By now you’ve probably heard of Roku, the miniature media center that delivers unlimited media to your TV via the internet. You may be wondering if it’s worth dropping a one-time 100 bucks on the new Roku 3 to replace your expensive monthly cable network. Roku 3 happens to be the easiest way to play and stream content to your HDTV, and for the price, it’s hard to beat. Plus, there are a few new features that are unique to Roku 3.
Roku 3 is a miniature media center that grants access to an unlimited amount of free and paid content. It doesn’t just play movies and TV shows, but it can download and play video games, connect to your social networks like Facebook, and play music and music videos. Also get this–the remote control doubles as a wii-mote-like gaming remote and you can listen to the TV audio by plugging in headphones (included) into the remote.
Roku 3 is quite possibly the smallest media center you’ve ever seen (unless you’ve seen Google’s ChromeCast). It’s about the same size as the Roku 2 XS we reviewed, but it’s been nicely smoothed out. The entire device has the footprint of a coaster and it’s only one inch tall. On the back of the device is an HDMI port, an Ethernet port, an SD card slot, and a port for the AC adapter. If you download too many apps and games, you can expand storage with an SD card. On the side of Roku there’s a USB port for playing videos off of an external storage device. Roku 3 is HD-only, it requires an HDMI cable, which isn’t included. It also requires an Internet connection–there’s no included Ethernet cable, but it supports WiFi (802.11n).
The setup is easy. Roku only requires two cables: power and HDMI. The remote (with the included batteries) pairs by bluetooth automatically. It takes longer for Roku to set itself up. There’s some waiting time in between setting up wifi (if not using a wired cable), creating an account on the computer, and pairing the device. All-in-all, you can have it set up in 15 minutes. It would be great if Roku didn’t require Internet and a personal login with credit card (boo!), but it’s not a big deal once you’re past the initial setup. The credit card is only charged if you make a purchase on Roku.
Roku has channels, but not as you know them — they’re more like apps. Each app is a customized portal, similar to iPad apps. Apps can play all types of content: live TV, movies/TV on demand, free and paid content, music, music videos, games, photo streams, and more. There’s even apps like Plex that will play videos shared over your home network. Only one app will run at a time, and they can’t run in the background.
There’s over 750 channels. Some of the more popular channels include Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, Facebook, Pandora, Spotify, Time Warner Cable, CNET, VUDU, and Vimeo. Unfortunately, there’s no YouTube app. If you want to stick to free content, it can be done, but it takes some digging to find your perfect mix of channels. There’s a universal search feature where Roku searches through your various apps to find the content you’re looking for.
Roku also has channel suggestions for the whole family -
The remote is pretty similar to a Wiimote. It’s shaped and sized the same but a bit smaller and more ergonomic. On the face are simple media center buttons. The remote has a built in accelerometer and gyrposcope that can be used in games for tilting and turning. There’s also a D-pad and A/B buttons. A unique feature that we love about the Roku remote is that it has a built-in microphone jack so you can plug in your headphones, or the included headphones, and listen to Roku with virtually no delay. The remote is paired via Bluetooth and has an incredible range that doesn’t require a direct line of sight.
Alternatively, there’s a Roku remote app for iOS, which is another easy way to control Roku. The app is incredibly smooth and usable. It gives you access to a keyboard and even allows you to stream music and pictures to Roku. There’s no built-in airplay so streaming videos and other iOS content is out of the question.
Roku 3 has a much faster processor than previous Rokus. If you’ve ever used Roku, it’s noticeable how snappy the 3 is. The UI has also been greatly improved. It’s still simple, but much more visually appealing. The update has been rolled out to some of the other Roku’s, but with limited functionality. Roku 3 and its stylish UI has been very stable — I’ve had no crashes or freezes in my weeks of use. It’s also completely silent. I love that after days of no use I can instantly resume where I left off.
Roku can most definitely sub-in for your cable box, but it requires heavily on your needs. It’s not a perfect replacement, but instead a potentially amazing alternative. My best piece of advice is to check out all the channels it offers before canceling that pricey cable bill. I gave up on cable years ago and get by purely on Netflix and other internet channels.
We really love how easy it is to listen to Roku on headphones, via the remote. At last, you can watch TV while your significant other comfortably snoozes in bed. Roku’s also a great device for making the most out of an extra TV. Instead of getting cable boxes for a guest room or kids rooms, Roku offers a rich offering of easy-to-access entertainment.
You can get a Roku for as little as $48, but to save yourself from a slower and watered down user experience and feature list, it’s worth opting for the $98 Roku 3.
The Good: Limited or no commercials, Very responsive and zippy, No freezing or crashing, Bluetooth remote has great range and doubles as gaming remote, Can listen with headphones plugged into remote, Lots of free content, Good variety of channels/apps, 1080p, Surround sound, Plays local and network content, the only TV streaming device with support for the Time Warner Cable app – which essentially turns the device into a second cable box, comes with Plex app support for streaming files from a PC
The Bad: Requires credit card for setup, No backgrounding video or multitasking, No YouTube, No Airplay, HDMI cable not included, Requires HDTV with HDMI