It’s been well over a year since we first heard that Roku would be bringing AirPlay 2 support to its set-top boxes, and now it looks like the company is finally almost ready to pull the trigger on the new feature.
Although there have been workarounds to get content from your iPhone or iPad onto a Roku set-top box, these have been poor replacements for the native AirPlay 2 support that the Apple TV offers, and although the video part of the streaming protocol was once exclusive to Apple’s own hardware, the company opened things up in late 2018, resulting in several TV makers announcing AirPlay 2 support at the beginning of 2019, with many recent smart TVs gaining the feature.
So it seemed like Roku should have easily been next in line, but while there were serious rumours that it could be announced in early 2019, when Apple’s March 2019 event actually arrived the set-top box only got a passing mention as one of the platforms on which Apple’s new Apple TV+ service would be available.
On that front, Roku did deliver, however, with Apple’s TV app officially landing on Roku devices days before the debut of the nascent streaming service, with a full slate of features. In fact, in this one area Roku actually beat out almost every other smart TV maker; most had focused on adding AirPlay 2 and HomeKit support to their sets, with only Samsung offering up direct support for Apple’s streaming content more or less right out of the gate.
In all fairness, support for Apple’s TV app was about more than Apple TV+; even users who had no interest in subscriptions to Apple’s own streaming service could still benefit from the ability to watch any of their iTunes-purchased or rented movies and TV shows, as well as subscribing directly to Apple TV Channels such as HBO, Starz, Showtime, and CBS All Access.
The Wait Is Almost Over
The good news is that Roku has now officially announced that AirPlay 2 and HomeKit support will both be coming to many of its higher-end streaming players, and even Roku TVs by the end of this year.
Specifically, an upcoming Roku OS 9.4 update will add the new features to most of the company’s 4K-capable device lineup, although sadly it looks like older 1080p HD boxes will be left out in the cold. It’s also likely no small coincidence that iOS 14 has added full support for streaming full 4K content via AirPlay 2.
Still, although many smart TVs have added these features, it’s actually the first time they’re coming to a non-Apple set-top box — Amazon’s Fire TV doesn’t offer these either, and it’s unclear whether that’s even on Amazon’s roadmap — and ironically on the HomeKit side this could even mean that Roku gains features that have been really conspicuously missing from Apple’s own set-top box.
Despite its role as a Home Hub for HomeKit, it has very oddly never been possible to control the Apple TV using home automation routines, and in fact until iOS 14 and tvOS 14 you couldn’t even turn your Apple TV on or off via Siri. We’ve long wished that the set-top box — and any HDMI-controlled TVs and receivers connected to it — could be switched off as part of a HomeKit scene along with the rest of our lights; in fact it’s about the only device in our home that we still have to turn off by itself when leaving the house or going to bed at night.
By contrast, smart TVs that support HomeKit have fully supported these capabilities since the very beginning, making it even more unusual that Apple hasn’t added this to the Apple TV, which at this point can only be played or paused from within the Home app and its related home automation routines.
Whether the Roku will gain this capability remains to be seen, of course — it could end up behaving exactly the same way as the Apple TV does right now — but it would certainly be interesting if it’s handled in the same way as other smart TVs. While Apple may be hesitant to enable the capability for a set-top box, most modern TVs and AV receivers support the HDMI-CEC standard so that they can be switched on and off, and certainly the recent addition of Siri voice support for turning the Apple TV on and off suggests that Apple understands this concept.
On the other hand, Roku’s support for AirPlay 2 will be considerably more straightforward; once the Roku OS 9.4 update becomes available and users have installed it, the device should simply appear as an AirPlay destination in the same way as the Apple TV or any of the other smart TVs that have added AirPlay 2 support, allowing you to beam music, photos, and videos and even mirror your actual iPhone, iPad, or Mac on your Roku.
The new 9.4 update should begin rolling out to Roku’s set-top boxes this month, while owners of Roku-enabled TVs may have to wait a few weeks more, with the company saying that it will be delivered “in phases over the coming months.”