Roku has been touting its TV platform as neutral and impartial but starting with OS 9.1 other streaming providers will have to take a back seat to The Roku Channel. OS 9.1 also introduces more ads, a guest mode, and account linking.
Roku Channel front and center
In the battle against Amazon, Apple, Google, and TV makers, Roku has over the years been emphasizing how its platform is neutral. That is changing. Last year, the company announced plans to turn Roku OS into a "next-generation ad platform" along with the free, ad-supported Roku Channel.
With the Roku OS 9.1 update, the company is now, in earnest, starting to direct users towards its own service. When you use voice search to find movies or TV shows, content available on The Roku Channel will begin playback automatically, even if the same movie is available on one of your ad-free subscriptions services such as Netflix.
In addition, regular text searches will be reorganized into genres such as 'new releases', 'free' or 'rent or buy'. The second row from the top will heavily push results from The Roku Channel or other free services.
If you want to avoid being automatically directed to ad-supported movies on The Roku Channel, you must specify the name of the streaming service as part of your voice search. Otherwise, you will only be served unbiased search results whenever a movie is not available on The Roku Channel or any of the subscriptions tied to it. The company is admitting as much.
- "If playback from a voice command is not available for a specific movie or show, you’ll continue to see unbiased search results ordered by price, so you can choose the best viewing option," the company said.
In addition, the company is introducing 'My Offers', a new section in the left navigation menu that displays ads for Roku products.
These changes can of course on some occasions be seen as useful or even in the user's best interests but it is clear that the company's priorities have shifted to focus on The Roku Channel. Roku is no longer a neutral platform and that is fine - few TV platforms are - but as a user you should know how it affects your Roku experience. So, how exactly? The end game is to show you more ads because that is how Roku makes its money.
Roku OS 9.1 - new features
Roku OS 9.1 will also offer a handful of other new features, including voice commands for playback control, a guest mode, 'Automatic Account Link', and 'Automatic Volume Leveling' for Roku TVs.
The software is currently rolling out to compatible Roku streaming players (see list of compatible devices below) and will later be pushed to Roku TVs.
- "The software update is available on select Roku streaming players today and is expected to roll out to all supported players in the coming weeks. Roku TV models are expected to receive the update in early summer," the company announced.
The company's full change log for Roku OS 9.1 is included below.
Roku OS 9.1 update - change log
Voice enhancements (US only) To help customers get to entertainment more quickly when using voice search, movies and TV shows in The Roku Channel will now begin playback, rather than display a search results screen – including entertainment available via the 25+ Premium Subscription services available on The Roku Channel. Playback will occur when the movie or show is available only in The Roku Channel, or when a customer specifically indicates the channel name in their voice command. If playback from a voice command is not available for a specific movie or show, customers will continue to see unbiased search results ordered by price, so they can choose the best viewing option for them.
Additional channels are expected to support this functionality in the coming weeks. This feature works best when customers speak the entire title of the movie or show they want to watch along with the channel name.
Roku OS 9.1 also introduces helpful voice commands including the ability to say “replay” to go back a few seconds while watching a movie or show, as well as quickly toggling closed captions on/off by simply saying “turn closed captions on.” If a customer owns a Roku TV and has the Fast TV Start feature enabled, they can use a voice command to turn the TV display on or off while streaming select music channels including Pandora, iHeartRadio and TuneIn by using phrases like “turn display off.”
Guest Mode (US, LATAM, UK, CA) Auto Sign Out Mode, a feature introduced earlier this year, is now called Guest Mode. When enabled on a customer’s device, this mode allows visiting guests to sign in to subscription channels using their own account credentials. Guests can specify a date on which their credentials will be automatically removed from the Roku device. To enable Guest Mode, go to Settings > System > Guest Mode.
Roku OS 9.1 also introduces new capabilities for the Guest Mode feature. Customers can now turn Guest Mode on/off for specific Roku devices by scrolling to the ”My linked devices” section on their My account page on Roku.com. In addition, they can use their account page to remotely sign a guest out of a device if the guest left early or accidentally selected the incorrect sign-out date.
Updates to Roku Search (US only) Customers can soon search for a subset of popular genres such as “comedy” or “action” when using text or voice search on select Roku devices. When customers click on a genre-based Roku Search result, they’ll see a browsable collection of movies and TV shows specific to that genre. This collection will be categorized so it’s easy to find free, on-demand, subscription, 4K and other types of content within that genre if applicable.
Roku Search results will also soon indicate when a movie or TV episode is available to stream in 4K. Customers will be able to quickly see if a title is available in 4K and/or HD and choose the streaming option that is best for them.
These new features are expected to be added to Roku Search in early summer and will be available on currently shipping Roku streaming players and 4K Roku TV models. Additional Roku devices are expected to be supported in a future OS release.
My Offers (US only) Customers will see “My Offers” in the left navigation menu of the Roku home screen if they are eligible for special offers or discounts on Roku devices. If a customer sees My Offers on their home screen, they can select it to view all available offers and can choose to purchase a new Roku product with just a few clicks of their remote. If no offers are available, My Offers will not appear on the home screen.
Automatic Account Link It’s now easier for customers to set up their subscription channels when activating additional Roku devices on their Roku account. If a customer has already logged in to a supported subscription service on a Roku device, they will not be required to re-enter their username and password when launching the same channel on their newly activated Roku device.
Automatic Account Link is currently supported on nearly 10 subscription streaming services including Pandora and Sling TV, with additional services expected to be supported soon.
This feature is designed to make subscription streaming on multiple Roku devices easier for customers, similar to the existing Single Sign-On feature that reduces the number of times they need to enter a username and password for their cable or satellite provider in order to view “TV Everywhere” streaming channels on a Roku device.
Automatic Volume Leveling for Roku TV models In order to ensure a reliable customer experience, the Automatic Volume Leveling feature mentioned in the Roku OS 9 release notes will now roll out to Roku TVs as part of Roku OS 9.1. This feature enables a uniform audio level across various types of content, so it will no longer feel jarring when a commercial comes on or when streaming channels are changed. It can be turned on/off within the Volume Mode setting that appears in the options menu after pressing the star button “*” on your Roku TV remote.
This feature is already available on select Roku streaming players and Roku TVs that are paired with Roku TV Wireless Speakers.