How do you get someone to buy your streaming-video puck when everything already streams Netflix?
That's the question Roku has answered definitively with the Roku 3 ($99), by serving up more content sources than anyone else, with lightning-fast navigation and an onscreen interface that's finally competitive with the Apple TV. The Roku 3's updated processor and always-on design means you go from "TV off" to "House of Cards" much faster than alternative streamers, and the overhauled interface and improved cross-platform search lets you quickly find the content you want to watch. And there's a lot to watch, with more than 1,000 channels including Netflix, Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Pandora, Hulu Plus, MLB.TV, PBS, and (finally) YouTube. Add in the Roku's neat remote with a built-in headphone jack -- a killer feature for anyone with roommates or a late-night movie habit -- and there are more than enough reasons buy the Roku 3 when you can already stream Netflix.
The Roku 3 isn't without faults. Those with hard drives full of digital media will also find the Roku 3's paltry file-format support lacking, and Apple fans will still want to give a long look at the Apple TV ($99), which is so tightly integrated with the Apple ecosystem.
But those faults are easily forgotten once you pick up the remote, start streaming, and maybe even plug in the included earbuds. The Roku 3 is the best streaming-video box yet, earning CNET's Editors' Choice Award for the category.
Editors' note: This review was originally published March 6, 2013. It has been updated to account for recent software updates and its Editors' Choice award has been reaffirmed.
User interface: Fully redesigned
The Roku 3 was the company's first streamer to feature its updated interface. The first thing you'll notice is that you can see nine channels at once -- compared with just five on the old interface -- and even more once you navigate further into the menus. 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 it used to take.
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. Also new are menu items for Movies, TV Shows, and News, which lets you quickly jump to those sections.
There are other little design touches that add to the feeling of polish, such as a small check mark indicating a channel is installed, and smooth, animated transitions between menus. Overall, the new look seems better in just about every way, and for the first time it's on par with the Apple TV's interface.
Design: Smaller, heavier, glossier
Roku boxes have tended to look "fine," but the Roku 3 is the first one I'd say looks good. Compared to older Roku boxes, it has a more striking look with a 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 additional nonskid rubber on the bottom to help keep the box from sliding on a tabletop.
It all adds up to a much nicer Roku box, although its plasticky cabinet keeps it from being in the same league as the Apple TV. Personally, I don't think it matters much for a puck that sits under your TV.
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 playing back digital media files, although not nearly on the same scale as competitors like the WD TV Play.
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 1, and Roku 2 if you need it. My only complaint is the Roku 3 still requires a "wall wart" AC adapter, unlike the Apple TV's sleeker integrated power supply. But even that adapter is on the small side.
Remote: Built-in headphone jack, plus Wi-Fi Direct
The Roku 3's marquee feature is the remote's 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, which ends up being pretty useful -- consider spouse-friendly late-night viewing or kids' programming that can remain seen but not heard in the room at large. 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. (The freebie earbuds are surprisingly decent, too.)
Part of what makes the private listening mode possible is that Roku's remote works via Wi-Fi Direct, rather than standard infrared or even Bluetooth. That means you don't have to point the remote at the box, plus you're free to stash the Roku in a cabinet. Roku even sells a $10 mount if you want to stick the box on the back of your TV. And if you're using a universal remote, such as a Harmony, note that the Roku 3 still has an infrared receiver, so it's still compatible.
And new tech aside, Roku deserves credit for keeping its remote simple, especially when there's always a temptation to add more buttons. The buttons are well laid out, with the exception of the OK button, which I'd prefer in the center of the directional pad. The remote can do motion-sensing (a la the Wiimote), but aside from Angry Birds, I haven't seen that feature used anywhere else.
Finally, the Roku 3 can also be controlled by Roku's excellent smartphone app. Rather than merely providing the same buttons available on the remote, Roku's app lets you browse your channels directly, stopping you from having to constantly look from your phone to your TV. There's even an option to "push" photos, videos, and music saved on your smartphone to the Roku, delivering a limited AirPlay-like functionality.
What can you watch? Nearly everything
Roku offers more than 1,000 "channels," which is hundreds more than any competitor. And while a lot of those channels are filler -- or, at least, extremely specialized -- there's a ton of good stuff. Highlights are below; Roku has a full list. Note, of course, that most of the really good ones require separate paid subscriptions.
Movies and TV: Netflix, Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Crackle, Vudu, Disney, Watch ESPN, PBS, Fox Now, M-Go
Sports: MLB.TV, NBA GameTime, NHL GameCenter, UFCTV, MLS Live, SEC Digital Network
Music: Pandora, Spotify, Amazon Cloud Player, Slacker, Rdio, Vevo, Mog
Internet: YouTube, CNET, TED Talks, Revision3, TWiT, Vimeo, Picasa, Flickr
It goes without saying that the Roku -- like every other non-Apple device besides PCs -- can't access anything purchased or rented from Apple's iTunes Store.
Roku has also tried to push the idea of its boxes as casual gaming consoles -- the Roku 3 does come with Angry Birds Space preinstalled. But besides Angry Birds Space, the game selection remains very weak. It's disappointing, because the new speedier Roku 3 feels primed for NES-era platform-style gaming (just turn the remote sideways), but I'm not optimistic there will ever be enough developer support.
Cross-platform search that works
With so many channels supported, the question quickly turns from "What can I watch?" to "Where can I find it?"
Roku rolled out its cross-platform search in late 2012, and the company already thinks it's important enough to warrant a spot on its main menu bar. It searches through Netflix, Vudu, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, HBO Go, M-Go and Crackle, and only shows you results for the channels you have installed. Entering text using the onscreen keyboard is a little tedious, but the Roku 3's overall snappiness and its lightning-fast suggestions take most of the pain out of the process. (You can alternatively enter text using the smartphone app.)
Live TV: Time Warner Cable, Aereo, and more
Roku's boxes have also started offering an impressive suite of live TV options.
Roku's Time Warner Cable app allows subscribers to access to hundreds of live channels, including most major broadcast and cable networks, as long as you're on your home network. The app was also recently updated to offer on-demand content as well. While it's not quite a full-on replacement cable box (you don't get access to your DVR recordings), it makes for a nice second-room solution if you don't want to pay for another box.
Of course, the Time Warner app requires a cable subscription. Aereo -- which offers live access to over-the-air major networks (generally CBS, NBC, Fox, ABC, and PBS) and the ability to record and store several hours of programming "in the cloud" for a monthly fee -- does not. And unlike the similar Simple.TV, Aereo doesn't require any additional hardware in your house; it's just an app on the Roku.
You won't find Aereo in the Roku Channel Store; it's a "private channel," meaning that it's not approved or reviewed by Roku. The big catch, of course, is that Aereo is currently available only in a few cities, although the service is continually expanding its reach. (Disclaimer: CBS, the parent corporation of CNET, is in active litigation with Aereo with respect to the legality of its service. As a result, CNET will not be reviewing the Aereo service.)
Rounding out the live TV options are the internationally-focused DishWorld, Sky News, and sports channels like MLB.TV, NHL GameCenter, NBA Game Time, and UFCTV. With the exception of the free Al-Jazeera stream, all of those channels require a separate subscription, and the sports channels are subject to blackout rules, so don't expect to watch any local teams.
Personal video: Half-hearted support and Plex
Roku has never focused on playing back large libraries of personal digital media. The Roku 3 does have a USB port on the side that can play a few digital media file formats, including MP4 (H.264), MKV (H.264), AAC, MP3, JPG, and PNG. That's fine in a pinch, but if you've got a hard drive full of assorted downloaded content, it's probably not enough.
Roku does support the Plex Media Server with an official channel, and that's your best bet for streaming your own media. It's not nearly as easy to set up as the rest of Roku, but it shouldn't be tough for the techies that want this functionality in the first place. The big catch is that it requires as computer running the Plex Media server, unless you've configured a networked-attached storage drive to run the software.
There's also the aforementioned "Play On Roku" feature in the Roku smartphone app, which lets you "push" music, videos, and photos stored on your phone directly to your TV. It's a nice option that works well, but you're limited to media stored on your smartphone.
But even with those choices, it ultimately still feels like Roku doesn't think your personal library is as important as your cloud-based content. I tend to agree with Roku, but it's not the right approach for everyone.
Performance: Faster...a lot faster
The Roku 3 boasts a more-powerful chip inside, which Roku claims is five times faster than that of the Roku 2 XS.
The difference isn't mere specs-manship; the Roku 3 feels blazing fast in every meaningful sense. I noticed the speed bump when navigating menus, installing channels, and even in those rare instances when you need to reboot the box. The Roku 3 even feels much faster loading videos from services like Netflix and HBO Go. It's hard to tell whether that's due to the better processor, dual-band Wi-Fi, or a combination of both. Regardless, the bottom line is the Roku 3 gets you to your content faster than anything else.
And to me, the Roku's overall snappiness is the best answer to the oft-asked question: Why do I need a streaming video box when my PS3/Xbox 360/Blu-ray player/Smart TV already does streaming? All of those options work, but they're all much slower and frustrating to use, especially when you consider initial boot-up times, required software updates, and pokey responsiveness. Streaming video is all about instant gratification, and the Roku 3 takes that to the next level.
What are the alternatives?
The Roku 3 is one of the most recommendable products out there, but there are a few cases where it's not the best option.
Dedicated Apple fans: If you're heavily invested in iTunes content, the Apple TV is going to be the better choice, as you'll gain access to all your purchased movies and TV shows. And if you have a household of Apple devices, it's worth considering the Apple TV just for its awesome AirPlay functionality. No other ecosystem lets you so effortlessly stream music, videos, and photos stored on your mobile devices or from nearly any app. And if you've got a relatively new Mac with Mountain Lion, you can do full-blown screen mirroring with AirPlay, too.
Personal media hoarders: If most of the content you watch is stored on local hard drives, Roku's boxes aren't a great choice. Instead, opt for a box that focuses on extensive file formats and works more seamlessly with a networked-attached storage drive. Western Digital's TV Play and TV Live are better choices for media hoarders.
Second room box: Ironically, one of the best Roku 3 alternatives is its cheaper cousin, the Roku LT. I've personally championed the LT over Roku's more expensive boxes in the past, but the Roku 3's improvements -- most notably speed, design, and the remote's headphone jack -- make it worth the extra money. The Roku LT is still a stellar budget box (and better than Chromecast, in my opinion) for a room that doesn't get as much use, but get the Roku 3 if you can.
Conclusion: My favorite $99 streamer
The Roku 3 is the best streaming box yet -- and, yes, that means it tops the Apple TV -- with its vastly superior selection of streaming services, snappy cross-platform search, and neat headphone-jack-in-the-remote feature. Even as an owner of multiple iOS devices, the Roku 3 wins out for me. It's hard to resist the allure of the AirPlay, but when I'm in "couch mode," it's actually nice to disconnect from my mobile devices, instead of serving up content from an iPhone or iPad.
Perhaps Apple will eventually "crack" the secret to the future of TV, but in the meantime, the Roku 3 is as good as it gets.