Since it was first introduced in March 2013, the Roku 3 box has been our favorite streaming device recommendation. But Roku's latest hardware update flipped the script. Now our nod goes to the leaner, meaner 2015 Roku 2.
The new Roku 2 offers all of the goodness of the Roku interface and app selection (including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, Vudu, Watch ESPN, HBO Go and Sling TV among its more than 2,000 channels), and the same lightning-quick response times as the Roku 3 (both new and old), with none of the extra remote-based features you may not use. It also costs $30 less, making the new Roku 2 a better overall value than the Roku 3.
In case you read that last section too quickly, let me reiterate: now the Roku 2 is just as fast as the Roku 3, and matches or beats the speed of pretty much any other streaming device we've tested, regardless of processor specs, RAM and other numbers. It leaves the old Roku 2--not to mention the cheaper Roku Streaming Stick and Roku 1--in the dust.
It also leaves behind a few beloved features. Gone is the headphone jack on the remote for private listening, and the ability to point the clicker anywhere--now you have to aim it at the box, just like most other remotes. (If you want either of those features, spend the extra $30 for the new Roku 3.)
The updated Roku 2 also sheds the old box's yellow, white and red analog video outputs, replacing them with an Ethernet port. That's a fine trade in my book, as it still works with any TV that has an HDMI input. If you're looking to add a streaming box to an old, pre-HD television and need those analog video outputs, the company continues to sell the analog-equipped Roku 1 unchanged.
Roku's interface, search and app selection still lead the pack, so unless you're a devotee of the Apple pantheon, or find yourself inescapably enmeshed in Amazon's jungle of media services, Roku is the best platform for streaming. Apple's upcoming box might challenge that supremacy, and maybe Google will improve Android TV enough to compete, but until then we still like Roku best. And unless you think it's worth the extra $30 cash get a point-anywhere remote with voice search and a headphone jack, the Roku 2 is a better buy than the Roku 3.
Editors' Note: The 2015 Roku 2 is available in the US for $69.99 and coming to the UK in May for £69.99 replacing the older version in both territories. The 2015 Roku 3 with voice search, however, is currently only available in the United States.
Downgrade the remote...
The bad news? The new Roku 2 remote is a step down from both the old Roku 2 clicker and the one included on the new Roku 3. Those two operate via Wi-Fi Direct, rather than infrared or Bluetooth, allowing two conveniences over standard remotes: you didn't need line-of-sight to operate the box, and you can plug headphones into the remote for private listening. It also allows the new Roku 3 remote to include voice search.
The 2015 Roku 2 remote drops those hardware extras entirely. It's a standard infrared clicker you need to aim at the box, and you'll have to keep the box's IR sensor exposed to work, a requirement that eliminates some out-of-sight installations.
Otherwise it's dead-simple to use and I have no complaints. It's quite a bit slimmer than before, and its finish is matte instead of glossy, which I prefer for rejecting grime and fingerprints. I also prefer the "OK" button in the midst of the four-way cursor rather than below. And the presence of actual play/pause, rewind and fast-forward keys is highly preferable to their absence; the Apple TV and Nexus Player remotes lack those buttons entirely.
Compared to the Roku 3 remote, the Roku 2 remote is also missing the voice search button and the tiny mic hole, the A/B keys for gaming, and the volume controls for that absent headphone jack. Three of the four direct-app keys are the same, but the fourth is for Sling TV on the Roku 2 (and the latest Roku 1) and Hulu Plus on the Roku 3. Meanwhile the latest version of the Stick remote gets direct access to Google Play. Roku's little Chromecast jab, perhaps?
The Roku 2 box itself supports Wi-Fi direct, so you can actually pair it more capable Roku remote, to add headphone support for example (see below for details). And of course, if you're going to use a universal remote with your Roku anyway, there's no reason to get a Roku 3 instead of a Roku 2.
Note, however, that if you use Roku's free iOS or Android app, you can use voice search via your smartphone.
...but pump the responsiveness
Operational speed is something I consider extremely important in a living room box you'll use every day. In my speed tests the Roku 3 (both the old 2013 and new 2015 versions) and the Roku 2 simply flew around the bases, responding equally fast to button presses, launching and navigating apps, populating thumbnails, grabbing search results and whizzing around the system menus. When it comes to getting your shows on-screen pronto, the new Rokus will outrun most cable boxes, disc players and Smart TV systems, not to mention your phone (that's my Chromecast jab).
Compared to the Apple TV, Google Nexus Player and Amazon Fire TV (both stick and box), Roku hold its own perfectly well. Yes, Amazon did demonstrate an advantage launching Amazon's own content, but Roku got to it speedily enough. They're all fast enough in regular operation to satisfy most users.
On the other hand the new Rokus (and the old Roku 3) trounced the old Roku 2 and Roku 1 and, to a lesser extent the Streaming Stick, in both navigation and launching apps. I timed the old Roku 2 at 12 seconds to launch Netflix and 28 to launch HBO Go, and the Streaming Stick at 4 and 20 seconds respectively. The new Rokus launched those apps in about 2 and 10 seconds, respectively. (Note that in my Roku 3 review I cited slower launch times for YouTube on the Stick, but a re-test indicates that the Stick launches YouTube at around 4 seconds. Good on ya!).
Why Roku rules the roost
Roku 2 and Roku 3 provide the speediest access to Roku's platform, but what makes Roku's platform better than the competition? Three main reasons: an interface that treats all apps equally, the best universal search around, and the widest selection of apps, which Roku calls "channels."
Equal-opportunity streaming: Roku doesn't sell content (yet), so unlike Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and the Google Nexus Player, its interface doesn't prioritize any source of content over another. You can freely move icons around to surface the ones you want, delete the icons you don't want, and even hide the branded items on the main menu -- Movie Store, TV Store (both by M-Go) and News (by AOL On). Apple TV comes closest to Roku's level of customization but still doesn't let you move or remove the gateways to iTunes music and video. Amazon and Google lag far behind in terms of customization, and their interfaces often seem little more than gateways to their respective content gardens.
Universal search finds savings: Roku's search currently queries 17 apps, including major services Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Crackle, Fox Now, FXNow, HBO Go, M-Go, Time Warner Cable and Vudu. Meanwhile Apple TV lacks universal search entirely, and Fire TV's and Android TV's cross-platform search catalogs are much more limited; both still omit Netflix and HBO Go results, among many others.
The inclusion of subscription services may actually save you money. If you're a Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus or HBO Go subscriber, for example, you'll see results for movies available there listed as "free" in addition to those available from pay-per-view services, with costs attached.
When I looked for "The Lego Movie" for example, Roku's search results told me I could watch it for free on HBO Go, $9.99 on Vudu, Amazon or M-Go, and $14.99 on CinemaNow. The same search of Amazon Fire TV only showed me a $17.99 HD version I could purchase from Amazon, even though the box has an HBO Go app of its own. Worse, there was no option I saw for the $9.99 SD version that I could buy using Roku's Amazon Instant Video app.
Still more apps than anyone: Although pretty much every streaming device can access every major app, Roku still offers more apps than any other platform--more than 2,000 by its reckoning. I didn't count them up myself.