After years of waiting for Roku to offer a better way to keep tabs on your streaming services, the company has finally delivered.
With the Roku OS 11.5 update coming later this fall, Roku will add several new ways to figure out what to watch: A “Save List” feature, for instance, will let you bookmark shows to watch later from any streaming service, while a “Continue Watching” section will help you quickly resume shows without leaving Roku’s home screen. To help in moments of indecision, another menu section called “The Buzz” will let you flip through movie and show suggestions.
Together, those features signal a shift in the way Roku approaches TV. While the company’s traditional app grid isn’t going anywhere, it’s becoming less of a focus as Roku comes up with new ways to navigate your streaming options. That’s a big deal not just for Roku users, but for streaming TV as a whole.
Just last month, I knocked Roku’s “What to Watch” menu for essentially being too selfish. While this home screen section is supposed to help make sense of streaming, its recommendations have been too fixated on ad-supported video (which is where Roku makes much of its money).
Roku OS 11.5 is a step in the right direction.
With the “Save List,” for instance, you’ll be able to bookmark videos from any streaming service, whether they have commercials or not. This feature previously debuted inside Roku’s mobile app, but soon you’ll be able to access your list through Roku’s “What to Watch” menu on your TV. You can find items to add through search—which itself is getting some visual upgrades in OS 11.5—or via the aforementioned “The Buzz” section.
Meanwhile, Roku’s “Continue Watching” row will no longer be limited to Roku Channel content. If you start watching a show on Netflix, for instance, it’ll show up inside the What to Watch menu so you can pick up where you left off. You can even start watching on one Roku device and resume on another.
Those changes don’t address every gripe I’ve had with Roku’s What to Watch menu—you still won’t be able to personalize this section’s recommendations, or filter out services you don’t care about—but they will give you more of a reason to visit the section in the first place.
Which streamers are on board?
Roku is hardly alone in trying to break out of the app-grid paradigm. For years, other streaming platforms such as Fire TV, Google TV, and Apple TV have offered their own universal watchlist features and recommended movies and shows directly from their home screens.
But getting these features to work well has been a challenge. The “Up Next” row on Apple TV devices, for instance, doesn’t include content from Netflix, and Fire TV’s “Recently Watched” row only covers Amazon’s own video services. Google TV famously stopped suggesting Netflix originals on its home screen soon after launch, and its “Continue Watching” row only works with a limited number of streaming services.
The Save List function, for instance, doesn’t currently work with Netflix originals, as I’ve been unable to add originals such as Stranger Things and The Crown to the Save List in Roku’s mobile app. I assume the same limitation will apply on TVs. (A Roku spokesperson told me that “most of Netflix’s content is supported,” but declined to go into details.)
The Continue Watching row will be even more limited, only working with Netflix, HBO Max, Paramount+, and the Roku Channel at launch. While Roku says it will add more partners over time, getting them on board will presumably be more of a slog as it requires a platform-level understanding of what users have watched. The Buzz’s service support will be limited as well, with Apple TV+, Plex, AMC+, and Starz among its initial 13 partners.
I’m guessing that’s why Roku took so long to deliver these features in the first place. The company has always been wary of making big changes to its platform and introducing new complexities, and it risks alienating users if features like the Save List and Continue Watching don’t work as expected.
But as more streaming services pop up, not doing anything has become untenable. A recent survey commissioned by Plex found that people spend 30 minutes on average looking for something to watch across numerous streaming services, and more than half of those surveyed said keeping track of everything is a struggle. (Plex, incidentally, launched its own way to manage your streaming options earlier this year.)
With Roku OS 11.5, Roku is finally doing something about it, and I’d argue that it’s in a better position to get streaming services on board than most other companies. The company now reaches more than half of U.S. connected TV users according to eMarketer, which means its home screen is prime real estate for streamers such as Netflix, HBO Max, and Hulu. We’ve already seen Roku throw its weight around to get what it wants from streaming services, so having them participate in features like Continue Watching should now be atop its list of demands.
Either way, Roku is finally taking a stab at the streaming navigation problem in earnest, and I’m excited to see what happens next.
Jared Newman has been helping folks make sense of technology for over a decade, writing for PCWorld, TechHive, and elsewhere. He also publishes two newsletters, Advisorator for straightforward tech advice and Cord Cutter Weekly for saving money on TV service.