The Roku 3 is the official must-have device for cord-cutters. With a library of over 750 channels, an entirely new, simple user interface, and excellent hardware, the latest set-top box from Roku ($100) is the one thing you need if you’re getting your media from the internet. And even if you insist on paying large sums for a cable subscription, the Roku 3 should still be plugged into your HDTV.
The new Roku has some improved software that solves the sluggish interface problems of previous Roku devices. The new processor, a Broadcom ARM Cortex-A9 dual-core chip that does away with those “press a button then wait, wait, wait, wait, oh there it goes” headaches. Paired with the newly designed on-screen interface that arranges all your channels in a grid, switching between services and scrolling through menus can now be accomplished with nary a hiccup.
And flipping through those services more quickly is more important than ever, since there are now 750 media “channels” (apps, basically) built for Roku, and that number is only growing. While Apple continues to crow about its strong ecosystem and the wide variety of content available for rent or purchase in its online store, the Apple TV is still trapped in a pre-third-party-app world. The Roku platform, on the other hand, is open to developers and has a robust library of available services for you to install at your own discretion.
Video channels from Netflix, Amazon, HBO, and Hulu are augmented with music apps from Pandora, Spotify, Rdio and Vevo. Throw in apps that show photos from Facebook, Picasa and Flickr, and the Roku quickly becomes the central hub through which nearly all streaming digital media in your home is consumed. The newly redesigned search interface is also remarkably fast and effective. It queries all the apps on your Roku 3 for whatever show or movie you’re looking for, showing you various options (and prices) from multiple services side-by-side.
As with any app store offering a wide variety, there are a lot of apps you just won’t care about. But the biggest fault I’ve encountered in my testing is the lack of a YouTube app. Roku had previously explained this away by claiming that a YouTube app would tax the Roku’s hardware and deliver a substandard experience. With the Roku 3’s speedier processor, that hurdle should have been cleared, and hopefully a YouTube app fill our TVs with Maru goodness soon. Meanwhile, there are plenty of media server-client workarounds (Plex is a popular one) that will enable you to queue and watch YouTube videos on the Roku, but a native browsing experience is still missing.
Fortunately, you can browse, select and install apps from your computer desktop with your Roku account. Sign into your Roku account on the web, and your PC stays linked to the Roku box. As long as the set-top hardware is online, it’ll start downloading the app right away when you initiate an install from the web. Apps usually load onto the Roku within a few minutes. The longest I waited for an app to appear was 20 minutes.
For local streaming, I used the aforementioned — and free — Plex app. The Plex media server, also free, will have to be installed on your primary computer. After pointing to the correct folders where all your (legally backed-up) DVD and Blu-ray rips are stored, fire up the app on the Roku and you’re ready to enjoy your bounty.
Video content is streamed at up to 1080p, with support for 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound. Both MP4 and MKV H.264 video is supported. Audio is limited to MP3 and AAC, so FLAC fans should look elsewhere.
And speaking of audio, here’s where Roku makes everyone else in the market seem silly for not thinking of this before. The Roku 3 remote contains a headphone jack, and when you plug in a headset, the TV audio is muted and you’re suddenly in a wireless, private listening mode. I found it perfect for that late-night explosion-filled movie fix.
Because the remote uses Wi-Fi Direct (instead of IR), you don’t need to point it at the receiver, or even be in the same room to use it. That also means walking around my apartment while listening to audio streamed through the remote in my pocket was glitch-free. But wandering down the hall outside of the apartment, or to another floor, had the music breaking up. Of course, you could also just use your smartphone or music player as your wander-around-the-house media device, but it’s an excellent feature when you have to leave the TV room for a minute during a movie, since you won’t miss any important dialogue.
The remote also doubles as a motion controller for playing games. There are some Roku-ready titles available in the Roku channel store, but beyond Angry Birds and Super Stick Man Golf, the offerings were slim. The motion control was janky at times, and it was difficult to control — a close equivalent to the first-generation Wii Remote, but without the bowling games. The Roku won’t displace a console in the gaming department, but if it can get more developers on board, then why not.
My biggest gripe with the remote: the volume buttons. They’re there, but they only control headphone volume during private listening. Like with the Apple TV remote, you still need a second remote to control the TV volume, which is a drag. The Roku 3 box does have an IR sensor, so third-party universal remotes can be used with the box, but it seems like the company could have added an IR blaster on the front of its remote to control the volume of a TV.
That stuff aside, the Roku 3 is a wonderful streamer that’s cheap enough ($100) to be added to multiple TVs in your household. It’s got a powerful enough processor to play everything smoothly, and it has more media apps than you’ll probably ever use. It’s also great to see a company opening up its set-top box to developers like Roku has done, because it has clearly resulted in a better experience. Your move, Apple.