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Roku Launches New Hardware and Software, Adds Apple Protocol Support

Roku's newest OS version lets Apple-device users stream content via the AirPlay 2 protocol, and control Roku devices via the Home app and Siri.
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A few days after  (AMZN) - Get, Inc. Report refreshed its Fire TV hardware and software, Roku  (ROKU) - Get Roku, Inc. Class A Report is doing the same for its streaming platform.

On Monday Roku unveiled an improved version of its high-end Roku Ultra streaming box, as well as an integrated soundbar/streaming device called the Streambar. 

The company also launched a new version of Roku OS (Roku OS 9.4), which among other things adds support for Apple’s  (AAPL) - Get Apple Inc. Report AirPlay 2 and HomeKit protocols.

In addition, Roku is launching iOS and Android apps for its ad-supported streaming service, Roku Channel. A Roku account is needed to stream content from the apps, but Roku hardware isn’t.

Roku Ultra, list-priced at $100, is getting an improved Wi-Fi radio that’s said to deliver up to 50% more range, as well as Dolby Vision and Bluetooth support. 

Like its predecessor, the new Ultra is powered by a quad-core processor and comes with a voice remote featuring a headphone jack.

The Streambar has a $130 list price and follows Roku’s 2019 launch of a larger, $180, integrated soundbar/streaming device known as the Smart Soundbar. (An optional, $180, wireless subwoofer was also launched last year.)

Whereas the Smart Soundbar is 32 inches long, the Streambar is just 14 inches long. But Roku asserts that “advanced audio engineering within the Roku OS” enables the device to “produce sound well beyond its size while increasing speech clarity and adding intricate depth to music.” 

Like the Smart Soundbar, the Streambar supports Bluetooth and Dolby Audio, and can be controlled via Alexa  (AMZN) - Get, Inc. Report and Google Assistant  (GOOGL) - Get Alphabet Inc. Class A Report commands.

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Roku OS 9.4 is promised to roll out to “select” Roku players this month and all other Roku devices “in the coming weeks.” Roku-powered smart TVs will get the OS update “in phases over the coming months.”

The OS enables iPhone, iPad and Mac users to stream content from their Apple devices to Roku devices via AirPlay 2. It will also leverage the HomeKit protocol to let iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple Watch and HomePod users control Roku devices via Apple’s Home app and Siri.

Other new features include the ability to access Roku Channel’s live TV channel guide from the home screen, voice command suggestions and a faster initial setup time for devices.

The announcements come four days after Amazon refreshed its $40 Fire TV stick by adding a faster processor, a better remote and Dolby Atmos support. Amazon also unveiled its $30 Fire TV Stick Lite, which has a simpler remote and lacks Atmos support.

In addition, Amazon showed off an overhauled version of its Fire TV OS that simplifies content navigation and adds support for user profiles (a feature not yet supported by Roku OS). And it introduced Luna, a cloud gaming service that will work on (among other devices) Fire TV hardware.

To a large extent, Roku and Amazon have both treated their streaming hardware as loss leaders. Which is to say, they generate little or no profit on the hardware sales themselves, but instead try to generate profits from revenue streams made possible by the software platforms running on the hardware. These include video-ad sales and cut of the revenue from content purchases/rentals and sign-ups for streaming services.

In Amazon’s case, the company also hopes the use of its streaming services via Fire TV devices will boost satisfaction and retention among Amazon Prime subscribers.

Roku and Amazon’s streaming hardware and software announcements come at a time when covid-19 has provided a healthy boost to streaming activity on TVs, while also accelerating cord-cutting.

In the second quarter, streaming hours on Roku’s platform rose 65% from the year-ago quarter to 14.6 billion, while active accounts rose 41% to 43 million. For comparison, Roku’s streaming hours and active accounts respectively rose 49% and 37% year-over-year in the first quarter.

Roku’s stock at last check was up 1.3% to $184.84. The stock has tripled from its 52-week low above $58, set in mid-March. It traded above $200 last week.