There’s been a low-grade chatter on the internets about the Roku 4 for a while now. I want to take a little time to round up what’s known (as opposed to what the internet-everyone-links-to-everyone-hall-of-mirrors has to say) and use this to guess about the Roku 4.
The Evidence Laying Around
There’s a number of threads lying around the internet that point at what we should expect from a Roku 4.
It’s Been Years: Roku’s last major refresh was in 2013 when they rolled out the Roku 3. A steady stream of firmware updates have kept the platform fresh even though the hardware has aged. Based on my testing, the once crisp interface has a bit of lag to it as the UI has evolved. There’s an opportunity here.
They’ve Dangled the Carrot: The chatter most likely started when Roku announced a partnership with TCL to make a 4k TV with Roku’s technology in it. This happened back in January at CES.
Advancing Technology: Netflix is adopting a newer video compression technology, MPEG-4 h.265. This will be required on their part to get the much touted 4k video streams to viewers, as well as drive down Netflix’s huge bandwidth using in the evening. This new technology comes with more computational heft. A processor upgrade is in order. Netflix is the top dog in streaming, so keeping up with them is a must. Amazon has also adopted h.265 for their 4k video streams. The h.265 video codec has been estimate to take about 2x the processing power to decode for similar content. Add in 4k video, which has 4x the pixels of 1080p, and the processing power spikes.
Insane Naming: Roku’s recent product refresh did something out of character – they confused the customer. When announcing the new Roku devices, they kept the name the same. “Let me introduce the new Roku 2, which is actually the old Roku 3, but with a different remote control. And also let me also introduce the new Roku 3, which is actually also the old Roku 3 but with voice commands.” In the past, Roku would announce something like the Roku 3 LE and then a Roku 4 (now with voice search). It’s almost like someone (in marketing) really, really didn’t want to give up the Roku 4 name. Like there would be something magical about that name…
The CEO Speaks: Netflix’ CEO, Anthony Wood, participated in an online chat with Reddit back in April. Some of the take-aways from that chat:
- One of their core competencies is keeping the boxes cheap
- Roku isn’t interested in OTA TV. Anthony views OTA as legacy and not something they want to support directly. Roku wants to create an amazing streaming experience and enable providers with a solid SDK so that OTA channels work great.
- There’s a concern that it’s too hard to find what you want
Predictions For The Roku 4
Given all this, here are my predictions.
4k Video: Roku’s already working on the technology with TCL and will need an offering in the marketplace. They’re practically sitting on the Roku 4 name, which begs to align with 4k video. No marketing person worth their salt would put 4k video on the Roku 5. Yes, I think it’ll be called the Roku 4. They might get extra tricky and call it the Roku 4k.
Big Processor Improvement: There’ll be a big step in processing power to handle the new h.265 video technology and pump all the 4k video glory out to the TV. I would also look for hardware accelerated h.265 decoding. Look for something similar to the Broadcom BCM7252.
Ram and Flash: Not much movement. Maybe an increase to 1 GB RAM to cache 4k video streams and handle decoding. Possibly a flash increase to 512 MB, but I wouldn’t bet on it. The streaming industry has swapped to running their streaming applications on top of Android (ahem… Nvidia) and have taken on bloat in the process. Roku focuses on keeping expenses low and utilizes their relatively simple OS to keep the hardware lean and cheap.
Snappy UI: Expect the UI to get its snap back. When not decoding video, the extra horsepower from the processor upgrade will provide some umph for the next few years of software and UI improvements, even at 4k video resolutions.
Better Search: Roku has been working to make channel content easier to find. I would expect them to continue to expand their search capabilities. This includes a tuned-up voice search and better on-screen content locating tricks.
Refreshed Smart Phone App: Despite being in here, I suspect that Roku will ignore this. They have consistently bypassed the opportunity to integrate with the smart phone and tablet ecosystem. The remote app on the iPhone is functional but clunky, lacking the sex appeal that their on-screen UI has. I don’t see that changing.
But When: That is the million dollar question, isn’t it? Let’s start bounding this problem. On the far side, there’s Christmas. There’ll be hell to pay if TCL doesn’t have the announced 4k + Roku technology solution in the marketplace for the Christmas shopping season. Equally, Roku will pay if it misses the Christmas season with competitors waving the 4k banner. On the near side, Roku takes about a month to go from FCC approval to product announcement, presumably while their contract manufacturer ramps production. But then, who announces in July when the US is on vacation? This gets us down to early August for the return to TV season and back-to-college shopping or October for Christmas shopping.