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Roku 4 supports 4K video and a new way to 'follow' favorite shows

'Tis the streaming season

Roku, one of the earliest players in the over-the-top video streaming market, has just announced its newest device, the Roku 4. The announcement should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following Roku rumors and leaks in recent weeks, but that doesn't mean it's not a significant product launch — especially since it's now going head-to-head with Apple, Google, and Amazon.

The new Roku 4 streaming video box has a faster, quad-core processor than its Roku 3 predecessor, support for 4K video at up to 60 frames per second, and better WiFi technology (it now has 802.11ac wireless networking capabilities). It has the same HDMI, Ethernet and USB ports for connectivity, but there's a new one in the mix: an optical audio output for patching sound through speakers or a soundbar.

Physically, the Roku 4 is definitely larger than the palm-sized Roku 3, but Roku says it was designed to accommodate all of the new tech packed inside of it. The Roku motion-sensor remote looks pretty much the same, and while it's not quite as easy to misplace as, say, the Apple TV remote, Roku has got you there: the Roku 4 box has a "Find Me" button that pings the remote.

Roku 4

Roku is also rolling out software updates, both to the streaming devices and to its mobile app. Roku OS 7, which powers the streaming sticks and boxes, will include a new "follow" feature, an iteration on the "My Feed" function introduced last spring, that alerts users when the price of a specific movie or TV show has dropped (you'll also get updates when something you've saved has become available). And Roku OS 7 has a Hotel and Dorm Connect feature that lets you travel a little bit more easily with a Roku; rather than having to set a box up from scratch every time you take it somewhere new, you can authenticate through a browser that's already connected to the network.

The redesigned Roku mobile app for iOS and Android, which before worked primarily as a mobile remote control for Roku, now has some features that "untether" the app from the Roku box. At least, that's how Roku is describing it. This doesn't mean you can watch content from within the Roku mobile app, but you can utilize the new follow function or get notifications. The idea behind this is that you might be in conversation with friends about new TV shows or see an ad for a movie you'd like to see when you're away from your Roku device, and you should still be able to add that content to your feed through the mobile app.

The new Roku box goes on sale today for $130 and will ship sometime in October, the company says. A free software updates will start rolling out to existing Roku devices over the next couple of weeks.

How does that compare to others? And by others, I mean the three new video streaming devices that have been announced recently by Apple, Amazon and Google? We won't be the full rundown until we test them all, but I'll say this: When it comes to specs and feature sets, there is a lot of cross-over with these devices. They all now support modern WiFi standards, boast better faster processors, offer voice search and dabble in casual games. Two of them offer 4K video streaming. Ultimately, when the hardware becomes less differentiated, it comes down to the app ecosystem, the content that's actually available, and the discovery of that content.

One of Roku's biggest brags has always been the size of its content library, as well as its engagement metrics. Roku says it now offers 3000 different channels through its streaming boxes and sticks, and that Roku users streamed more than 2.5 billion hours of video and music content in the first half of 2015 alone, compared with three billion hours total last year. (Interestingly, Roku isn't pushing gaming as much as the others; out of all those channels, only about 110 of them are games-related, and Roku says the vast majority of time spent with Roku is around video and music.)

With that many channels it's easy to draw the comparison to cable — a thousand channels available to me and I watch the same 17 over and over again — but Roku insists it has healthy audiences for its niche channels. A Re/Max university channel for real estate agents in training? An autism channel for parents and caregivers of people with autism? A JW Broadcasting channel for Jehovah's Witnesses? You can find a lot of interesting stuff on Roku, and Roku is still betting that its vast array of content and the discovery of that content will set it apart from the pack.