Roku's latest outsmarts the competition with content and performance.
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Roku made a name for itself in the TV industry with its original streaming box, but that was before other companies got in on the fun (and profits). Now you have numerous options: Apple TV, Hisense Pulse, Vizio Co-Star, and Google Chromecast. Does the California-based company have a sure-fire success on its hands with its third official box? You bet.
The Roku 3 (MSRP $99.99) can be summed up as a smart TV box—that is, it offers everything your typical internet-connected television does, but for way less. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and HBO GO are all here, plus a bunch of lesser-known streaming services; even Angry Birds makes an appearance. Smart TVs, take note: This is how you make a compelling platform.
The diminutive Roku 3 box includes four ports: HDMI out, ethernet, power, and USB. Only the HDMI slot and power input are essential for using the device, although you should consider a wired connection if your wireless is sketchy.
After plugging the Roku 3 into an outlet and connecting it to your TV via HDMI, you're ready to go. The software setup is typical smart TV fare: set the time and date, connect to a wireless network (or use a wired connection), and sign up for an account. Roku requires you to enter a credit card number before you can use its latest device—kind of a downer. After another few minutes of entering personal info, I was ready to embark on my latest content-streaming journey.
The first thing I noticed about the Roku 3 is how smooth the interface is. Many smart TV platforms are sluggish, or at least have a slight delay between button press and action. This is not the case with Roku's latest—you'll be flying through apps and finding movies in no time.
It doesn't hurt that the included remote is excellent. A D-pad sits at the top of the controller, and it's crazy how much easier it makes typing compared to other remotes we've used. Touchpad controllers from Samsung and Panasonic are never sensitive enough, while other remotes with separate directional buttons are clunky to use. Using the Roku remote's D-pad is much like using an Xbox or Playstation controller: fast, fluid, and responsive.
The Roku remote is also motion-controlled, which is great when playing Angry Birds Space, but doesn't really come into play elsewhere. It seems gimmicky to me. Another gimmick? The headphone jack on the remote that lets you listen to content without jacking into the TV, although this gimmick is kind of awesome. I was able to watch movies on Netflix that contained naughty language without my office knowing. I'm sure there are other situations where this feature is equally useful.
Is Roku's remote perfect? No. Sorely missing is a search button, which would eliminate the need to find the search option on the interface. Also, as much as I like using the D-pad on the remote, a QWERTY keyboard would make things even easier.
If the included remote isn't enough, there is an app for Android and iPhone users. By connecting to the same wireless network your Roku is on, you can control the interface with your phone. One of the best features is launching an app—I mean, channel—by voice. Using this option, you can simply say "Netflix" or "Hulu" and the channel will launch, although your WiFi connection needs to be strong for the remote app to actually work. And yes, Roku calls its apps "channels."
Roku wants you to think it's a viable alternative to cable TV programming—it calls its apps "channels" in order to get this point across. With streaming giants Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, and HBO GO all supported, the Roku 3 can actually compete with cable content. If you were to just subscribe to Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, you'd only be paying about $23 per month—compare that to your current cable bill.
There's a good amount of free streaming channels, too. PBS has a great addition on Roku, which lets users view tons of content, although Downton Abbey is sadly missing. Crackle and Popcornflix offer free movies, with the only catch being ads that interrupt your film. I should note that both have a borderline terrible selection.
Roku 3 includes a USB port for playback of your media files, but there is no way to play them out of the box. Instead, you must navigate to Roku's Channel Store and download a USB channel. As if this wasn't complicated enough, the channel needed is found in the music section. While it's stupid that Roku doesn't include this from the get go, it does at least work. The USB player is able to play MKV and MP4 files—if you absolutely must play your AVI files, go find an Xbox.
As far as streaming your content goes, the Roku again cannot do this out of the box. Rest assured, though—there's a channel for that. I downloaded the MyMedia channel, which requires a corresponding app on a Windows PC. Once you set up the app, you can find movies on your hard drive with the Roku MyMedia channel. This isn't as easy as using an Apple TV and iTunes to stream your content, but it did work and I was able to enjoy my digital movie.
There are even gaming channels on the Roku 3, and they are horrendous. Yes, Angry Birds Space is included for free, and yes, it plays well, but everything else will cost you between $1 and $5. If you expect me to shell out $2 for Tic Tac Toe, you're crazy. It's worth scrolling through the list of games just to see some of the horribly-named titles. Anna Montana? Retro Tennis? A Bible Seek and Find Word Game? Yes, these are all real. Stick to streaming, Roku.
Perhaps the Roku 3's greatest strength is its powerful search feature. Instead of looking through all of the video channels for a specific movie, you can just search for it and Roku will tell you where to find it. Even better: search for an actor. I typed in "Nicolas Cage" and the Roku 3 listed all of his movies. Selecting the move Face/Off reveals that I can find it on Amazon, Netflix, and VUDU. I already lamented the remote's lack of a search button, and this feature is a reminder that the next Roku needs one.
If you have a smart TV, you probably aren't interested in the Roku 3 or any of its competitors. That's fine—this product is geared towards consumers that need a way to access their various subscriptions. And what a way it is! Out of all the smart TV platforms I've used, the Roku 3 is the best. It packs the most streaming content into its platform and is simple to use. I would rank the Apple TV as being easier to navigate, but the Roku 3's search feature and comfortable remote place it on top.
If you're ready to give up cable, the Roku 3 is the best way to do so. If you merely want to supplement your cable with more content, you should still consider the Roku 3.
Oh, and if you want to watch a movie on your 65-inch TV without disturbing anyone, definitely buy the Roku 3. That headphone jack on the remote is just so useful.