It’s gotten to the point that the Roku is so small, it borders on adorable. Barely larger than a hockey puck, it’s somehow faster and does more than the previous generation. And the price is the same.
So from the specs and design, the new Roku seems like a clear improvement.
But is it?
Let’s start with the basics. The Roku is, of course, a media streamer. It’s got the key services: Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, Vudu, Pandora, and Spotify. Plus, there’s a ton of other “channels” like PBS, MLB.tv, Crackle, TED Talks, NASA TV, and more than I have space to list. There are only two channels it doesn’t have: iTunes, of course (but with Amazon Instant Video you don’t really need it), and YouTube (though there are ways around that, apparently).
There are also Time Warner and Aereo channels, showing some signs that the 3 could potentially replace a cable box, at least in a second room. The TWC app requires an active TWC account, and an authorized TWC modem (i.e., your friend can’t log in from their house). The Aereo lets you stream live TV, and even record TV episodes in the cloud, but at the moment it’s only available in certain markets.
The little box has HDMI, Ethernet (there’s also WiFi), and USB. That’s it. The USB plays MP3s, AAC, JPG and PNG files, and H.264 video files (MP4 and MKV).
The menus are much better than the XD I reviewed in 2011, both faster and easier to see what apps/channels you’ve got. Most of the apps, too, are easier to navigate. Hulu Plus, especially, has a much more intuitive interface. Overall everything just feels smoother and more polished, where the old Roku felt more raw and basic.
The remote is probably the biggest difference with the 3 over previous Roku generations. It may not seem like a big thing that it’s RF, but this is a fantastic boon to usability. You don’t need to point the remote at the device, meaning you can mount it wherever you want. Flip the remote sideways, and it’s a controller for a bevy of casual games (like Angry Birds). Even cooler, there’s a remote jack on the side, so you can stream the audio from your chosen video directly to the remote, keeping the peace with your spouse or roommate.
Alternatively, you can use one of the iOS or Android apps. In addition to basic remote control functionality, you can add and delete channels, and stream music and photos from your phone/tablet to the Roku.
Consider that because the remote is RF, and/or you can use the app (via WiFi), you can place or mount the 3 just about anywhere.
One of the most useful features is the ability to search across multiple services at once. Search for 30 Rock, for example, and it will tell you there are episodes available on Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, and Hulu Plus. An elegant time saver.
Picture quality-wise, the 3 converts everything to 1080p (or down to 720p, if desired). Like any media streamer, its limited by the quality of the source feed. Given a decent signal, though, the image looks quite detailed. Even soft shows, like Grey’s Anatomy, look decent (via Hulu Plus).
The most obvious comparison is with the Apple TV, given that they’re the same price and purpose. Now what Apple has added HBO Go, there’s less of an easy choice between the two. If you’re an Apple person, the Apple TV certainly makes more sense. In fact, I’m surprised you read this far if that’s your thing. For those less fruit fanatic, the one advantage the Apple TV still has over the Roku is the simple interface to stream audio with iTunes. This is what I use my Apple TV for the most, letting me access the iTunes library in my office from my home theater. There are ways to stream your content to the 3, of course, but none have the simplicity of AirPlay. From a set-it-and-forget-it standpoint, the Apple TV has the Roku beat (for this aspect, at least). However, for those willing to download some extra software and do a little setup, the 3 offers somewhat similar functionality.
I only have two real complaints with the 3, and both are fairly minor. One is that it gets fairly hot, which probably isn’t a big deal, but is noticeable. The other is that there’s no way to turn it off. Seriously. From the Roku website: “The Roku player was designed to remain plugged in so it can download the latest Roku software and channel updates automatically. It draws less power than a night light. So, there is no power button. If you need to turn it off, simply unplug the power cable from the back of the player.” This isn’t exactly green-friendly, or user friendly for that matter, and a bizarre design decision. It’s literally a product you can’t turn off. Put it on a power switch or a surge protected power strip, I guess.
The Roku 3 is, simply, a fantastic product. It’s fast, in every way easy to use, and only $100. Unless you’re an Apple fanatic, this is the media streamer to get.
HD Guru awards the $100 Roku 3 4.5/5 hearts.
Disclosure –Manufacturer supplied the review sample
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