Roku 3 (2015) review: A fresh voice improves the best search in streaming

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.

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Roku's listings break down the prices of different content for each service to which you're subscribed, potentially saving you money. David Katzmaier/CNET

When I looked for "The Lego Movie," Roku's search 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.

With Fire TV there were often too many results. My search for "Gray's Anatomy" delivered three hits ("GREY'S Anatomy," "Greys Anatomy" and "Gray's Anatomy") and the only way to tell which was which was to click through. When I did, I discovered a movie by Spalding Gray, a special from the Paley Center for Media, and "And Everything is Going Fine," a Steven Soderbergh tribute to Spalding Gray. On one hand, it's nice to get every result available, but especially in the living room context I prefer the finer filter of Roku.

Again with Fire TV, the fact that I could watch the show Gray's Anatomy for free on Hulu Plus wasn't immediately evident. I had to drill down to the episodes that were available there (season 11, in this case) before the interface gave me a "Watch Now with Hulu Plus" option. Otherwise, of course, the only option was Amazon.

Goku speed racer, Goku!

Roku is hella fast. In my speed tests the Roku 3 (both old and new) and the Roku 2 performed equally quickly at responding to button presses, launching and navigating apps, populating thumbnails, grabbing search results and whizzing around the system menus. Any one of them will beat most cable boxes, disc players and Smart TV systems, not to mention your phone (ahem, Chromecast ) at getting your stories on-screen without fuss, hassle or delay.

Compared to the Apple TV, Google Nexus Player and Amazon Fire TV (both stick and box), those Rokus hold their own perfectly well. Yes, Fire TV 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 I originally 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!).

The only time Roku 3 seemed to slow down was when trying to process some voice searches. There were delays of ten seconds or more while the "Thinking..." screen stayed up, which usually presaged a failed search. Meanwhile text searches were returned more quickly, and often best voice searches thanks to the on-screen keyboard's excellent auto-fill guesswork.

Feature breakdown

Streaming devices (and sticks) are mature enough that even the most basic ones will give you pretty much everything you need. That said the boxes have some advantages over the sticks, especially in terms of connectivity.

Roku vs. the competition

Roku 3 Roku 2 Amazon Fire TV Apple TV Google Nexus Player
Price $99 $69 $99 $69 $99
Voice search from remote Yes No Yes No Yes
Voice search from app Yes Yes Yes No Yes
Ethernet Yes Yes Yes Yes No
Optical audio output No No Yes Yes No
Universal search 17 services 17 services 5 services No 2 services
Gaming Limited No Yes No Yes
Private listening Yes No Yes No No
Screen mirroring Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Captive portal No No Yes No No

I've omitted differences like RAM, storage and processor names/speeds because in my experience they really don't matter for apps like Netflix and other services, only for gaming. And If you care about gaming on your streaming box, skip Roku entirely and go with Fire TV or the Nexus Player.

If you'd rather connect via wired Ethernet than Wi-Fi -- something I do at home because it's simply more stable even though I have a great Wi-Fi router -- get a box (not the Nexus) and not a stick. If you have an older AV receiver that lacks HDMI inputs, you may want to go with a non-Roku device to get an optical digital audio output. They all have HDMI and output 1080p.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

All of the platforms offer dedicated apps for Android and iOS (with the exception of Google, which doesn't have an iOS version). All offer voice search and the ability to type in searches via text, and all are handy for when your physical remote goes missing. Roku's updated app has a My Feeds menu item, but weirdly there's no option to receive notifications on your phone -- you have to open the app and check yourself. Nonetheless, I do like Roku's app best among the three, mainly because it offers the Play On Roku function (see Screen Mirroring below for details).

In the past Roku fell short of other players in its handling of local media from the network, but that's all changed. The basic Roku Media Player app works well for getting music, photo and video files on-screen, and if you want more robust support, Plex is available on Roku too. If you're a serious media hoarder, however, the WD TV is a better bet than Roku.

The final item is a killer app for travelers and available only on Amazon's Fire TV box and stick, known by the inscrutable name of captive portal. It allows access to guest Internet systems, common in hotels, dorms and apartment complexes, that force you to see a special web page to connect. Roku has announced nothing similar.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Private listening: A potential marriage-saver

OK, you'd have to have a pretty shaky marriage for private listening to save it, but much like massage oil, the feature can smooth a potential source of marital friction. Roku 3's remote has a headphone jack, allowing you to attach any pair of headphones, such as the purple in-ear models Roku throws in the box, and listen without disturbing your spouse, neighbors or the guinea pigs.

Plugging in conveniently mutes the Roku's main audio output to the TV, and there's a little on-screen indicator for volume. I tested the range and was able to get about 50 feet away, and through a thick wall, before I experienced breakup (of the signal...) in CNET's crowded Wi-Fi environment.

Now that it's been dropped from the Roku 2, private listening is perhaps the best reason to step up to the Roku 3. Of course you could always do the same thing with third-party wireless headphones connected to an AV receiver, for example. Amazon's Fire TV (the box, but not the stick) now works with Bluetooth headphones as well.

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Sarah Tew / CNET

Screen mirroring: Limited, but works well

Screen mirroring, where you can cause the contents of your phone, tablet or PC to appear on the TV screen, varies widely among the streaming boxes. My favorite is Apple TV's AirPlay, which works the most consistently and with pretty much any Apple device. The Nexus' Google Cast feature (which basically mimics Chromecast) is also great and supported by numerous iOS and Android devices and apps, as well as any computer running the Chrome browser.

Mirroring on Roku and Amazon Fire TV is more limited. For Roku you still need to have an Android 4.2.2 or higher device or a PC running Windows 8.1 or higher to get full mirroring. The feature works very well in my experience. It's also worth noting that the new Roku 2 (in addition to the Roku 3 and Streaming Stick) also support mirroring. Check out our full how-to for more.

If you just want to send photos and music from your phone to Roku, you can use any Roku player in conjunction with the "Play On Roku" option in the Roku app. Again it works well to show pictures on the TV, but it would be cool if there was a "videos" option too. Music is limited to files stored on your phone.

Fire TV's mirroring is currently limited to media via the AllCast app for Android, compatible Kindle Fire HDX tablets or Android phones running Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean) or higher.

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The Roku Channel Store offers more than 2000 apps. David Katzmaier/CNET

App support: Roku still wins, especially for specialty apps

Roku still offers more apps than any other platform. But these days, much like with Android and iOS phone app stores, pretty much every streaming device can access every major app.

Check out the full, updated list of major apps available by platform here.

There are exceptions, of course, the biggest being Apple TV's exclusive rights to HBO Now for the next three months. Of course, Sling TV isn't available on Apple TV yet, and neither are any non-Apple music services. Google Nexus Player is missing scads of "native" apps but you can always Cast them from your phone.

Roku has pretty much everything big beyond HBO Now and Watch ABC (the latter, offering live and on-demand ABC programming, is also on Apple TV), and with its track record I'll be very surprised if it (and Fire TV) doesn't get HBO Now as soon as Apple's period of exclusivity ends. Then again, Roku's stable of major exclusive apps is pretty slim: CBS All Access and Time Warner Cable are the biggest names offered on Roku and no other streaming-box platform. (Note that CNET is a division of CBS.)

If you're keeping track Roku does lack the latest interface for a few apps, most notably Amazon Instant Video and HBO Go. It would be nice to get updates on those, although it's not a deal-breaker by any means. Roku does have the latest versions of most other apps, however, including YouTube and Netflix.

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Three of the 2,000 include "Dog" in the title. Sarah Tew/CNET

Of course, Roku's selection of minor and niche apps is second to none. You can get lost for hours browsing the channel store for esoterica, and can often discover some real gems. My animal-crazy 5-year-old convinced me to get her a subscription to the National Geographic Kids channel, for example, and it turned out to be a great investment in educational, engaging television that's available nowhere else.

Roku makes finding new apps relatively easy, although there is a sort of firehose effect. A new addition to the software is a search window just for channels in the channel store; as always, you can also find apps from Roku's main search window, and search for them via voice as well.

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The verdict: Roku is still the best, but the 2 is a better deal than the 3

The other streaming boxes have a few advantages over Roku, especially if you care about gaming, need captive portal access or must have an exclusive app. And if you're all in with Apple's or Amazon's ecosystem, you'll probably be happier sticking with one of those devices.

For almost everyone else, Roku's platform is the best. The main question is which Roku to buy. You can definitely save some money with an older Roku like the Streaming Stick or Roku 1, but I think its worth paying a bit more for a faster Roku. On the other hand, I don't think it's worth paying more for the new Roku 3 over the Roku 2. The fancier remote is nice, but only spring for it if you're really going to use its extra features.

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