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."