Roku 3 Review: One Of The Best HDTV-Connected Media Streamers Around

Reviews Michael Grothaus 14:28, 6 Mar 2014

If you're looking a decent set-top box that doesn't break the bank, look no further. The £99 Roku 3 kicks ass!

Rating: 
4.5
Typical Price: 
£99.00
Pros: 
450 channels means you’ll never hurt for content. Remote doubles as game controller. Improved UI.
Cons: 
HDMI cable is not included. Needs to support more file formats. Though the remote offers a ton of features, it looks cheap.
Verdict: 
If you’re a PC user, the Roku 3 is the best set top streaming box you can buy. However, if you’re a Mac user, I would still say you should opt for the Apple TV over the Roku 3. The Apple TV is too tightly integrated into the OS X and iOS ecosystem to make using anything but it the obvious choice.

It seems that in the last 18 months streaming set-top boxes have gone from something you only found in techie’s homes to a staple of many living rooms across the country. Some of this has to do with the rise of popular streaming services like the BBC’s iPlayer and, more recently in the UK, Netflix. But another part of it has to do with the fact that these streaming set top boxes seem to be a natural extension of something we all have become accustomed to: our mobiles. 

We want to be able to watch our content and play games whenever, wherever, and on whatever device we want. In the living room, the streaming set top box allows us to do that. The big players in this field are of course Apple, with its Apple TV, and Roku. Here, I take a look at Roku’s latest offering—the Roku 3.

Design and Connectivity

As an Apple TV user, I was quite surprised when I first took the Roku 3 out of its box. It seemed too light (at 170 grams) and its plastic body seems a bit cheap compared to Apple’s set top box. However, its surface footprint was also smaller at just 89 mm x 89 mm and 25 mm high. But despite its plastic shell, the Roku 3 looks nice, with its rounded edges and shiny black body. Besides, once you’ve connected it to your TV, chances are you’ll never touch it again, so the cheap plastic build feel isn’t a drawback; the Roku 3 looks good.

The Roku 3 talks to your network via built-in 802.11 dual-band Wi-Fi (a/b/g/n compatible) with WEP, WPA, and WPA2 support. It also offers a 10/100 Base-T ethernet port on back should you want to hardwire it into your router. 

The Roku 3 is the first Roku to ditch support for analog TVs. To use it you’ll need a modern HDTV with an HDMI input. That shouldn’t be an issue for most, however, as I don’t see many who are interested in set top streaming boxes owning older TVs. Beneath the HDMI port on the back you’ll find a microSD card slot for additional game and channel storage. On the side of the Roku 3 is a USB port that allows you to play back digital media files. My only annoyance with the connectivity options is Roku opted against including an HDMI cable in the box. 

Software Interface, Channels, and Content

Roku has come a long way with its user interface. The old filmstrip UI has been replaced with a much easier to navigate grid layout. Instead of only being able to view five channels at a time, now you can see nine. This makes it so much easier for browsing and finding something to watch.

Though Roku offers users over 450 channels, they all aren’t installed by default, nor are they available in the main menu. This is a good move, as browsing through 450 channels could become tedious and time consuming. Previously, however, users needed to load up a separate interface to shop the Channel Store to add them to the main menu. Roku decided to ditch that approach, thankfully, and now Roku’s Channel Store in built right into the main UI without having to load it up separately—this allows you to quickly see what channels are available to you and add them without having to bounce back and forth between separate interfaces.

And speaking of that content: 450 channels is a lot (Apple TV offers less than 30). Roku offers most of the big guns: Netflix, NOW TV, BBC iPlayer, Sky Store, Demand 5, Spotify, YouTube, as well as hundreds of smaller channels that are sure to offer something no matter what your tastes. Matter of fact, Roku offers so many channels it’s nearly impossible to list them all (but some people on Wikipedia have done an admirable job). Having 450 channels means you’ll never hurt for content. While most of the channels are free, you’ll need to pay for some of the bigger ones (like Netflix and Sky). 

Video, Audio, and Multimedia

The Roku 3 supports full 1080p HD video as well as 720p HD video. Digital audio is handled over HDMI (7.1 and 5.1 surround pass through). Supported video formats are MP4 (H.264) and MKV (H.264), while supported audio formats are AAC and MP3. The Roku also supports JPEG and PNG images.

Sampling a 1080p H.264 movie on the Roku 3, the box played it back without a hiccup—something that is no doubt due to the improved processor that Roku says is five times faster than in the previous model. But while most consumers will only be using the Roku for streaming via one of its many channels, it would have been nice to see the Roku support more file formats, particularly AVI movies for those of us with large libraries of older home videos taken with digital cameras over the years.

A really nice plus about the Roku 3 is that it also acts as a game console. No, this little set top box is no match for the Xbox (or even a PSP), but its nice that it does support casual gaming—and that Angry Birds is included for free.

Controller

I have a love/hate relationship with the Roku’s controller. I hate the way it looks, but I love what it can do. The look and feel of the Roku 3 controller is nothing but cheap. It’s big, bulky, and looks like it should be embedded in the back of an airplane seat. Place it next to the remote that is included with the Apple TV and you’ll see the Roku’s remote is about seven times thicker. However, since the Roku’s remote can do so, so, so much—it’s horrible design can be forgiven.

Besides the obvious navigation input the remote is used for, it has a couple of neat features. The first is that it doesn’t require line-of-sight to use. The remote instead uses Wi-Fi Direct technology to talk to the Roku box. This is a huge plus when you consider the remote doubles as a game controller. Turn it sideways and you’ll find a direction pad along with your handy A and B buttons.

Another clever feature of this remote is its built-in headphone jack. Plug in your headphone to it (Roku includes a pair) and the sound on your TV is automatically muted and directed through the remote into your ears. This is great for those who may be using the Roku late at night while others may be sleeping. Roku even built volume buttons into the side of the remote so you can control the volume when the headphones are plugged in.

Conclusion

If you’re a PC user, the Roku 3 is the best set top streaming box you can buy. However, if you’re a Mac user, I would still say you should opt for the Apple TV over the Roku 3. The Apple TV is too tightly integrated into the OS X and iOS ecosystem to make using anything but it the obvious choice.

For most people that aren’t tied to the Mac, however, the Roku 3 is a no-brainer. At £99 you get a lot for your money: 450 channels of free and on-demand content, an easy way to stream and share your media, and even a light game console. With the Roku 3 the company has shown they are going to be a major power in the future of streaming set top boxes. As long as they can solve some hardware design challenges (like that bulky, ugly, cheap-looking remote), Roku could be one of Apple’s main challengers in the future.

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