Hands-On With Roku OS 9.4: HBO Max via AirPlay and Speed Improvements Tested




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Back in September, we got word of a new update headed to Roku devices. Roku OS 9.4 promised some interesting new features — and potential performance improvements, so we were looking forward to updating our gear to explore. And this month, we’ve been checking out version 9.4 on several in-house Roku devices to see what’s new. Curious about speed boosts and potentially watching, say, HBO Max on your Roku device? Read on!

Updating Your Roku Device to OS 9.4

Roku OS 9.4 has been rolling out recently and the easiest way to check if your device is up-to-date is to head into the Settings menu, scroll over to System, and select System Update. Click on the Check Now button to see if any new OS or app updates are available.. If there are, you might see your device restart and then you’ll be brought back to your home screen.

What About New Features?

Roku OS 9.4 offers up some interesting new features, but some of those will depend on what kind of Roku device you’re using. Overall, Roku is promising improved performance across devices, including faster startup times, load times for top channels, and more. And the company’s various streaming devices and smart TVs will also get access to updated theme packs to add a bit more variety to your menus and home screen. Those theme packs showed up in version 9.3, but this update adds some sound effects to enhance the experience. You can check out our video preview above to hear some of those effects in action.

Under the sea. Update your home screen. With a few new themes. Under the sea.

You’ll also see hints pop up at times reminding you of features like voice commands you could be using with your device. OS 9.4 also introduces a feature that’s currently marked as Beta, as in not quite ready for prime time. This feature adds voice entry for supported on-screen keyboards. If an app’s keyboard supports the new feature, you’ll see a microphone icon displayed. If you click on it, you should be able to hold down your remote’s microphone button to speak your command instead of typing it. As we mentioned, Roku labels this a beta feature for now, but it’s looking to add more keyboard support in the future.

Roku TV users get access to The Roku Channel’s Live TV guide straight from the home screen. And those of you leveraging antennas for over-the-air content will also get access to a combined guide that merges both free OTA content and free streaming options in one guide. However, you’ll also have the option of filtering the guide if, say, you’d rather just see OTA-only channels.

If that sounds familiar, we’ve reported on Roku experimenting with this feature earlier in the year, but it’s now back via OS 9.4.

If you’ve got a multi-channel Roku audio setup, OS 9.4 gives you more fine-grained control to adjust and balance audio levels among your various speakers.

Putting Performance Claims to the Test

In its announcements about OS 9.4, Roku’s touted performance improvements including faster startup times and app loading. And we were definitely looking forward to testing those claims.

For those unfamiliar with our testing methodology: We time each device to see how quickly it can load a series of popular apps in a row. And we test each one at least three times through the entire suite of apps to get an average time to compare against other devices.

And for this round of tests, our suite consisted of Netflix, YouTube, Prime Video, Disney Plus, Hulu, ESPN, Pluto TV, The Roku Channel, and the Roku Tips and Trick Channel. And then we fired up Netflix once more at the end to see if it could load any faster the second time through.

As for our results, here’s how a 2020 Roku Ultra fared with the latest update. Back when we first reviewed the new Ultra, on OS 9.3, it scored the fastest time yet among our Roku devices, with an overall average of 66.63 seconds. And with 9.4 installed, the overall average is now even faster at 63.59 seconds.

We also tested the lower-end Roku Express to see what OS 9.4 could do. The Express posted an overall time of 123.07 seconds in our original Roku vs. Roku faceoff. And with 9.4 loaded, the Express clocked in an impressive 101.61 seconds, a significant improvement over its earlier times.

So yes, it looks Roku OS 9.4 should indeed offer performance improvements when it comes to app launch times. Of course, your mileage may vary, especially if your favorite apps differ greatly from those in our test suite, but the overall improvements are encouraging.

Trying our AirPlay 2 with HBO Max

Along with version 9.4, Roku also announced support for Apple AirPlay 2 and HomeKit on certain 4K Roku devices. To recap, AirPlay 2 allows users to stream and share content on their Roku device straight from their iPhone, iPad, or other Apple hardware. And HomeKit support lets you control your Roku device functions via Apple’s Home app on iPhones, iPads and Macs.

If your device is up-to-date and supported, you should see an option in the Settings menu for Apple AirPlay & HomeKit. From there, you can customize settings like requiring a passcode for connected devices. And on your Apple devices, you should see the AirPlay icon on compatible media. Clicking that icon should bring up AirPlay-capable gear, including your Roku device. Just select it and you should start hearing or seeing your content on your TV.

In case you’re wondering, that does indeed open the door to playing content on your Roku device that may or may not be available via native apps. And that includes services like, say, HBO Max.

We tested the streaming service on one of our Roku Ultras and it was easy to load the HBO Max app on our iPhone, connect via AirPlay and have that content running on our TV. It may not be quite as convenient as a dedicated Roku app, but for those looking for workarounds until WarnerMedia and Roku make peace, this is among the easier routes.

A Note on Supported Devices

And in case you’re wondering if you’re device will receive OS 9.4, here’s the list of supported devices.

The company also expects version 9.4 to come to all models of Roku TV. If you’re unsure which model you currently have, you can find that info in the Settings Menu, under System and then the About menu.

Overall, Roku OS 9.4 brings with it some welcome improvements and some interesting new capabilities on supported devices. If you haven’t done so already, feel free to explore, try out the new voice features, and maybe stream some content via AirPlay. And be sure to check out our video on the update to learn even more about the new update.

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