Competing against Apple, Amazon and Google isn't easy. Just ask Microsoft, Barnes & Noble and Yahoo. In the streaming device market, however, a company called Roku has managed to not just compete against the big boys, but win. In the face of stiff competition Roku was the top-selling platform of 2014, again, and the Roku 3 remained our favorite recommendation.
This year video streams are more popular than ever and growing into a mighty river. And Roku delivers nearly all of the key online streaming services out there -- including such must-haves as Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, Vudu, Watch ESPN, HBO Go and even Sling TV -- but the company's boxes were approaching their second birthday. Roku needed something new to avoid the perception of falling behind, but didn't want to mess with formula that got it to the top in the first place: simplicity, great search, and a level playing field for all apps.
So, in the spirit of "if it ain't broku, don't fix it," Roku just added voice search to its top streaming box, the $99 Roku 3. It also removed a couple of features from its second-best box, the $69 Roku 2, while turbocharging its response time. The Roku 2 is now just as fast as the Roku 3 and as snappy as any other streamer we've tested.
Meanwhile the features reserved for the Roku 3 all reside in the remote: voice search, point-anywhere Wi-Fi control and the headphone jack for private listening. All are pretty cool and work well, but not one is essential. If you won't use them much, and want to save $30, then buying a new Roku 2 instead is a no-brainer.
That's why the Roku 3 is now our second-favorite streamer overall by a nose, and the Roku 2 is our new go-to pick for most people. That said, owners of the previous (2013-2014) Roku 2 and Roku 3 models can safely skip this minor upgrade. And the thrifty among you can still opt for the Roku 1 (with compatibility for older, analog pre-HD TVs) or Roku Streaming Stick. Both aren't quite as zippy as the Roku 2 and 3, but they only cost $49 each.
Those enthusiastic, across-the-board Roku recommendations might all change once Apple's long-rumored new box and TV service capture the world's attention, or if Amazon starts giving away Fire TV Sticks for free with your Prime renewal. But until then, new customers can't go wrong buying either new Roku.
All about the remote
There's nothing much to say about the Roku 3 box itself. It's tiny, black, glossy, and like all of its kind will sit silently in your entertainment center without requiring any further attention from you. I have a sneaking suspicion it's exactly the same inside as the new Roku 2.
The rolly-polly, sausage-like remote is stuffed with extras. It's much chunkier and looks a bit dated dated next to the Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV and Google Nexus Player remotes, but still feels natural in the hand.
Like those clickers, and unlike the more basic remote found on the new Roku 2, the Roku 3's remote uses Wi-Fi Direct so it doesn't require line-of-sight to operate. You can stash your Roku 3 pretty much anywhere in your system, and point the remote anywhere, and it works fine.
The "return" button on previous remotes--not to be confused with the much more useful "back" button--has been replaced by a little magnifying glass that summons the voice search dialog. Otherwise the buttons are basically the same.
Roku kept the A/B keys for gaming, although the selection of games is strictly casual compared to Amazon Fire TV and Android TV. Volume controls to the side effect the headphone output only. I like the ability to instantly launch Netflix and Hulu Plus, but I found the buttons for services to which I didn't subscribe (namely, Rdio) irksome and a rare departure from Roku's content-agnostic ethos. Another annoyance is the main OK key's unconventional placement better below the four-way cursor, rather than in its midst.
The Roku 3 also responds to IR commands so you can use it with most universal remotes. But if you're planning to use a universal remote anyway and keep the Roku 3's remote in a drawer, you should just buy the new Roku 2.
And while that cool remote will work with both the old Roku 3 and the new Roku 2 too, it isn't available separately. At least, not yet.
An equal-opportunity streamer
The best part about Roku, and a major reason I've used it for years at home and recommend it to everyone (most recently in TVs), is the user experience. Most streaming boxes today have most of the apps and features you want, they work very well and are more or less affordable to anyone who pays for broadband Internet. So the difference comes down to how they feel to use every day.
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. It's content-agnostic, and the difference manifests in many ways. One is that you can customize Roku's interface to surface the apps you want (and actually subscribe to, or prefer to buy content on) and remove the ones you don't care about. Much like a smartphone, Roku lets you move any app tile you want anywhere on the Home page, and remove any you don't use.
There are a couple of shortfalls in that agnosticism. By default the main menu displays a trio of branded options -- Movie Store, TV Store (both by M-Go) and News (by AOL On) -- but if you want to remove them entirely, you can via the "Home screen" menu under Settings. You can't remove the app-specific buttons on the remote, nor the ad to the right of the home screen, but those are minor intrusions.
Meanwhile Amazon's Fire TV interface seems to do its best to hide non-Amazon apps, Apple's is a bit better, and allows you to move or hide channels (except the Apple-branded ones), and Android TV on the Nexus Player comes off little more than a vehicle for Google content. If you only use iTunes or Amazon, then sure, get one of those boxes.
But Roku's interface treats them all equally. Of course it also has an Amazon Instant Video app and one for Google Play Movies and TV, and I'm sure if Apple wanted to create an iTunes app, Roku would offer it.
So when can I stream that movie everyone just saw?
The main new addition to Roku's software across all of its devices is Roku Feed. If you want to watch a new movie that's not yet available to stream on a Roku channel -- for example, a film in theaters today -- you can "follow" it by adding it to your feed. You can check the feed for updates and you'll receive a notification for when the movie is available to stream, and how much it costs. If the price or availability changes, you'll be notified again.
It's a clever approach to the confusion of release windows, where a movie becomes available during different times to different outlets (theaters, disc, streaming, cable VOD, etc.) and for various prices. It's also a feature no other device offers, and further leverages Roku's agnostic approach. Feeds will start with Movies Coming Soon, but Roku intends to add other kinds of windowed content in the future.
For my review I subscribed to all of the movies available, but as of press time I only received one notification. Now I know "Hot Tub Time Machine 2" is available for purchase on Roku.
Feeds could be better though. The selection of new releases at launch is pretty small, just 36 titles out of hundreds of possibilities. The ability to add any title you hear about would be great. I'd also like the same kind of specific information available at sites like videoeta.com, which tells you when movies are scheduled to arrive DVD and Blu-ray. I also think Roku should include the "Movies Coming Soon" into its main search results; for now, if you search one of those titles on Roku, you get either no result or something less relevant.
You talk, Roku listens
Roku 3's remote-based voice search is the same thing Amazon Fire TV and Google Nexus Player have had since launch. Just press the button on the remote, wait for the on-screen prompt, and talk.
In my voice recognition tests all three devices fared pretty much equally well. I spoke the titles of 30 of the most popular TV shows, movies and actors/actresses into each remote and almost all of them were correctly recognized on the first try by all three devices, and relatively quickly. Searches for app names were also recognized.
Exceptions included "Kingsman: The Secret Service" and "Vanessa Hudgens," both of which Fire TV and Android TV recognized but Roku did not; "Guardians of the Galaxy," which Fire TV failed to recognize; "Birdman," which only Fire TV recognized correctly (Roku's result: "Man is not a bird," Google's: "burnin'"); "Jared Leto," who stumped Android TV; "Mila Kunis" flummoxed Fire TV; and "Ben Affleck," who Roku recognized correctly the first time, but hilariously rendered as "Ben AFLAC" (complete with caps!) on the subsequent attempt.
With that level of success I think most people will find voice search useful on any of these devices, making the key differentiator not correct recognition, but in how the results are presented. That's where Roku's search, both text and voice, shines.
The search is over, you were with Roku all the while
Roku's voice search hits all 17 services covered by Roku's current text search, including major services Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Crackle, Fox Now, FXNow, HBO Go, M-Go, Time Warner Cable and Vudu. Fire TV's and Android TV's search catalogs are more limited; both still omit Netflix results, for example.