Roku is plugging headphones and several other new features into its
latest set-top box for streaming Internet video to TVs, a move that
amplifies its effort to upstage Apple's better-selling player.
Roku 3 box going on sale Wednesday also includes a more powerful search
engine to find movies, TV shows and music more quickly and new menu for
perusing the more than 750 online services available through the device.
The new model will be sold for $100, initially only at Roku's website
and Amazon.com. Next month, it will expand into other retail outlets,
including Costco and Best Buy stores. Prices for older Roku models with
less horsepower start at $50.
The new player is the first update
to Roku's line of set-top boxes since July 2011. In the interim, Roku
last year introduced a finger-shaped device that plugs directly into
high-definition ports, much like a flash drive fits into a personal
computer's USB drive.
The ability to listen to video and music on
headphones will probably be the Roku 3's biggest attraction, especially
for households that already own one of the company's earlier boxes. Ear
buds are included with the Roku 3, although any pair of headphones can
be plugged into a jack on the side of the device's remote control. Just
as with the set-top box itself, a Wi-Fi connection is required for the
headphones to work. It's a feature unavailable on the Apple TV player
that poses the main competition to Roku's streaming devices.
Roku 3 introduces new navigation tools that will be automatically sent
to previous versions of the box in a software update later this year.
The redesign displays more information by stacking the channels
vertically in rows of three instead of in single, horizontal row in the
middle of the screen. The makeover means nine channel choices can be
seen at a time instead of just five under the old format.
box also boasts a faster processor than previous models, an upgrade
likely to appeal to people who want to use the device to play online
video games on their TVs.
Although it's still a small company,
Roku Inc. has emerged as a significant player in the steadily growing
market for Internet video since it introduced its first set-top box
nearly five years ago. Originally conceived within Netflix Inc. as a
cheap and easy way to get Internet video on to flat-panel TVs, Roku now
offers a wide array of entertainment options. Besides Netflix's Internet
video subscription service, Roku boxes also connect to alternatives
from Amazon.com and Hulu.com, as well as a variety of online music
Most of the top Internet video services can also be seen
through Apple TV, a set-top box that's similar to Roku's device. But
Apple TV is better known, largely because it's made and sold by a
technology powerhouse that operates more than 400 stores scattered
throughout the world while the Roku players are made by a small,
privately held company.
Although Apple Inc. doesn't provide
precise figures, CEO Tim Cook has indicated to analysts that the company
has sold more than 10 million of its streaming boxes. That includes
more than 2 million Apple TV players sold during the final three months
last year, up from about 1.4 million at the same time in 2011, Cook told
analysts during a January conference call.
Roku will only say it
expects to sell the five millionth device in its history by the end of
this month. The company, which is based in Saratoga, Calif., said its
annual revenue was about $150 million in 2011. Management declined to
provide a revenue figure for last year.
Apple's revenue topped
$156 billion during its last fiscal year ending in September, with most
of the sales rolling in from its line-up of iPods, iPhones, iPads and
Mac computers. Company co-founder Steve Jobs considered Apple TV to be a
"hobby," a description that Cook has echoed. Before he died in October
2011, Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson that he had finally
figured out how to build a TV that "would be seamlessly synced with all
of your devices."
Those words have spurred recurring speculation
that Apple intends to sell its own big-screen TV that would connect to
the Internet and run on the same software as its iPhones and iPads.
also hinted during his January discussion with analysts that the
company may be ready to move beyond the Apple TV boxes. "I tend to
believe that there's a lot we can contribute in this space," Cook said
then. "And so we continue to pull the string and see where it leads us."