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Hands On With Roku’s New OS 7

Roku rolled out its new OS 7 operating system the other week without a whole lot of fanfare.

But the features they did roll out should be the cause for much celebration for Roku users. And much fear in Cupertino.

There’s voice-enabled search. A watch list. Hotel and dorm room use. A new and improved iPhone app.

What’s notable is that since many of these new features are contained within the aforementioned new iPhone app, they’re available to everyone who already owns a Roku, any model released since 2011, anyway. This is a huge advantage as getting all these features on a $50 Roku stick is a huge value and and while some of the features on the new $150 Apple TV may be a little slicker, they’re certainly not $100 worth of slicker.

Roku-4-with-My-Feed-e1444117684775
That matters, because for $150, you can hook up three Roku sticks, giving voice searchable streaming capability to every TV in the house. (The average American home has three TV sets.)

To double check just how well these features live up to their promise, we did a hands-on test at home with a Roku stick and the updated iPhone app.

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The new app really is the revelation Roku says it is. 

It’s got a very easy to navigate main menu with Search and Remote as the top two options. Choose “Search” and you get a simple screen with just two graphic options: Voice or Text.

Roku performed admirably on our voice recognition tests, easily identifying Rizzoli and Isles and Starsky and Hutch. You can also search by actor names and Roku had no trouble with Mariska Hargitay and got Lupita Nyong’o when we limited the search to “Lupita” The only name it couldn’t get was “Uzo Abuda” from Orange Is The New Black, but overall,the voice recognition was pretty flawless and we’ve been relying on it since.           

Your own personal Watchlist

Calling up a show also gives you the ability to “Follow” it, which means that you’re notified when new episodes are posted on a range of streaming networks, including Amazon, HBO Go, Crackle, Hulu, Vudu, FoxNow, FX and others. Netflix was the only major service conspicuously missing.

But here comes the really amazing part, the thing that sets Roku apart from the pack: the shows and movies you follow are collected under the “My Feed” tab and become your own personal Watch List.

No more having to struggle to remember whether Treme was on Netflix or Amazon or HBO. No more clicking through various and sundry submenus to see whether there’s an episode you’ve missed.

You can add movies and TV shows to the “My Feed” list. Actors too. It adds a personalized program guide layer to Roku that’s been missing from all the other streaming devices, including the new and improved Apple TV.

The remote function on Roku is pretty slick as well. It has an automatic 10-second rewind button, for lost bits of dialog and turns on closed-captioning then too, a schtick that annoyed us at first glance, but which we quickly came to appreciate.

Roku OS7’s final trick is the ability to easily log in in hotels, dorm rooms and other places that have password-enabled WiFi

Hotel-Dorm-Connect

Here again, things could not be simpler. Roku generates a unique network name and password and you use that to log in on your laptop or tablet. For frequent travelers, taking the Roku stick along on trips is a nice bonus. It’s also something Apple TV can’t do.

Roku’s still the one to beat

With voice commands, a watchlist and a $50 price tag, Roku is still the gold standard for streaming players. The “My Feed” watchlist in particular is a killer feature, giving Roku the DVR-like feature set that streaming devices have been missing. If we were Apple, we’d be worried.

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