Roku is a pioneer in video-streaming media hubs, but as Apple TV became popular, and HDTVs and Blu-ray players began supporting Netflix and other online services, Roku boxes started to look less unique and less useful. The latest box, the Roku 3 ($99.99 direct) changes that. What’s new? More power, a streamlined interface, an invaluable cross-service search feature, and a remote-mounted headphone jack. The Roku 3 costs twice as much as the budget-price Roku LT, but the faster speed and new features make it worth it the price. Even still, a slicker interface, better local network media streaming, and YouTube support keep the same-price Apple TV our top choice for media hubs.
The new box is curvier than previous Rokus, and it’s lighter and even more compact. The 3.5-inch glossy black square with rounded corners stands just 1 inch tall and weighs a scant 5 ounces. In fact, it’s light enough to get kicked around if you use too heavy an HDMI cable to connect it. There’s an indicator light on the front panel and power, Ethernet, and HDMI ports on the back next to a microSD card slot and a reset button. A USB port sits on the side of the box.
The remote is a light, wriststrap-equipped, half-sausage-link-shaped piece of rounded black plastic, almost identical to the one that’s bundled with its predecessor, the Roku 2 XS. There’s one major exception: It now has a headphone jack on the left side. The 3.5mm audio port can be used with the included (admittedly low-quality) purple earbuds or with your own headphones to listen to audio played through the Roku. The box automatically mutes sound through the HDTV when you plug in headphones, so you can seamlessly switch back and forth. It’s ideal if you’re watching late-night TV and don’t want to keep anyone else up, even if it’s not particularly useful beyond that sort of scenario.
A dedicated volume rocker on the right side of the remote, opposite of the headphone jack, adjusts volume through the headphones without affecting the volume on your HDTV. Besides the headphone jack, the remote has a directional pad, basic playback and navigation buttons, A and B buttons for use while playing games available through the Channel Store on the box, and a motion-sensing feature that works with the included Angry Birds Space.
The biggest changes to the Roku 3 are on the inside. Roku claims it added a lot of processing power to the system compared with the Roku 2 boxes (Roku doesn’t specify the exact technical differences, but the responsiveness is notable), and the speed is apparent as soon as you navigate the new interface. Menus shifts back and forth quickly, and it only takes a few seconds to load most channels. The channels are also much easier to navigate structurally, thanks to the new menu system discussed below. The new interface will be pushed to older Roku boxes via a firmware update in April, but it might seem comparatively sluggish since the Roku 3 wields greater processing power.
The new interface is a refreshing change from the line of channels you had to flip through on the older Roku boxes. Channels are now arranged in a grid, and the channel store is integrated into the main menu instead of a separate system. The screen now shows twelve choices instead of just five, and a two-pane system lets you browse through a grid of choices while seeing details of the highlighted item on the same screen (or, if on a main screen, an advertisement or promotional panel for a popular show or movie available on one of the channels). The new interface supports skins, and comes with five different choices to make the menus look slightly different. Roku has not yet announced the availability of additional skins or whether different designs will be available from third parties.
Many services are also integrated into the new search function, which lets you see if a particular movie or show is available on multiple Roku channels. I searched for a classic early 1990s action movie featuring Robert Patrick as a super-powered villain (Double Dragon), and the Roku 3 told me it was available to watch for free on Netflix (with a subscription) or I could rent it for $2.99 on Amazon Instant Video or Vudu. The search function doesn’t integrate every channel available on Roku, but it includes Netflix, Amazon, Hulu Plus, and Vudu, so your bases are covered for the major services. It’s a remarkably useful feature if you don’t want to wade through different catalogs.
You can control the Roku 3 with your iOS device with the free Roku app, which both turns your iPhone or iPod touch into a Roku remote, and lets you stream photos and music to the Roku 3 with an AirPlay-like feature. (You can’t stream movies or mirror displays from mobile devices, though.) The official Roku app is designed for the iPhone and iPod touch, but can be used in double screen-size zoom mode on the iPad. And third-party remote apps are available for the iPad and Android devices. The Roku 3 also supports playing local media from a USB drive, but file support is limited to h.264, .mkv, and .mp4 movie files, AAC and MP3 music files, and JPG and PNG picture files. The box can’t handle files played from networked storage out of the box, relying on third party content channels to add that support.
Besides the aforementioned big streaming names, Roku offers hundreds of content channels and apps including the likes of Pandora, HBO Go, Facebook, Picasa, and various professional sports services. It comes preinstalled with Angry Birds Space, which you can play with the motion controller remote just like the original Angry Birds that came with the Roku 2 XS. There are many more choices than with Apple TV, but individual channels are still a mish-mash and many aren’t integrated into the search feature, so you have to wade through a lot of things you might not want. The channels can also add features like networked file playback, but it makes the process much less streamlined and consistent than the Apple TV’s integrated, first-party networked file playback.
The Roku Channel store is missing just one major service, but it’s a big one: There’s still no YouTube. Every other major set-top box (and connected HDTV and Blu-ray player) offers access to the biggest, most popular online video service, so the omission is significant. It also lacks a Web browser, which you can find on Google TV devices like the Sony Internet Player NSZ-GS7.
The Roku 3 fixes many of the problems with the sluggish and clunky menu systems of previous Roku boxes, and its integrated search feature turns it into a video library powerhouse if you subscribe to multiple services. It’s still not quite as flexible with local networked media playback as Apple TV, but the excellent selection of services and much-improved interface make it a strong competitor. It’s a shame that it YouTube isn’t on board, though. That omission, plus a few remaining interface issues, hold it back from replacing the Apple TV as our Editors’ Choice for media hubs.
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Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc