Roku 3 Review

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Dear Old Friend,
You have served me well over the years, but the time has come. You’ve gotten old.
You’re larger than you used to be, dare I say, a little heavier than your younger siblings.
And in your age, you’ve become slow. Honestly, you never could do much, but your flaws are ever more evident.
When I want to have fun, you can’t play games. You’re set in your ways; if you haven’t played it before, you probably never will.
My old friend, it’s time for you to retire.
I used to love you, Roku XD, but you’ve been replaced by the Roku 3.

The Roku Legacy

Generations of RokuThe Roku has been around for several years now, and is one of the few devices that hasn’t changed much over time, largely because Roku did a specific task, and did it very well. Roku was one of the first companies to tackle the idea of a compact media box to hook up to a TV. The idea was simple, with no monthly subscriptions, inexpensive hardware, and a simple intuitive user interface. As a result, the Roku sits in a class of its own. It’s significantly less expensive than Google or Apple’s TV products, and highly specialized, unlike some of the inexpensive Android-based devices. In some ways, the Roku is difficult to review because it tends to be only and exactly what it says on the box. That is also one of the major selling points. Very few companies can really claim that their advertising is so accurate that you get exactly what you expect. The Roku 3 has a few new tricks hiding behind the HDMI port, but nothing we haven’t seen before. The real question is not whether the Roku 3 is an amazing new product, but whether in an attempt to be more competitive, Roku has ruined their tradition.

Hardware

Roku 3The Roku 3 is a slight departure from the previous sets in hardware. It’s smaller, and also simpler. You connect it to your multimedia center with an HDMI cable, it’s as simple as that. You won’t find a lot of extra ports on the Roku 3. You will find a USB port, but for the most part it’s simply a tiny minimalist box. It’s well enough made, but it’s so light the only real concern I ever had with it was that some of the heavier HDMI cables might just pull it off the shelf under the TV where I was testing it. Luckily, despite the size, wireless connectivity is excellent. It’s important to note that the Roku 3 is for HD televisions only, in other words, you need HDMI. It lacks the extra ports of some of the other Roku models, but I’m not going to mark them down for that, since they’re quite clear about that fact in their marketing. The Roku 3 is small and simple.

The remote control is the most significant change from previous models. It’s rounder, has a few extra buttons, and a headphone port. It also inherits the motion sensing hardware included with the Roku 2 XS.* Besides that, it’s comfortable enough to hold, and again, pretty well made. Roku seems to be taking their hints from the Wii with the remote, and they include a wrist strap, presumably so you don’t put the remote through your television screen while firing birds out of a slingshot.

The Roku 3 also comes with headphones. I’ll discuss why the Roku 3 comes with headphones later. The included headphones are actually pretty good. They come with three sizes of silicon pads, so you can choose which one fits your ears best. They’re a somewhat obnoxious purple , and the cord is a bit stiff and coils a lot. That said, the headphones themselves sound like Roku actually put some time into choosing components that sound good. While listening to TV shows, the headphones sounded accurate and didn’t become painfully distorted at higher volumes.

Roku 3 PortsRoku 3Roku 3

Roku 3 RemoteRoku 3 RemoteRoku 3 Remote

Firmware

Despite what Roku claims, the new firmware doesn’t feel very different from the old. Of course, the Roku has always been exceptionally easy to use and reliable, so I’m quite happy with the fact that the changes were minimal. The Roku version of a software store is their “Channels”, which once selected are available from your home screen. The new user interface fits more channels on the screen at a time, which is just enough for me to consider it a small but significant improvement over older versions. The new firmware supports some additional features, and you’ll find some games available now, and even some app-like channels. Angry Birds Space and a Plex client were two of the less usual channels I wanted to check out. There is also a USB media player channel available. There honestly isn’t a ton of content available, and the existing design doesn’t really allow much searching options. The Roku Channel Store is a sort of big browsable grid, but that’s OK because you don’t spend much time there. The firmware felt consistent, well thought out, easy to use, very stable, and much snappier overall than previous versions.

Features

The Roku 3 has most of the standard media services you’d expect out of a basic TV box. Netflix, Pandora, a smattering of news stations and prominent websites are all available, wrapping their online content into simple, browsable, remote-controllable apps. Unfortunately, most don’t have a lot of unique content, and some are downright disappointing. For example, I was pleasantly surprised to find an app for SyFy, and disappointed to find it full of mediocre clips and previews. In the SyFy channel, and in many other similar ones, there are few if any full-length episodes to be found.

There are some channels that are well worth having, however. Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant are all available to stream video, and Pandora, Spotify, Slacker, and MOG are the cream of the crop when it comes to music. If you use another video or music streaming service, it’s worth checking the Channel Store to see if it’s there, since I’ve only listed what I believe will be some of the more popular choices. I’ve tested several streaming channels, and they all work as advertised. Roku is also continuing to sign more content providers. Recently, they announced that Time Warner Cable subscribers can use Roku to stream live TV. Certainly, Roku doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and their content is only improving.

One of the newer things Roku seems to be supporting, however, are channels that offer the ability to consume your own media. Unfortunately, the aptly named USB Media Player channel is the only thing that I tested that didn’t seem very functional. It can play the most basic formats, but although the description lists MKV, it failed to recognize or decode some such files. Instead, I opted for the Plex channel. This required installing some software on my computer, but it was easy enough to set up, and I was soon browsing and streaming my media collection directly from my desktop over WiFi. This was so much more convenient, I essentially gave up on the primitive USB media player. Plex itself is pretty awesome, but I’ll leave that for another time.

Also new to the Roku 3 is the ability to get application channels. Most importantly, games. The Roku 3 remote works rather like an inferior version of a Wiimote, but certainly well enough for what Roku is trying to do. Unfortunately, the games vary from a few well-executed ones like titles from the Angry Birds series, to more often poorly executed ones. It’s clear that Roku is struggling to get app developers, and isn’t holding them to the same standards as the other channels. When your screen fills with icons that were evidently drawn in Microsoft Paint XP, it’s not really a good sign. That said, the games that do work well, work very well indeed, and I would love to see more polished titles like Angry birds become available. It’s really quite fun, and a great time waster while someone is on the phone to play a few levels with the Rokumote.

Roku 3 EarbudsOne of the more unusual features (in my opinion anyway) of the Roku 3 is that it has a headphone jack on the side of the remote. I mentioned the headphones earlier, and this is what they’re for. Plug them in to the remote, and the Roku stops sending sound over HDMI, and instead outputs to the headphones. You can then adjust the volume using the control on the side of the remote. It actually works very well, and though it works great with the included headphones, the remote also outputs enough power that my larger over-ear headphones had reasonably high volume as well. I did hear what sounded like a little compression in the sound, but overall, it was clear and I didn’t  hear any static. Overall, the feature works well and exactly as advertised.

Conclusion

With the Roku 3, Roku continues their tradition of reliable, easy-to-use set top boxes. For being exactly what it claims to be, the right price, and an adequate improvement over their past models, I rate it 9 awkward earbud pads out of 10. The Roku 3 is available for purchase on Amazon.com for $99.99
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Editor’s Note:
* An earlier version of this article mentioned the motion sensing hardware as being new to the Roku 3. An astute Redditor pointed out the motion sensing hardware was introduced in the Roku 2 series.

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