Thanks to its wide array of content and channels -- and affordable pricing -- Roku has become the gold standard for streaming set-top boxes. But what do you do when game consoles and smart TVs offer services such as Amazon, Netflix and Hulu? With the Roku 3 ($99), the company has made two key enhancements: an easier way to find content and a built-in headphone jack on the remote for private listening. You also get a faster processor than the Roku 2 XS, which this device replaces. Read on to find out if the Roku 3 does enough to stay ahead of the pack.
Click to EnlargeThe Roku 3 is the most adorable streaming box ever. Measuring 3.5 x 3.5 x 1 inches and weighing a mere 5 ounces, this is not a device that needs its own shelf in your entertainment center. In fact, you could easily take the Roku 3 on the road and plug it into a hotel TV.
By comparison, the Apple TV is a slightly larger 3.9 x 3.9 x 0.9 inches and nearly twice as heavy at 9.6 ounces. We actually prefer the rounded edges on the Roku 3 to the more squared-off Apple device.
Featuring a glossy black finish, the Roku 3 picks up fingerprints quickly, but we like little touches such as the big 3 on the top of the device and the little blue Roku tag that hangs off the left side. Up front is a Roku 3 logo and an LED that lets you know the box is on.
Ports and Features
Click to EnlargeRoku squeezes a lot of ports into such a small device. A USB port lines the right side, which enables users to plug in a USB drive for enjoying media files. The Roku 3 supports multiple video (MP4, MKV), audio (AAC, MP3) and image (JPG, PNG files).
The back of the Roku 3 houses the HDMI port, which supports 7.1 and 5.1 surround pass through, a 10/100 Ethernet port and a microSD Card slot. That slot is there for storing additional channels and games you may download. The Roku 3 also has built-in 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, so you don't need to connect it physically to a router.
Remote Control with Headphones
Click to EnlargeHere's a new twist on the remote control. The Roku 3's clicker comes with its own headphone jack on the left side, allowing you to privately listen to a movie, TV show or other video without bothering everyone around you. Roku also includes a set of earphones in the box, which are plenty comfortable and even offer some passive noise isolation.
When watching "The Dark Knight Rises," the Roku 3 easily switched between TV audio and sound on the remote and back again without missing a beat by plugging and removing the headphones. The Roku 3 remote also includes its own volume control, which is a good thing because the default setting was pretty loud.
As with the Roku XS, the Roku 3's remote also includes A and B buttons for playing games you download. The built-in motion control allows you to play some games, such as "Angry Birds Space," using a button and arm motion to fling the birds into the pigs.
Otherwise, the remote is pretty straightforward, with a direction pad, playback controls, an OK button and Back and Home buttons above the D-pad. Bonus: because the Roku 3 remote uses Wi-Fi Direct instead of infrared, you don't need line of sight to the box to operate it.
Click to EnlargeRoku has given its UI a major makeover, making it simple to find the movie, show or even actor you're looking for -- without having to dive into the channels first. For example, on the left side of the slick interface you can just select search and start typing "Will Ferrell," which returned results for "Saturday Night Live" and flicks like "The Campaign." From there we had the option of choosing one of three services to rent the movie: Blockbuster, Vudu and Amazon.
The overall UI is very straightfoward, with four main options running down the left side of the main screen. You'll find My Channels, Channel Store, Search and Settings.
Click to EnlargeRoku continues to beat Apple TV when it comes to the sheer variety of content offered. The Roku 3 offers more than 750 channels of movies, music, photos, sports, comedy, photo apps and more. Some of the most high-profile content partners include Netflix, Vudu, Amazon, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, Crackle and Disney. Live sports offerings include MLB.TV Premium, MLS, UFC, NBA Game Time and NHL GameCenter Live.
Recently launched options include TWC TV, BlockBuster on Demand and iHeartRadio. Fox Now, PBS and PBS Kids are coming soon. Some of our favorite apps include Pandora and Angry Birds. Spotify is on board, too, but you need to be a premium subscriber to use it.
We had a blast playing "Downhill Bowling 2," which delivered a Wii-like gameplay experience. You roll a ball down the hill to knock down pins in a 3D environment using the motion remote. While the graphics were a little jagged, it was a fun diversion. Too bad the rest of the game selection is pretty weak.
The biggest content hole for Roku continues to be YouTube. Apple TV has offered this option for ages. Roku also lacks support for Google Play, which represents the best video option for most Android phones.
Mobile App and Streaming
Click to EnlargeThe official Roku app (available for Android and iOS) really comes in handy. Using our iPhone, we could surf through our channels, as well as type searches using a keyboard. Our only quibble is that we couldn't delete text with the app; we had to use the physical remote.
If you want to stream content from your phone to your TV, you can use the Roku app to view photos and play music on the big screen. Our Mumford & Sons tracks starting streaming almost instantly, and you can also play photo slide shows (albeit without music).
Click to EnlargeUnfortunately, you can't stream video from your phone to the Roku 3 -- at least not yet. The Apple TV lets you stream video, photos, music and even mirrors your display on your HDTV, which is great for playing games.
Roku says it equipped the Roku 3 with a speedier processor, and it definitely makes an impact. The device didn't exhibit lag as we switched between menus, and most apps opened quickly. Backing out of apps also felt responsive.
Video playback looked glorious on our Samsung Smart TV. When watching "The Dark Knight Rises," we could easily make out every concerned wrinkle on an agent's face when he learned that Bane was about to take over and crash a plane. (We had an easier time hearing his weird voice through the built-in headphone jack.)
The Roku 3 also performed smoothly when we plugged in a USB drive with 1080p videos. A skiing clip recorded with a wearable camera delivered a super-crisp view of Chamonix as our colleague swished down the mountain. However, we wish Roku didn't make you download a channel/app for playing back USB media files. It should just work out of the box.
Click to EnlargeThe Roku 3 is a first-rate media-streaming device at a great price, turning any TV into a smart TV. We love the compact design, personal listening feature and slicker interface. On the other hand, the game selection is pretty shallow, and we wish Roku offered both YouTube and Google Play as channels and video streaming from mobile devices. If you currently own a Roku box, there isn't much incentive to upgrade, as the updated software is coming to all current-generation Roku devices in April.
Is the Roku 3 better than the Apple TV? It depends on what you're looking for. iPhone and iPad owners may prefer Apple's box because it supports AirPlay for streaming and automatically displays your latest 1,000 photos from iCloud. But Roku offers a lot of channels Apple doesn't have, including Amazon Instant Video, Facebook, NBC and Fox News, Pandora and Spotify, plus hundreds of other channels in various subject areas. Overall, the Roku 3 is an excellent choice.