If you want to play streaming video or audio through your TV, from Netflix or Hulu or HBO Go or Spotify or anything else, the new Roku is easily the right choice.
What It Is
The Roku 3 is a tiny black square about the size of your palm. You plug an HDMI cord (not included) from your TV into the Roku, and then a power cord from the Roku into the wall. It has Ethernet and audio-out, too, though you probably won’t need them. The remote it comes with is intriguing; it’s shaped more like the old Nintendo Wii controller than anything else, and in fact it does have motion-sensing capabilities. You can use them to play a semi-awkward version of Angry Birds exactly once before realizing it’s not that fun.
The remote is a bit different for the Roku 3; it now has a headphone jack and a volume control. Plug in headphones (these are included, though they are not great), and the audio will instantly shift from your speakers to your ears. Unplug and it shifts back. The volume control only works when headphones are plugged in, unfortunately, but otherwise this works perfectly. Want to watch Scott Pilgrim vs. The World at the (very high) volume that movie requires, but your apartment is made of cardboard or some lesser paper product and you don’t want to wake your roommates Plug ‘er right in.
What It Does
It has lots of apps! You can get Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon, Crackle, HBO Go, Rdio, Spotify, Weather, Pandora, Vimeo, Flixster, Vudu, and many more. My favorite app is called Plex; it’s a fork of Xbox Media Center, just like Boxee, and is perhaps the cleanest and simplest way to play downloaded videos on your TV. You download videos onto your computer (legally from Amazon, or, more likely, illegally from…anywhere) and Plex gets episode summaries and cover art and run-time and actor/director data from IMDb, transcodes them on the fly from whatever weird format you got them in, and plays them on your TV. The best part is that Plex organizes them super cleanly–you don’t see a bunch of mess like “Justified.S04E08.720p.HDTV.x264-EVOLVE.mkv,” you just see “TV Shows,” then you select the nice cover art of Timothy Olyphant in a cowboy hat, then you select episode 8 and read the summary gathered from IMDb. It turns the mess that is BitTorrent into something as clean as Netflix.
How Good It Is
Roku has until now been strong on support–it’s always had lots of apps–but kind of weak on hardware, usually releasing underpowered and sluggish boxes. Not anymore! The Roku 3 is much faster than before, hardly ever stuttering or lagging to keep up with my scrolling. It’s immediately obvious that this is a zippier product than Roku’s ever put out before. That’s especially obvious with one of Roku’s newest and best features, the universal search. Roku realizes that the box is kind of a repository for unrelated services, and that if you subscribe to a bunch of them, you care more about individual movies and shows than about whether it’s on Hulu Plus or Amazon Prime. Universal search instantly looks through all of your installed services to find what you want, so if you want to watch Justified legally, rather than stealing it, you can just search in the universal search box on the Roku homescreen. It’ll tell you that you can watch old seasons on Amazon Prime, or buy current-season episodes on Vudu or Amazon, then let you jump right to the season you want on the service you want. It works great, and the new, faster hardware lets the Roku 3 auto-fill its search results in real time so I don’t have to type “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia”–I can just type “it” and the show I’m looking for is the second result.
The homescreen has been redesigned; it’s no longer an ugly horizontal-scrolling list of thumbnails. Now it’s a grid of thumbnails! (Fine, this isn’t a big deal.) The apps themselves haven’t been updated for the newer, more powerful Roku–Hulu Plus’s app in particular has always been kind of a pain to navigate, and while it’s snappier now, it’s still oddly laid-out.
There’s also a mobile app for iPhone and Android. I wouldn’t recommend it for general navigation; remotes are still best when you can feel buttons so you can look at the screen while navigating. But it’s very good for text entry, since the Roku remote only has a directional pad and not a real keyboard.
What It’s Bad At
It’s not great for local content. It’ll actually play a lot of stuff–there’s a USB 3.0 slot on the side of the Roku that’ll let you play back anything from JPEGs to MKVs–but the UI is pretty primitive, resembling a file browser more than the elegant media center solution that is Plex. If you’re only doing local files, I’d recommend a Boxee Box or a Western Digital box.
Nobody seems to know why, and Roku isn’t saying, but Roku does not have a YouTube app. It’s weird! I don’t find myself wanting to play YouTube videos that often, but you might, and considering Roku is one of only three devices to support HBO Go, it’s weird that it doesn’t support the biggest streaming video service in the world. It also doesn’t have AirPlay, the magical way to beam videos and music from your iPhone or iPad to your TV. It should have AirPlay! That way you wouldn’t need a YouTube app–you could just load a video on your iPhone and fling it up to the TV. It’s also really the only thing the competing Apple TV has over the Roku. But that’s kind of…it, as far as flaws go.
Buy One, Dummy
The only reason you should go with another streamer is if you exclusively watch videos purchased from iTunes. If you do that, you have an odd digital media strategy, and you should get an Apple TV. Everyone else, Roku.
There are cheaper Rokus than the Roku 3; the Roku LT is only $50, and it is also purple, which is nice and cheerful. But the Roku 3 only costs $100, which is not that much money, and the bump in processing power really does make a big difference. It’s just that much more pleasurable to use–the older Rokus are sometimes frustrating, especially when scrolling through long lists of thumbnails, and the Roku 3 is snappy and loads pictures and lists instantly. It’s great! And next time, Roku, add in AirPlay, please.