Why are we disappointed with the best streaming media box on the market?
The Roku Ultra is great. But its limitations are showing
Lots of companies attempt to do this for you. Netflix is probably the best at taking what you have seen in the past and recommending what you might enjoy seeing. Vudu takes a different approach and lets you search by genre, mood and rating. But even with these guides, it can still be a bit of struggle to find something that you know you will really enjoy.
Now, if you turned on your Roku Ultra with your voice, which it recognized, did some quick back-end processing and then presented a home screen with just three main options alongside a quick explanation for why you are almost certainly going to enjoy it – well *that* is a media streaming box worth buying.
Apple has incorporated Siri into its latest device so you can say things like "show me movies with Harrison Ford in" and they pop up on the screen (the ones Apple TV has access to anyway). Now maybe that's how everyone else in the world functions when it comes to deciding what to watch but this reviewer suspects that approach has been adopted only because it is programmatically easier.
What you really want is the ability to say: "I want an action movie. But one with a plot. And some good acting." And have the machine make sense of it and present some options. Even better if it pulls up a movie you've never heard of before.
And no doubt Roku would also love to make this a reality but, due to its model, it is unlikely to happen any time soon, if ever.
Part of what makes the Roku the best on the market is that it is content agnostic. It doesn't want to be Amazon or Apple or Google and have its own content that it wants to push. No, Roku, sells the hardware and tries to get as much content on there as possible. Which is great.
But it also means that Roku does not have access to the content you select. Once you head into one of its apps – Netflix, Vudu, Hulu, HBO, whatever – it goes blind. And it is going to be a hard sell to persuade companies to hand over that enormously valuable data on user selections for a vague sense of improved customer experience for someone else's product.
That presumably is also why Roku doesn't bother with multi-user accounts – you end up at the same screen every time, regardless of who you are. Little is shared across platforms so go into, say, Netflix, and you have to select who you are. If only there was a way of sharing user profiles across services so Roku could recommend this movie from Netflix alongside this TV show from HBO.
Or if the Roku could remember where you left off. Or if it knew you were a San Francisco Giants fan and popped up a message noting that the game will start in 20 minutes with a simple click through to live coverage.
These sorts of things would be exciting and useful. And they are exactly the sort of things that the big cable companies are looking at in an effort to protect their slowly dwindling market. Big cable companies may even have the clout to get other content providers to provide them with viewing information for individual users in order to build such a service. But Roku probably doesn't. Which means that once everyone has 4K (coming to cable TV next year) and fast machines, there's little space for it to maneuver.
In short: the Roku is still the best on the market. But its limitations are starting to show. Will it still be best two years from now? We'll have to see. ®