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Editors note: This review has been superseded by a review that compares the state of the art in media streamers as of July 24, 2015. It's presented here as it was originally published in order to preserve the record of our first take on the product. You'll find our current opinion of this product here.
Roku probably didn’t need to redesign the Roku 3 to stay on top of the market, but I’m glad it did. I do wish Roku’s marketing team had given the new box a new name, so as not to confuse consumers, but what do I know about marketing. If you’re shopping for a media streamer, this is the one to buy—it has a number of features Roku’s less-expensive models don’t.
The Roku 3 is deceptively small for its size, measuring just 3.5 inches square. HDMI is its only audio/video output, so this isn’t the box to buy if you’re connecting to an old-school TV. The player outputs video in either 720p or 1080p, and it can pass through either 5.1 or 7.1 channels of digital audio (Dolby Digital Plus or DTS). You can connect the box to your Wi-Fi network (it has an onboard dual-band 802.11b/g/n adapter), but it also has a hardwired ethernet port for those who have the luxury of having an ethernet drop next to their TV. I love wireless routers, and the Roku had no problem connecting to my Linksys WRT1900AC even though the streamer was in my difficult-to-penetrate home theater, but nothing’s more reliable than a hardwired connection.
The Roku 3 provides access to every important online service, including Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Vudu, HBO Go, Showtime Anytime, Google Play Movies & TV, Fandor, Sling TV, and many hundreds of other channels (Roku claims 2000-plus; I did not count them). Some channels require subscriptions or pay-per-view fees, but many others are completely free. If you can’t find something to watch on a Roku, you’re just not into movies or TV.
The Roku 3’s remote control is the just the right size for you to reach all the most important buttons with a bend of your thumb. An indent on the back for your index finger helps ensure a good grip. The “home” button takes you back to the smartly laid-out user interface from anywhere, and the “back” button reverses course if you’ve drilled in deep.
Awesome voice search
The most important button is the one labeled with a magnifying glass. Press it once and the UI will display the familiar alpha-numeric grid that people love to hate. Hold it down, however, and you’ll activate the Roku 3’s fantastic voice-search feature. Speak into the remote’s microphone and it will quickly find what you’re looking for. I found the voice recognition to be fast, accurate, and supremely convenient—with one exception. No matter how many times I told it to find the creepy horror film The Babadook, it failed every time. (It did manage to find Bubba Ho-Tep, though.)
Four buttons labeled with Netflix, Amazon, Rdio, and Hulu logos launch those services immediately (you can also stream music from Pandora and Spotify). The remote communicates with the box via RF, eliminating line-of-sight requirements, but the box also has an infrared receiver so you can use a universal remote if you prefer.
Roku provides a set of inexpensive earbuds in the box that you can plug into the remote for private listening (these could also be useful for someone who has difficulty hearing; it’s a much better alternative to blasting the TV’s speakers). A rocker switch on the right-hand side of the remote controls the volume for the headphones—you’ll still need the remote for your TV or A/V receiver to control the volume for everyone else in the room (at least until the Sideclick project gets funded).
Roku Feed—a new feature that lets you “follow” movies that are still in theaters and be informed when they become available for streaming—has great potential, but it’s disappointingly limited in its current form. You can’t search for the films you want to follow; instead, you must hope they’ve been deemed important enough to be included on the Roku Feed list. At the time of this review, that list contained just 36 films, including Ex Machina, Far From the Madding Crowd, Hot Pursuit, and Furious 7. Among the notable movies that didn’t make the cut: Mad Max: Fury Road.
Install the free Roku Media Player channel and you can stream any music, videos, and photographs you own to your TV. These files can be stored on a USB drive (the Roku 3 delivered enough power over its USB port to spin up a 500GB My Passport mechanical hard drive) or on a network. The user interface here is much less sophisticated, however, and the list of supported file formats is very limited: Video must be encoded in H.264 inside either an MP4 or MKV container; music must be encoded in either AAC or MP3 (Apple Lossless is supported, but not FLAC), and photographs are limited to JPG or PNG format. The Roku 3 also has a MicroSD card slot, but that’s used only to supplement the streamer’s onboard storage for channels and games.
Is the Roku 3 for you?
The Roku 3 is the absolute best media streamer for most households. It’s supremely easy to set up, it supports just about every streaming service you can think of, and the user interface is a breeze to use. The features of the new remote—voice-search, headphone jack, and RF—fully justifies the $30 price bump from the Roku 2.
If you have extensive libraries of music and video using high-resolution or exotic codecs, on the other hand, on the other hand, you won’t be happy with it (but if that’s the case, you’re probably already using something else anyway).
- Excellent voice-search feature
- Supports nearly every important streaming service
- Wireless and wired network options
- Roku Feed doesn’t live up to its potential
- Very limited file format and codec support
At a glance:
The Roku 3 is the best choice in media streamers for most people.