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The new $99 Roku 3: Overhauled interface, faster chip, and private-listening mode (hands-on)

The newly announced Roku 3 ($99) is the company's flagship streaming-media box, with a completely redesigned user interface, a faster processor, and a neat new feature that lets you plug headphones into the remote.

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Roku is turning up the heat in the battle of the living-room streaming boxes, announcing today its newest flagship model, the Roku 3 ($99).

The new streaming-video box clearly has its sights set on the Apple TV ($99), addressing many of Roku's earlier shortcomings with an overhauled user interface, refreshed design, and faster processor, while maintaining its unmatched content selection of more than 700 channels. And Roku is also going one step further with a new, practical feature that actually seems pretty cool: a private-listening mode that lets you plug headphones into the remote.

The Roku 3 replaces the Roku 2 XS model that was originally released in 2011. All the other current-generation Rokus -- the $50 Roku LT, $60 Roku HD, $80 Roku 2 XD, and $100 Roku Streaming Stick -- remain in the product line, and will be getting the updated user interface of the Roku 3 in April via a software update.

Roku 3 new user interface
Roku

Overhauled user interface
The biggest change with the Roku 3 is the new interface. I had a chance to give it a test-drive at a private demo with Roku in New York, and it's a huge improvement. The first thing you'll notice is you can see nine channels at once, compared with just five on the old interface. The new layout also reveals three more channels with every click, which lets you zip through all your channels in a fraction of the time.

Roku 3 new user interface
Roku

Roku's Channel Store is also now integrated right into the main menu, instead of pushing you to an entirely separate interface, which took forever on the old Roku boxes. There's a persistent menu bar on the left for selecting categories, which makes it much quicker to find the channel you're looking for. Overall, the new look seems better in just about every way.

Roku 3
Sarah Tew/CNET

Refreshed design
The Roku 3 doesn't look radically different from the existing Roku boxes. It's about the same size as the Roku LT, although it has a more striking look with a much glossier finish and nicely rounded edges.

Roku also purposefully added weight to the Roku 3, which comes in at 5 ounces, a little heavier than the 3-ounce Roku 2 XS. That extra heft gives the perception of higher build quality, but it also has the real-world benefit of keeping the Roku 3 planted even with heavy HDMI cables hanging off the back. There's also some nonskid rubber on the bottom to help keep the box from sliding on a tabletop.

Improved insides are better, too
The Roku 3 boasts a more powerful chip inside, which makes this box supposedly five times faster than the Roku 2 XS. At the moment, the faster processor lets you cruise through menus and load apps faster, but it's not hard to imagine more-demanding games or video apps that will be exclusive to the Roku 3's superior hardware in the future.

Roku 3 new user interface
Nearly every popular video app -- except YouTube. Roku

Unfortunately the faster chip doesn't mean the Roku 3 will support YouTube. There were indications that Roku's older hardware simply wasn't powerful enough for YouTube's HTML app, but it appears that wasn't the only holdup. The lack of a YouTube channel has been a real sore spot for Roku, especially since it's supported by seemingly every other device. It's hard to tell what the real story is behind the Roku-YouTube rift, but I got the impression it wasn't going to be resolved anytime soon.

Wireless connectivity has been upgraded, too, with the Roku 3 sporting dual-band Wi-Fi, which has long been on the wish list of Roku fans.

Roku 3 back panel
Sarah Tew/CNET

The rest of the Roku 3's connectivity will look familiar. The back panel is more compact than ever, with an Ethernet port, HDMI output, microSD slot, and power plug. There's also a USB port on the side, which can be used for limited digital-media playback. Noticeably missing is the standard-def AV output that was included on the Roku 2 XS, but that feature survives on the Roku LT, Roku HD, and Roku 2 XD if you need it. My only complaint is the Roku 3 still requires an external AC adapter, unlike the Apple TV, with its sleeker integrated power supply.

Roku 3 remote
Sarah Tew/CNET

Built-in wireless headphone mode
The new Roku 3 has one more feature up its sleeve and it's a neat one: private-listening mode. Plug a pair of headphones into the remote's headphone jack and you can listen to whatever's playing on your Roku. Plugging in the headphones also automatically mutes your TV, and headphone volume can be adjusted using the rocker on the right side of the remote. Another smart feature: the headphone volume leaves the TV volume unaffected, so cranking it up in private-listening mode won't mean you blast the room when you pop out the headphones.

It's essentially a makeshift wireless-headphones solution, but I think it's a feature that will get regular use (consider spouse-friendly late-night viewing or kids' programming that can remain seen but not heard in the room at large, for instance). Roku is even including a pair of earbuds in the box with the Roku 3, which should encourage new buyers to give the feature a shot.

Roku 3 remote
Sarah Tew/CNET

Aside from the private-listening feature, the new remote is most similar to the Streaming Stick's clicker. It operates using Wi-Fi Direct, which means you don't need to point the remote at the box to send commands. And Roku says Wi-Fi Direct is no more power-hungry than Bluetooth, so you should get similar battery life to the remote included with the Roku 2 XS.

Roku 3
Sarah Tew/CNET

Available now
The Roku 3 is available today for $99 from Amazon and Roku's online store, and it's coming to retail stores in April.

So far, the new Roku 3 feels like a very polished update to a series of streaming boxes that were already excellent. I'll be testing the new box and updated interface over the next few days with two main questions on my mind: Is it better than the Apple TV? And is it worth spending the extra on the Roku 3 compared with the $50 Roku LT?

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