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 . . .