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. Roku remains our top recommendation among streaming devices.
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, Showtime and-- but the company doesn'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," in 2015 Roku Roku 3. It also removed a couple of features from its second-best box, the $70 , while turbocharging its response time. Then in 2016 it released a new Streaming Stick, which costs just $50.to its top streaming box, the $100
The Stick is our new number one recommendation because it's just as fast and the others and offers all of the basic Roku goodness. But if you don't mind spending more, the Roku 3's voice search and headphone jack for private listening might be worth it. Both of those extras are available on the Stick too, but you have to use Roku's phone or tablet app instead of the remote.
And if you really want to use a dedicated remote instead of an app for those features, you can actually buy one from Roku's site (currently $30), pair it with the Stick and it works perfectly. It's actually cheaper to do that than buy a Roku 3. The Roku 3 does offer one extra not found on the Stick--a wired Ethernet connection--so if your Wi-Fi is spotty, you might need to get the box anyway. That said, most Wi-Fi networks should be fine for streaming.
That's why the Roku 3 is now our second-favorite Roku overall, and Stick is our go-to pick for most people.
Update April 22, 2016: This review has been updated, and its rating reduced, based on the release of the 2016 Roku Streaming Stick.
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 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, and 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 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--or the Stick, if you have a compatible universal remote like the Harmony Home Control.
Here's where I remind you again that Roku is selling the "Roku Enhanced Remote with Voice Search" on its site for $30, and it pairs and works very well with the new $50 Roku Streaming Stick. Since the total for the two devices is less than the cost of an actual Roku 3, the only real reason to get a Roku 3 is if you want both the remote and the Ethernet connection.
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 (), 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, and Android TV on devices like the Nvidia Shield comes off little more than a vehicle for Google content. The Apple TV's interface is almost as customizable as Roku's, however.
Of course, unlike Apple Roku 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?
Another neat extra on 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.
There's also a feature that shows the most popular TV shows and movies across all of the services Roku searches, updated four times a day. It's a great way to find new things to watch, although I do wish there were a "Show only stuff I can watch for free" option.
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, and Apple TV added with Siri. 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.