This week marks a significant milestone for Roku in the UK, as the company unveils a series of user experience enhancements designed to redefine how viewers discover and engage with content.
A new ‘What To Watch’ hub will include personalised content recommendations, a global ‘Continue Watching’ section which synchs with your streaming services/apps, and an improved ‘Save List’.
These features, which have been available in the US for several months, are now set to make their debut in the UK.
They will be rolling out to Roku streaming players in the coming weeks and to Roku TV models in the following months, with the goal of simplifying and personalizing the content discovery process for users.
I had the opportunity to attend Roku’s press event in London, where the company unveiled these upcoming changes, which mark a significant shift in Roku’s approach.
So here’s everything you need to know about Roku’s biggest interface change in years – and there’s even some news about Roku’s Freeview integration.
Roku’s Journey So Far
Roku has long been one of the leading streaming device manufacturers in the US – and it’s been making a name for itself in the UK as well.
Globally, Roku has made a significant impact with 75.8 million active accounts, making it the number one streaming platform in the US and Canada.
The three stand-alone streaming devices from Roku that are sold in the UK are excellent streamers – with the 4K Streaming Stick being our choice for the top UK streaming device.
Roku devices support most of the streaming services and apps that are currently available in the UK, including the public broadcaster’s streaming apps – BBC iPlayer, ITVX, Channel4 and My5.
In addition, Roku sells Roku TVs – Freeview television sets with Roku’s OS already built into them. Several models are now sold in the UK – including a Roku TV from Hisense, a Roku TV from METZ, a TCL Roku TV and more.
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Roku has long been praised for its straightforward, easy-to-use interface.
However, this simplicity, at times, felt too basic, especially when compared to the more recent iterations of Amazon’s Fire TV and Google TV, where recommendations and personalisation take centre stage.
Of course, with so many customers buying Roku devices precisely because they’re simple and easy to use – big changes are hard to navigate. These upcoming updates seem to be Roku’s attempt to balance simplicity with advanced functionality.
Roku’s New “What To Watch” Hub
The ‘What to Watch’ hub, which will now reside right below the ‘Home’ section in the main navigation bar, is Roku’s new attempt at giving you a better handle on the content you’re watching – and the content you might want to watch.
It’s a bustling collection of shows and films, organized into various rows, each catering to different viewer preferences, based on the content Roku knows you usually watch (so the more you use this section – the more personalised your recommendations will get).
The content recommendations will come from local and global channels and streaming services, such as Disney+, ITVX, Netflix, Channel 4 and more.
A notable aspect of ‘What to Watch’ is its commitment to being a “Safe Space” for recommendations.
You’re only shown content that’s free or part of your existing subscriptions, differentiating it from platforms like Amazon’s Fire TV, which often push content from Prime Video (whether you’re subscribed to it or not), as well as other ‘sponsored’ recommendations that will cost you more to watch.
While this approach is user-centric, it does raise questions about the diversity of content discovery. Are users missing out on potential gems just because they lie outside their current subscription bubble?
‘Continue Watching’ and ‘Save List’
Nested within ‘What to Watch’, the ‘Continue Watching’ and ‘Save List’ sections aim to add convenience.
‘Continue Watching’, as the name implies, gives you a single place where you can find shows/films you’ve already started watching – regardless of which 3rd party service you watched them on.
So you’ll see a film you’re in the middle of from Netflix, along with an episode of a series you were watching on ITVX, or any of the other supported streaming apps that you have on your Roku device.
In my recent review of Amazon’s new Fire TV 4K sticks, I noted that this feature simply didn’t work in many cases – because there’s no synching between the device and most of the 3rd party streaming apps.
So, you watch a show on Disney+ for example, get to episode 4, and then the Fire TV’s ‘Continue Watching’ row shows you that programme – but keeps sending you to ‘Episode 1’ when you use it to open the show’s page on the streaming app.
Roku assures me that the synching on their ‘Continue Watching’ feature will be better – and even if you watch a series on your mobile phone, and then want to continue watching it on your Roku stick at home – you’ll see the correct episode on the ‘Continue Watching’ row.
It remains to be seen whether that will indeed be the case – and how many streaming services will be supported for this synching mechanism.
The ‘Save List’ is Roku’s version of a ‘Watchlist’ – a practical tool for bookmarking content, where users can now easily add movies and shows from across the Roku platform to their Save List of content they want to stream.
The ‘Save List’ was already available on Roku’s devices in the UK, as a separate section – but will now be incorporated into the new ‘What To Watch’ hub.
The global Save List’s main problem is that it’s limited to selections within Roku’s ecosystem. So you can only save titles from Roku’s search results, recommendations, etc. – but not from within the 3rd party streaming apps themselves.
A Step Forward For Roku?
The whole ‘What to Watch’ section has already been available in the US for several months and has received positive feedback, according to Roku.
In the UK, Roku recently conducted A/B testing (where some users got early access to the new hub), which indicated that users appreciated the feature.
To further encourage usage, Roku plans to make the feature more visible, possibly through advertising on the Roku home screen and enhancing its menu visibility.
This new section is of course a stark contrast to Roku’s traditionally minimalist interface.
One can’t help but wonder if this complexity might overwhelm users who value Roku for its straightforwardness – but, importantly, it doesn’t replace the existing ‘Home Screen’ with its tiled wall of apps – it just comes in addition to it.
The Roku TV / Freeview Integration Challenge
As mentioned, Roku also sells TVs with the Roku OS built into them in the UK, in collaboration with brands like JVC, TCL, Sharp and Metz.
As expected, those TVs support Freeview (and its broadband-based extension, Freeview Play).
Freeview Play includes catch-up services from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Channel 5, as well as on-demand apps like BBC iPlayer, ITVX, Channel 4, My5, UKTV Play and more.
And this is where things get confusing: Most of these apps are already available on the “traditional” Roku apps section – there’s an iPlayer app, ITVX app, etc.
So there’s a separate “Freeview Play” menu section on the TV, that shows you… all the apps that are officially part of Freeview Play – which are already a part of your Roku’s main home screen.
Then there’s the problematic live TV integration – if you connect an aerial and scan for channels on a Roku TV, you’ll get the live TV guide (the EPG) where you can jump between channels to watch live shows.
But there’s a major disconnect between the Freeview sections of a Roku TV – and the regular Roku OS sections – and this is particularly evident with the new ‘What To Watch’ section.
You can’t, for example, add programmes from the Freeview EPG to the new ‘Save List’ section, and the shows you watch on Freeview will not influence the recommendations you get from Roku.
The search is also completely separate – you can go into the Freeview Play built-in search if you want to look for information about upcoming live shows – but then if you use the global Roku search, it will only search for content on supported streaming apps – and will NOT search for anything on the Live TV guide.
With the new ‘What To Watch’ hub, I was hoping for improved integration with Freeview, at least on Roku TVs – but alas, that is not in the cards for now.
During the event, I had a chance to ask Sally Nelson, Roku’s Director of UK Product Growth about this.
She acknowledged the current disconnect between Roku and Freeview, and mentioned that Roku is working with Everyone TV (the company behind Freeview and Freesat), to explore enhanced integration of Freeview into the Roku OS.
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