The home screen on Hisense's H4 TV, which incorporates Roku's smart TV operating system.

Hisense's remote features only 20 keys, four of them shortcut keys.

Top-level search on Hisense's Roku-powered TV

Home screen on TCL's Roku-powered TV

TCL's remote is similar to Hisense's, except it places two volume keys on the side.

Top-level search on TCL's TV set

For Upcoming TVs, Roku Nixes The Input Button And Slims Down The Remote To 20 Keys

The set-top-box maker is on track to stream 2.7 billion hours this year.

For all the investment TV manufacturers put into their cutting-edge tech—4K resolution, curved displays, 3-D visuals, smart TV operating systems—the remote control has remained largely forgotten. Viewers no longer have to walk between the couch and the TV to change the channel, but switching between programs—say House of Cards on Netflix to Under the Dome on CBS—can involve up to three remotes and locating the right buttons among 100-plus keys. Shouldn't we have found a better solution by now?

Roku believes it's nailed the design of the remote control for upcoming sets from Chinese companies TCL and Hisense, the respective third and fifth largest TV manufacturers in the world by shipments in 2013, according to data by NPD DisplaySearch. Execs from both companies say they chose to partner with Roku—on track to stream 2.7 billion hours this year, up from 1.7 billion in 2013—because of its vast collection of video channels. Given the fragmented smart TV market, it made sense to bank on Roku's platform, which includes 1,700 streaming services, with two to three new ones added each day.

These Roku-powered sets will be priced competitively, but the manufacturers insist there isn't any compromise on quality. "I'll put that 40-inch TV against anyone out there in a blind test without looking at the price," Hisense's director of product management, Chris Porter, told Fast Company while demoing its new TV. TCL's vice president of sales and marketing, Chris Larson, meanwhile, said its sets "will shine next to anything else."

The TVs from TCL measure 32, 40, 48, and 55 inches diagonally, and will be available for preorder on Amazon for $229 to $649. Hisense's H4 series will come in 40, 48, 50, and 55 inches. However, it's not attaching a suggested manufacturer's retail price to the TVs, leaving that for retailers to set. Stores, including Best Buy and Walmart, will announce the prices in upcoming print ad campaigns leading to the holiday season.

Hisense's Roku-designed remoteImage courtesy of Roku

The operating system on these sets looks similar to the existing interface on Roku's boxes, except for the customized color scheme and options to add peripherals, such as game consoles, cable boxes, and Blu-ray players. Like connected streaming services, the peripherals have their own tiles on the home screen, which means no more fussing with the input button. When a viewer switches between different streaming services and live TV, the operating system will automatically change to the proper settings. In all, the remote—which bears a family resemblance to the one Roku provides for its own boxes—features 20 buttons, four of them shortcut keys to services such as Netflix and Amazon Video. Remotes for the manufacturers vary very slightly, with TCL placing the volume keys on the side instead of the top.

"You'll be able to control the entire user experience with 16 keys," Porter said. He contrasts this experience to some of the more cumbersome controllers he's encountered, including a two-sided QWERTY remote with 120 keys. "That's not a lean-back experience. That's turn on a bright light and figure out which button to press," he added.

However, this doesn't completely eliminate other remotes. Given the lack of a number pad, it'll likely be easier for cable and satellite TV subscribers to go directly to favorite channels on their existing remotes.

Also notably missing is the headphone port featured on the remote of the higher-end Roku 2 and Roku 3 set-top boxes. The port is especially handy for late-night television because it lets one viewer listen to the audio through headphones without disturbing other members of the household. The reason for this is because the headphone feature requires a remote that communicates with devices using radio frequency. The manufacturers, on the other hand, opted for infrared, a more common protocol, so the remote can control other entertainment devices, such as game consoles.

Though Hisense and TCL are relatively obscure brands in the U.S., the manufacturers, which together represent 9% of TV shipments globally, believe there's space for them to capture more market share, especially as they innovate with Roku's platform. However, they declined to say if Roku will play a larger role in their respective smart TV strategies.

"I believe there's a huge opportunity for some new brands in the TV space in the United States," TCL's Larson said. "Brands are either dead or dying. If you look at the top three in terms of market share in the U.S.—LG, Samsung, Vizio—15 years ago, these were not on the radar. Names will change, but there will always be this cycle."

[Images courtesy of Roku]

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