Why I Love Roku’s New Remote
Roku just released a bunch of products and, I promise, I’m going to get to them but what I really want to talk about is remotes.
Our relationships with our television and streaming boxes are defined not so much by the interfaces, content, or even the big screens but by the remote controls. Our eyes see, but it’s our hands that touch these small pieces of plastic, metal, glass, and rubberized buttons. That tactile relationship isn’t fleeting. Raise your hand if you binge with the remote in or near your hand (how else can you go back 30 seconds to find out if Game of Thrones really killed off Jon Snow. Yes and no).
As much as we like to stare at our big screens, we prefer to never look directly at our remotes, as if doing so would turn us to stone or a pile of salt. Use any remote long enough and you might be able to train your thumb to know the location of volume, mute, channel, and input.
Unfortunately, most remotes are designed as if they’ll never be used by humans. But not Roku’s, they’re the best streaming (and TV) remotes in the business, and now they’re getting just a little bit better.
On a remote island
This morning Roku unveiled its Roku Voice Remote Pro. Visually, you might be hard-pressed to tell the difference between this new handheld accessory and one of Roku’s other TV and streaming box remotes.
As much as we like to stare at our big screens, we prefer to never look directly at our remotes, as if doing so would turn us to stone or a pile of salt.
The near-iconic design, which hasn’t changed substantially in years, is a model of simplicity, consistency, intelligence, and ergonomic design. At roughly 5.5-inches tall and ¾ inches deep (with a perfect groove cutout for your index finger), it seems to fit most hand sizes. Button organization is smart and simple; each button group is a different size and shape to help with tactile memorization and nothing feels crowded. Also, I’ve long been a fan of the shortcuts (programmable on some models), that give me one-button access to Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+.
Instead of a do-everything remote, Roku makes a do-what’s-necessary device, which allows it to keep the number of buttons to a minimum. It’s true, Apple’s Apple TV remote has fewer buttons, but it's also the worst streaming remote in the business. A thin slab of metal and glass may look the part of an elegant consumer electronic accessory, but it’s a slippery devil. Worse yet, if you close your eyes, hold it, and try figuring out which button is which you quickly realize that the Apple TV remote provides little tactile navigation. Apple TV remote owners know what it's like to start clicking on the remote and wonder why the Apple TV is acting so bizarrely, only to realize they’re holding that remote backward and are pressing the inert glass face and have the glass trackpad jammed into the palm of their hand.
Roku’s never done that Apple-style wholesale and wrongheaded redesign of its remote. This new Roku Voice Remote Pro, for example, leaves the look and feel virtually untouched but adds a couple of key features that improve upon an already excellent design.
First, this is Roku’s first rechargeable remote. It charges through a USB port and functions for approximately two months on a charge (Yes, I know that the Apple TV remote is rechargeable). The remote will also work while charging but I hope that Roku considers wireless charging for a future update so we can just place it on a Qi-compatible stand and always keep the remote fully charged.
The second update is a bit more interesting. The top-of-the-line Roku remote has had voice control and search for a while, but you’ve always needed to press the mic button to activate it. Now Roku is nudging into Amazon Echo territory with the integration of a microphone that listens for the watchwords — wait for it — “Hey Roku.” I know, not that creative, but it could be quite useful. The remote will respond to requests like “Turn on the TV,” “Launch Disney+,” and “Turn down the volume.” Plus, if you’ve lost the remote, you can say “Find my remote,” and, if the Roku Voice Remote Pro is close enough to hear you, it’ll chirp until you find it. Roku smartly included a slider switch that’ll let you turn off the remote’s listening capabilities.
I’m not arguing that this $29.99 remote somehow matches a universal remote like the Logitech Harmony (talk about a lot of buttons), but it’s the polar opposite of most streaming and cable remotes, including my abysmal AlticeOne remote, which overwhelm with buttons, complexity, and inconsistent operation. The voice control on my AlticeOne remote works once out of every 10 times I try to use it.
The rest of Roku's product and service updates follow Roku’s pattern of product and service refinement. The company’s lineup remains tight and accessible as the company revises some products, replaces others, and sunsets aging technologies.
Roku’s taking its Smartbar soundbar device and evolving it into a hybrid of that original bar and the newer and more affordable Streambar I reviewed last year. Now it’s the Roku Streambar Pro ($179.99), a midsized soundbar with integrated virtual surround (that’s surround sound without the need for additional speakers), a Roku Voice Remote, and, of course, the Roku platform (it’s updating to version 10 and, among other things, adding some smart Wi-Fi detection features).
Roku is also replacing the Roku Premiere with Roku Express 4K+, which brings 4K streaming down to the $29.99 price point.
Overall, it’s a nice collection of updates that should help Roku cement its leadership position in the streaming device market. In addition to stand-alone streaming box sales, the company currently integrates with 4K TVs from, among others JVC, Philips, Hisense, and TCL. It enjoys a 40% market share in pure-play OTT devices and 30% for integrated systems. Part of its success is a product of smart partnerships, but, if you ask me, it’s also because of that remote.