Roku's best non-4K streaming player is called the Roku 3 and still costs $99. Its remote offers voice search, which works so well you might actually use it.
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 Sling TV -- 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 added voice search to its top streaming box, the $100 Roku 3. It also removed a couple of features from its second-best box, the $70 Roku 2, while turbocharging its response time. Then in 2016 it released a new Streaming Stick, which costs just $50.
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.
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 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 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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
Roku's voice search hits all 30 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.
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.
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.
Roku is hella fast. In my speed tests the Roku 3 (both old and new), the Stick 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 and the Apple TV both work with Bluetooth headphones as well. Finally, its worth repeating that the Stick offers private listening via Roku's app.
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.
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.
Aside from iTunes, just about the only notable apps Roku is missing are the new Starz, PlayStation Vue, and local file playback favorite Kodi. See the chart for a full comparison.
The big chart: What you can watch on Apple TV, Roku, Fire TV, Chromecast and Android TV
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.
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.
The other streaming boxes have a few advantages over Roku, especially if you care about gaming or screen mirroring. 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. The $50 Stick has everything most people need, and if you want the fancy remote you can add it for another $30. The main reason to get the 3 instead is if you want Ethernet and the remote.