Amidst a crowded field of streaming media players, Roku players consistently find themselves atop the Best-of and Editor's Choice lists. One glance at the list of available apps, or channels, as Roku prefers to call them, and it's easy to see why. With over 750 channels to choose from (some for free, others for a fee), Roku far surpasses other standalone platforms in its number and variety of entertainment options. The company recently introduced a new player, the Roku 3 ($99.99), which replaces the top-shelf Roku 2 XS. Other lower-priced Roku players (the XD, HD and LT) are still available. Like the XS, the new Roku 3 is the only player in the line to offer a USB port for media playback and an Ethernet port for a wired network connection. It's also the only one to offer dual-band Wirelesss-N WiFi, as opposed to the single-band WiFi in the lower-priced players. Where the Roku 3 differs from its predecessor is in its speed (the company claims that it's five times faster than previous players) and its remote control, which adds a headphone jack for private audio listening. Roku also redesigned the user interface for the Roku 3 launch, a change that other Roku users will also get in the form of a software update.
I've written about Roku players in the past, but never before actually spent so much hands-on time with one. So, with the introduction of the Roku 3, I decided it was time to discover for myself how Roku distinguishes itself from the pack.
The Roku 3 has a petite form factor, a 3.5-inch square that's just one inch tall, with a glossy black finish. On the front face are the Roku 3 logo, an IR sensor, and a power LED. On the right side is the USB port; on the left is a little purple cloth tag that says Roku. At first I thought this tag's purpose was to show me where the MicroSD card slot is located, but no, it's just a distinguishing brand tag that appears on all Roku players. On the back, you'll find the DC power port, Ethernet port, MicroSD card slot, and HDMI port. The Roku 3 supports 1080p output via HDMI, which is the only video and audio connection option. The Roku 2 XD/HD/LT models have analog A/V output, but this one does not, so it's not the right choice for someone who owns a non-HDMI-equipped TV or AV receiver.
The remote control's small form (5.5 inches long by one inch deep by about 1.5 inches wide) and curvy backside helped it to fit comfortably in my small hand, and it offers the core buttons you'll need: home, return, navigation arrows, OK, options, play/pause, reverse, forward, and an Instant Replay button that lets you replay the last seven seconds of video. A and B buttons are also available for game play. My only gripe about the remote's button layout is that the OK button sits under the navigation arrows, instead of in the center of them. So many other remotes put the OK button in the center that I now expect it to be there; by force of habit, I consistently found myself pressing a nonexistent button to initiate commands. The remote communicates via WiFi Direct, so you don't need line-of-sight with the player, and the two devices automatically pair with each other during initial setup. Like the former XS remote, the Roku 3 remote has Wii-like motion sensing to play games like Angry Birds Space (which is included for free), and the remote comes with a detachable, adjustable wrist strap.
The major addition to the Roku 3 remote is a headphone jack on the left side panel and volume controls on the right. If you want to play games or watch a movie without disturbing anyone in the house, just plug a pair of headphones into the jack, and the player will automatically mute the HDMI output and direct audio to the headphones. Roku even includes a pair of in-ear headphones in the package. You can purchase additional Roku 3 remotes for $24.99, but this remote is not compatible with older Roku players.
The company also offers a free control app for iOS and Android devices that consists of four pages. The Remote page mimics most of the buttons on the remote (with the OK button more intuitively located in the middle of the navigation arrows, I might add!). You can pull up a virtual QWERTY keyboard to speed up the text-entry process. The My Channels page gives you direct access to (wait for it) your channels, while the Store page lets you browse and add new channels from the remote, without interrupting video playback on the TV screen. There's also a page called Play On Roku, which lets you stream music and photos from your phone or tablet to the Roku 3.
I connected my Roku 3 review sample via HDMI to an Onkyo TX-NR515 AV receiver and began with a wired Ethernet connection, since my router is located in a cabinet next to my gear rack. The player lacks an on/off button, so it powers up when you plug it in and goes to sleep when it's not in use. Initial setup involves just a few steps: select a language, connect to your network, and activate a Roku account. That last step requires a trip to your computer to enter an activation code and set up an online account, which takes just a few minutes.
The Roku menu design is clean and simple to navigate. Along the left portion of the Home screen are options for My Channels, Channel Store, Search and Settings. It's worth noting that the player is set by default to 720p output; if you own a 1080p TV, you should go into the Settings menu to "Display type" and change it to 1080p. Likewise, audio is set to stereo by default, but you can change it to surround. Along the right portion of the Home screen are big, colorful icons for the available channels ... and, as I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of them. You can customize the interface by adding and deleting channels, as well as rearranging them. The ability to browse the Channel Store and add/buy channels is somewhat rare in standalone media streamers. Major manufacturers like Samsung, LG and Panasonic will let you add/buy new apps within the Web platforms on their TVs and Blu-ray players, but companies like Apple, D-Link, and Netgear tend to lock down their standalone players so that they, not you, decide what services are included and displayed.
Most of the major video- and music-on-demand services are represented in the Roku 3. On the video side, you get Netflix, VUDU, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, HBOGo, Crackle, Blockbuster, Flixster and many more. I counted 95 available channels in the Movies & TV section alone. The one notable omission is YouTube. A compelling recent addition for Time Warner Cable customers is the TWC TV app that lets you stream live TV through the Roku 3, eliminating the need for a Time Warner set-top box in a secondary location. In the music category, you'll find Pandora, Vevo, TuneIn, Spotify, MOG, Slacker Radio, SHOUTcast Radio, and the Amazon Cloud Player app, among others (63 total). The store also includes sections for Sports (MLB.TV, NBA GameTime, NHL GameCenter, and MLS are included), Photos & Video (Vimeo, Picasa, Flickr, and Shutterfly are available), News & Weather, Kids & Family, and more. Of course there's a robust Games area filled with free and fee-based games; as I mentioned, Angry Birds Space comes as a freebie.
The Roku 3 is the only current Roku model that supports playback of personal media files. For USB media playback, the Channel Store includes a free channel called "Roku USB Media Player," a simple app that automatically divides your content into folders for Music, Movies and Photos and provides song/artist data on the screen (but no cover art). The USB player will play back the following file formats: MKV, MP4, AAC, MP3, JPG, and PNG. The Roku 3 is not officially DLNA-compatible; however, the Channel Store does include a free PLEX app. I use the free PLEX software on my MacBook Pro to stream to DLNA devices, and it worked seamlessly with the Roku PLEX app to stream music, movies, and photos from my computer. (By the way, the MicroSD card on the Roku 3's backside is for additional game/channel storage only, not media playback.)
Read about the performance of the Roku 3 on Page 2 . . .
The performance of individual apps within a streaming media player is largely dependent on the quality/design of the app itself and the speed of your broadband network. Two critical performance areas for the player itself are speed and reliability. How fast do the channels load? How quick and intuitive is navigation using the remote and the Web-based control app? Does the product freeze up? Do apps crash? In these areas, the Roku 3 passed with flying colors. The little box never crashed or froze up. It responded very quickly and reliably to control commands from both the remote and the iOS/Android apps, channels loaded very quickly, and video/music playback was smooth and reliable. I have a 15Mbps-plus broadband connection, and the video quality of Netflix and Hulu was very good. The PLEX app worked without issue for streaming media content from my computer, as did the USB player with a connected thumb drive. I did not dig too deeply into game play, but I did try out Angry Birds Space with the motion-sensing remote, and the reaction time between the remote and the game was plenty quick for me.
I've owned an Apple TV for almost a year and a half; in that time, I've also reviewed streaming media players from Netgear, Boxee, and D-Link (as well as all the Web platforms from the major TV manufacturers). While some were better than others, none has compared with the Apple TV in overall speed and reliability. None until the Roku 3, that is. The Apple TV loaded Netflix in 4.1 seconds; the Roku 3 loaded it in 5.4 seconds (by contrast, the D-Link MovieNite Plus took 24.4 seconds). In loading Hulu Plus, both players clocked in at about eight seconds. The Roku 3 had Pandora loaded and playing music in about five seconds, with Amazon served up in 3.8 seconds. When I switched to a WiFi connection, it added maybe a second or two to the load times, but trust me when I say that speed is not an issue here.
Since I haven't reviewed previous Roku players, I can't really speak to the differences between the new Roku interface and the old one; instead, I'll just comment on what's before me. The Roku platform does offer some design consistency between channels, in that the Roku "style" uses larger-than-average cover art and icons with a clean, minimalist layout. I found the various channel interfaces to be intuitively organized and very easy to navigate. I confess I like the Apple TV interface a little better; Apple puts more options on the screen at any given time, which means less scrolling to find what you want. Nevertheless, I appreciated the simplicity and cleanliness of the Roku look, and obviously Apple doesn't compete with Roku in the sheer number of services offered.
One new feature in the Roku 3 interface is the enhanced Search function on the Home screen, through which you can type in the name of a program (or game) and Roku will show you all of the channels in which that content is available. For instance, I searched for Life of Pi and learned that both VUDU and Amazon offered it as a $4.99 rental in HD. This is a great time-saver when you're settling in for movie night and don't want to jump from channel to channel to figure out which one offers a certain title for the best price.
Lots of manufacturers offer a free control app for their products. Some are good, some are bad, and some are useless because they simply mimic the buttons on the remote and don't offer meaningful perks like a virtual keyboard. The Roku 3 control app is well designed and well executed. Response time between the player and the app was quick, and the virtual keyboard worked within every app I tried (which is not the case with other control apps I've used). The Play On Roku feature is a great addition that worked flawlessly. In the case of my iPhone, the Play On Roku page linked directly to iTunes, with menus for my playlists, artists, albums, and songs. When I cued up a song through the control app, it automatically started playing through the Roku 3, with a bouncing screensaver that includes song/artist/album info and cover art. The Android app offers the same basic functionality, but also adds voice commands to launch channels. This function worked fine, with one exception: every time I said VUDU, I got Pandora.
The private-listening option via the remote's headphone jack is another simple but highly intuitive perk that the Roku 3 brings to the table. I used it a lot more than I thought I would, thanks to several late-night reviewing/writing sessions that begged for some Pandora accompaniment. The supplied in-ear headphones are comfortable, but serve up an expectedly thin sound; you're better off bringing your own headphones to the party.
From a connectivity standpoint, the Roku 3 is not as flexible as the lower-priced Roku XD, HD and LT models. In addition to lacking an analog A/V port, the Roku 3 also lacks a digital audio output, which is a problem if you want to run sound through a receiver or soundbar that lacks HDMI. Soundbars are hugely popular these days, and most entry- to mid-level models lack an HDMI connection, so you wouldn't be able to directly connect the soundbar and the Roku 3 (you'd have to route the Roku audio through your HDMI TV and come out through the TV's digital audio output to the soundbar).
YouTube is one of the most common apps found on many media players, so it's odd that Roku does not and has never offered a YouTube channel. In the category of very minor quibbles, Roku's Netflix interface doesn't include the Just for Kids option that only shows family-friendly choices, nor does it offer the ability to browse by genre.
The supplied remote does not include a keyboard for faster text entry. Yes, the Roku control app has a keyboard, but if you don't own a smartphone or tablet, you must enter text the laboriously old-fashioned way, via the onscreen keyboard.
The number of file formats supported by the Roku USB Player is pretty limited and does not include Windows Media or audio formats like WAV, AIFF and FLAC.
Comparison and Competition
Throughout this review, I've primarily compared the Roku 3 with the Apple TV, which also sells for $100. Other similarly-priced competitors include the $100 Western Digital WD TV Live, which doesn't have as many channels as Roku, but offers better file-format support for personal media streaming, and the $100 Vizio Co-Star, which runs on the GoogleTV platform. You should also check out our reviews of the Netgear NeoTV Max, Boxee TV, and D-Link MovieNite Plus.
The Roku 3 streaming media player may have converted me from my Apple-centric ways. In addition to its extensive channel lineup, fast speed and great reliability, this player and its accessories offer many little perks that simply work the way they're supposed to, with no complication. As long as you have the HDMI equipment you need to make a connection, the Roku 3 strikes the perfect balance between functionality and user-friendliness; it's a true plug-and-play solution that requires very little "plug" and delivers a whole lot of "play."