The standalone set-top media streamer game has two major players: Apple and Roku. Over the past year or so, the Apple TV has gained some new features and an improved interface. Now it’s Roku’s move: On Tuesday evening the company introduced a replacement for its high-end box, and unveiled a new user interface for its family of streaming products.
New high-end model
The $100 Roku 3 is a replacement for the company’s similarly priced Roku 2 XS, its previously top of the line model. In addition to a more rounded, beanbag-like bulging design, the Roku 3 makes several hardware changes on the inside.
A beefier processor can now decode and play H.264 MKV video files via the device’s USB port, and makes moving around the interface zippier as well.
It now supports dual-band Wi-Fi in a/b/g/n flavors (improved from standard 802.11b/g/n in the 2 XS).
The remote control has been updated to carry a headphone jack. Plug in the included in-ear headphones (or your favorite other cans) and you can listen wirelessly to whatever you’re watching—without bothering your spouse, say, who perhaps prefers to sleep rather than power through a season of House of Cards on Netflix. Volume buttons on the remote control the volume in your ears.
It supports 7.1-channel surround sound pass-through over HDMI in addition to the previously supported 5.1-channel.
Like the 2 XS, the Roku 3 has 10/100Base-T ethernet, USB, Bluetooth, and a microSD slot for extra game/channel storage. Missing is the 2 XS’s A/V port, which means no composite video or analog audio on the Roku 3—it’s all about HDMI. The new model is a bit heavier than the 2 XS, weighing in at 5 ounces (versus 3 ounces for the 2 XS). And according to the specs, typical power consumption is up a bit from 2W to 3.5W, for those keeping score.
The Roku 3 is available now from the Roku website and Amazon.com, and will make its way into retail stores starting in April.
In addition to its more powerful hardware, the Roku 3 also ushers in Roku’s all new user interface. Although chock full o’ content, finding your way around Roku’s screens and menus has been the weakest part of the experience. And with more than 750 channels (including Time Warner Cable's TWC TV, also launched on Tuesday) something had to be done.
What Roku did is simplify and reorganize, changes that were immediately noticeable (and welcome) when I got to see and play with the new UI during a private demo recently.
Rather than endlessly scrolling left or right through your list of channels, the new user interface presents them in a grid in rows of three on the left side of screen. Nine channels are clearly visible, and you can see the top half of the next row below them. As you browse, it’s easy to see which channels you’ve already added (denoted by a check mark in a circle), and when you highlight a channel you see a larger image and partial description on the right side of the screen.
The two-paned design metaphor carries throughout the interface. The home menu lists My Channels, Channel Store, Search, and Settings options on the left side, and the items on the right change based on what you select. As you reach the end of a list, the text wraps back around to the beginning to prevent any unnecessary scrolling.
Visually, the update makes better use of space and I was able to immediately make sense of it and start using it—perhaps the ultimate goal of any UI. I even noticed changes to the fonts, which are more modern and smoother (less chunky) than before. And a good balance of font size along with greater tracking between letters and increased leading between lines makes text easier and more pleasing to read.
There are also five themes you can choose from to customize the look and feel of the interface as a whole.
Although the UI change is shipping on the Roku 3, current owners aren’t left out in the cold: Roku will roll out the new interface as a free software update in April for the Roku LT, Roku HD (model 2500R), Roku 2 HD, Roku 2 XD, Roku 2 XS, and the Roku Streaming Stick.