Roku is making big news at CES 2023: the company long known for its streaming players and easy-to-use software plans to release its own lineup of TVs this year. There will be two lines, in fact. One will be called Roku Select, and the higher-end models will be branded as Roku Plus TVs. And Roku is going for broke in terms of screen sizes. “Available in 11 models ranging from 24 inches to 75 inches, the new Roku Select and Plus Series TVs will focus on the features that streamers have come to love,” the company said in a press release. Roku is also going aggressive on price; the 24-inch entry model will run $119, and the 75-inch TV will cost $999.
Roku’s move into TV hardware has been rumored for some time now, and the company is lagging behind rival Amazon, which began selling Fire TV-branded 4K sets in 2021.
Lower-end Roku Select models will ship with the standard Roku Voice Remote, and the Plus series will include the Voice Remote Pro that’s capable of hands-free voice commands and has a rechargeable battery. Roku’s TVs will begin shipping this spring. The announcement comes only a few months after Roku entered the smart home category by selling relabeled Wyze products under its own brand.
“These TVs are designed to be streaming first,” Roku CEO Anthony Wood told a gathering of press at the company’s San Jose headquarters last month. “So, you know, focused on a great streaming experience. And one of the benefits of producing our own brand of hardware and TVs is that it will allow us to innovate faster.”
Roku isn’t yet answering many technical questions about what features its own TVs will offer. That leads me to believe they won’t rival or surpass products like the TCL 6-Series Roku TV in terms of picture quality or high refresh rate capabilities for gaming. I expect Roku will focus on delivering good picture quality while leaning on its other strengths — simple software, an ecosystem of wireless speakers and soundbars, etc. — to make these TVs an attractive option.
“Making our own brand of TVs is that natural next step in our company’s evolution”
“We believed that a TV made and designed by Roku just makes sense,” Roku’s Chris Larson said. (Larson, now Roku’s VP of retail strategy, joined the company not long ago, after leaving his post as a senior vice president at TCL.) “It’s a TV made by people who love TV,” he said. “This move can fully realize the full potential of our Roku TV program, by bringing our award… our content, our award-winning operating system, and hardware all together under one roof. So making our own brand of TVs is that natural next step in our company’s evolution.”
During the San Jose trip, Roku took us through multiple sessions that included picture quality comparisons between the new Roku TVs and similarly priced sets. There were also demonstrations of the built-in speakers on the Plus models; they sounded quite decent. But the company refused to answer even basic questions such as whether any of the TVs include full-array local dimming, an important hardware feature if you want good contrast and black levels.
“We’ve been in the hardware business a long time, and we really understand the ingredients needed to make a successful television,” Larson added. But it’s worth clarifying that Roku isn’t directly manufacturing these TVs (or displays) itself; it’s not in that business. They’re designed in collaboration with a hardware partner and coming from that partner’s factories stamped with a Roku logo. But the company isn’t revealing who that partner is.
Working out a manufacturing deal with TCL or Hisense for these sets could ease any possible tension resulting from Roku now competing against them more directly in retail stores. Roku has to pull off a delicate dance in order not to upset its existing Roku TV OEMs; many companies already sell TVs that run the company’s software. (Roku claims one out of every three TVs sold in the US is a Roku TV.) If those partners are rattled, they could start favoring Google TV over the Roku TV platform; Google is unlikely to make its own television anytime soon.
Roku doesn’t want to upset its existing Roku TV partners
Roku tries to address this head-on in today’s press release, vowing that its first-party TVs will only help the Roku TV program evolve and improve for everyone since they all run the same OS. “To better serve consumers, Roku-branded TVs will enable further innovation around the TV experience, and all innovations will be made available to the full Roku TV program, including current and future OEM partners,” the company said.
Both Wood and Larson doubled down on that in San Jose. “Our brand of televisions will allow us to test and introduce compelling features on our own product, which we will then make available for our full Roku TV OEM program,” Larson said. Wood insisted that “this program will complement our OEM licensing program. It allows [us] to roll out innovations faster to our licensees. And we’re still very deeply supportive and committed to our OEM partners being successful.”
Will Roku itself be successful? Most likely yes, but the budget-tier TV market is getting extremely crowded; you’ve already got Roku TVs, Google TVs, and Fire TVs (including from Amazon itself). And now, Roku is trying to boost its stature even further. It’s not obvious to me what consumers are gaining by going with Roku directly instead of those alternatives. Early access to new Roku OS features? A slightly better remote with private listening and voice controls?
Maybe the strengths will become clearer as Roku gets closer to releasing the Select and Plus lineups. I’ll be very curious to see how these TVs stack up to those from its partners and other brands. They won’t be for everyone, but Roku has never gone wrong by focusing on simplicity and ease of use.