models (including the more expensive Roku boxes) that provides this option and you’ll pay an extra $10 for the feature. (Note that you can still use it with HDTVs as well.)
Roku Premiere: For $79.99, you get support for 4K video, a quad-core processor, and 802.11ac dual-band wireless. It also offers a new feature called Night Listening Mode, that reduces loud sounds like explosions and increases soft sounds like whispering. You’re still stuck with a line-of-sight remote, though.
Roku Premiere+: For another $20, the Premier+ adds HDR support. (This Business Insider article provides a good HDR explainer.) It also includes an Ethernet port for a more stable Internet connection and yes!… finally a point-anywhere remote that also includes a headphones jack for watching TV without disturbing your housemates.
Roku Ultra: The new top-of-the-line Roku will set you back $129.99, which gets you all of the above plus an optical audio port, a USB port for playing personal media, a remote finder, and an enhanced remote with voice search and gaming buttons.
UPDATE: Since I posted this, I started updating other related posts, including the Streaming Media Player Comparison Chart. As I was going through it, I realized I hadn’t seen anything in the Roku descriptions about which models in the new lineup support screen mirroring, the feature that lets you display whatever’s on your PC or Android phone on your TV. (IN the previous lineup, all the models except the Roku 1 had this feature). I checked with Roku Support and none of the models have this feature, to which I posted on Twitter this classic quote from Pretty Woman: “Big mistake. Big. Huge.”
Phew! The new models are expected to start shipping on October 7th.
NOTE: Roku introduced a new streaming stick earlier in 2016, so that’s the one still available now (list price $49.99). The stick does have the screen mirroring feature.
At Google’s October 4th event, they confirmed something that’s been rumoured for a while: the Chromecast Ultra. This new higher-end Chromecast includes support for 4K Ultra HD and HDR video and comes with an Ethernet adapter for a more stable Internet connection.
Apple did not announce a new Apple TV at their big event in September. However, they didn’t announce a new one by this point last year either but they did end up introducing a new one in October. I would put my money on them announcing a new one before too long because, if not, it will be the only streamer without 4K support. That may not have been a big deal last year, but this year…? Again, stay tuned!
You may also be interested in:
Frequently Asked Questions about Streaming Media
The links below will take you to the Streaming Media FAQ page that has answers to questions relevant to streaming players and content in general.