Review Date: March 15, 2013

Roku 3: The Ultimate Roku Streaming Player

A 'fully loaded' Roku streaming player designed
to deliver the BEST in streaming experience!

When the first Roku wireless media player hit the market in 2008, Netflix members soon rated it as the No. 1 video player. It was an inexpensive video player that could stream Netflix; thanks to its Netflix/Amazon VOD (now Amazon Instant) bundle, it provided more for the dollar than most TV subscriptions. It was then that the media started advocating the so called 'cutting the cord' phenomenon as the latest trend in TV viewing when some began dropping their monthly pay TV service, in favor of streaming TV content.

That first Roku player was far from an exact replacement to your $100 monthly TV service subscription. Since then, however, a lot has changed and Roku is now in its 5th generation, despite being called Roku 3.

The new Roku 3 is definitely the best HD streaming player presently available on the market — it serves more content than any other, is lightning-fast, and now comes with an on-screen user interface that is on par with that of the Apple TV. Add the new Roku 3 innovative remote control that comes with a built-in headphone jack for private listening, and there you have the perfect media streaming box. Well... almost!


Roku 3 1080p Streaming Player

Roku 3 Wireless Streaming Player
(available from amazon)

Definitely the best wireless streaming player presently available on the market...

It serves more than 750 channels; that's more content than anyone else. Performance is super-fast, and there is also a superb user interface. Other features include dual-band Wi-Fi operation, and an innovative remote control that includes a headphone jack for private listening!

The Roku 3 Streaming Player
More than just a new glossy design!

As indicated in our introduction, the new Roku 3 represents the fifth generation of Roku streaming players. It is not a complete replacement to previous version of Roku players; Roku has so far kept the Roku LT, Roku 2 HD, and Roku 2 XD models from 2012 together with its new 2013 Roku 3. This means that in effect, with the new Roku 3, Roku is just replacing the Roku 2 XS model.

The new Roku 3 is selling online for $99. This relatively inexpensive price tag has somewhat became synonymous with all top-of-the-line Roku players released in previous years; yet the latest version delivers much more for the same price than ever!

Mind you, though it comes at a relatively inexpensive price, it is far from easy to sell a $99 wireless streaming player at a time when the majority of HDTVs, Blu-ray disc players, and related gear, all come packed with Smart TV platforms and Internet-enabled content. In addition, recent studies have shown that there is no such 'cutting-the-cord' phenomenon as instead is being advocated by the media — where more and more viewers are supposedly following on with the latest trend by dropping their monthly pay TV service in favor of streaming their TV content online. Rather, only a very small percentage of viewers have actually dropped their monthly pay TV service since the first streaming players appeared a few years ago. And most of those that did, have done so as they could not afford to pay for a traditional TV service! In other words, wireless streaming boxes do not have an easy selling ground even at a time when cutting the cord is suppose to be trendy!

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Roku's reply to this new challenging environment: Deliver a 'fully loaded' streaming player that excels in every respect!

Roku channel lineupA 'fully loaded' Streaming Box

The slogan Roku attached to its new Roku 3 is 'fully loaded'; and this is not just advertising hype!

This is the wireless media player that serves most content, more than 750 channels including Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, Vudu, live sports on MLB, NHL, music on Pandora, Amazon Cloud Player, Spotify, Internet news channels like CNET, and social networks like Facebook, Flickr, and much more. Mind you, 2012 Roku players also serve practically the same extensive lineup of content thanks to the constant software upgrades released by Roku.

As you may expect, the best channels require separate paid subscriptions, which you have to complete via your PC/laptop.

Like any other non-Apple device (PCs apart), you cannot access anything on your Roku purchased or rented on Apple's iTunes Store. However, this is not Roku's fault but Apple's policy.

Instead, what remains Roku's fault is the continued absence of the popular YouTube channel from the Roku channel lineup — a feature present almost on every other Internet-enabled TV platform.

However, this YouTube channel issue is not much of a concern to Roku users as it is still possible to make use of an unsupported 'private' channel like VideoBuzz to get access to YouTube via Roku 3. Though private channels are not supported by Roku, yet they represent a valid alternative to content not available through the Roku Channel Store. VideoBuzz is just one of the many private channels available for Roku players.

Time Warner Cable TV channelRoku has also recently launched a Time Warner Cable TV channel, which allows the Roku to function as an 'alternative' cable box for Time Warner Cable TV subscribers. Once installed, the app provides access to hundreds of live channels, including major broadcast and cable networks. The only requirement is that you access the stream from within your own home via your Time Warner cable modem.

It is not an exact replacement to the traditional cable TV decoder box — no cable TV guide and DVR support, nor do you get access to on-demand TV content — but it surely does a good job as an alternative to TWC TV box should you want to install your cable TV service in an additional room in the house.

Much, much faster than any other streaming box

The Roku 3 is possibly the fastest wireless media player presently available on the market. This represents one of the major upgrades so far despite that previous versions of Roku have always proved to be extremely robust streaming boxes.

Roku says the new Roku 3 is five times faster than Roku 2. For sure, the new Roku streaming player feels really fast... much faster in everything — from initial boot to navigation, to loading of movies — than any other streaming player we have ever come across.

It comes with extremely responsive navigation and super-fast overall performance thanks to the use of a new 'always-on' chip design that provides much faster load times than the competition. This in our opinion is one of the reasons why it still makes sense investing in a $99 Roku streaming box when most home entertainment gear today comes loaded with Smart TV and Internet-enabled TV platforms. None of these built-in Internet-enabled content platforms deliver the superfast response of the Roku 3 when streaming video; in this respect, the Roku 3 is in a class of its own.

A new user interface

Included as part of the new Roku player upgrade is a new on-screen user interface that allows you to see more channels at once while browsing through, and that adds the Roku's Channel Store as an integral part of the main menu.

There is also an improved cross-platform search that makes it easy and quick to find the content you want to watch over the Roku's endless list of available channels. Originally released in 2012, this search feature is available directly via the main menu. It searches through Netflix, Vudu, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, HBO Go, and Crackle, and only shows results for the channels you have installed. However, unlike Google TV, the Roku cross-search function would not tell you if the available content is free until you click through. Entering search text via the on-screen soft keyboard is as you may expect frustrating, but you can always use the Roku app for your iPhone to enter search text via the virtual keyboard.

For the time being, this new improved user interface is unique to Roku 3, but according to Roku, it will soon be available on all current-generation Roku boxes (namely Roku LT, Roku HD, Roku 2 XD, Roku 2 XS, and Roku Streaming Stick) via a software update sometime in April.

This improved user interface brings the Roku on par with the Apple TV interface, thus taking away the edge that Apple TV has so far had in this respect over previous versions of Roku players.

Dual-band Wi-Fi connection is back onboard!

This fifth generation Roku streaming player has once again taken on board dual-band Wireless-N connectivity for the best streaming performance, a feature that for some reason was dropped on the Roku 2 lineup despite being present on older versions. Note however that this feature requires the use of a dual-band router.

Enhanced Roku remote control

Roku remote with the built-in headphone jackAnother major innovate feature exclusive to the Roku 3 is the enhanced remote with motion control and a built-in headphones jack. Overall, it is a simplified remote control with minimal list of control buttons but that remains functional and easy to use.

The motion-sensing feature was first available on the Roku 2 XS remote and is there to provide a sort of Wii-like gaming experience. Roku is trying to push the concept of integrating the functionality of a wireless streaming box with a gaming console that lets you take the occasional break from watching online content by playing video games. The Roku 3 comes loaded with Angry Birds Space but you can always buy additional games via the Roku Channel Store. In total, the Roku website lists over 50 games... so unlike last year when you had the capability to play games over your Roku but just one game to play, now you have a relatively interesting range to choose from. In any case, as far as we know, this is the only wireless streaming box that supports this game feature.

However, the real innovation that sets the remote control on the Roku 3 apart from the competition is the presence of the built-in headphone jack that gives rise to a private listening mode; Roku also throws a relatively good pair of in-ear headphones. This in our opinion is a great feature that will definitely get more than just regular use by anyone with a late-night viewing habit. Plugging in the headphone will immediately mute the TV sound. In addition, the headphones volume sound can be adjusted independent of the TV sound via appropriate controls on the side of the remote; thus, the TV sound will remain at its original level once the headphones are disconnected.

What makes this wireless headphone feature possible is the use of Wi-Fi Direct wireless technology; instead, the Roku 2 remote made use of Bluetooth technology. Wi-Fi Direct allows Wi-Fi devices to connect to each other without the need for a router or wireless access point; the latter is actually embedded within the devices and uses the Wi-Fi Protected Setup system to trigger pairing between them.

Note that should you prefer to make use of a universal remote control, you can always do so since the Roku 3 has a built-in Infra-red receiver for compatibility reasons.

A Smart Roku App

The smart Roku AppDirectly related to the Roku 3 control is a new free Roku App that does more than replaces the Roku remote control. Rather, it turns any iPhone and Android devices into the ultimate control center. It enables the user to browse through the channels in the Channel Store, add new channels to your lineup, play a favorite movie moment, etc., over the iPhone or Android device. Included is a useful virtual keyboard, which definitely comes in handy when searching for specific content.

Through the Roku App, you can also watch all the photos and songs you keep on your phone instantly on your TV; you can put up everything from a family slide show, to your favorite album right on that big screen for everyone to see.

The New Roku 3 Design

Roku 3 versus other Roku versionsThe new Roku player is practically the same size as the Roku 2 and Roku LT, measuring 3.5 x 3.5 x 1 inches. Contrary to previous versions, the Roku 3 comes with a nice glossy finish... not that this would matter when most often it would end up hidden behind the TV!

The Roku 3 is also a bit heavier than the rest of the Roku lineup, weighing 5 ounces instead of the 3 ounces of the rest of the current Roku lineup. This extra weight would surely lead to a more stable placement on a horizontal surface preventing the Roku from sliding under the weight of a heavy HDMI connecting cable.

Reduced Connectivity

Roku 3 back panelAs indicated earlier on, the Roku 3 has once again put onboard 802.11 dual-band wireless support, a feature that though present on older Roku players, was dropped in 2012.

This is surely a most welcome return. However, connectivity on the new Roku player has now taken a rather minimalistic approach. The full connectivity suite on the Roku 3 consists of just:

- One HDMI port with 5.1 and 7.1 digital audio surround pass-through,

- Ethernet port for wired network connectivity
  (in addition to its Wi-Fi dual band support)

- USB port with a rather limited digital media file support covering video
  MP4 H.264 and MKV H.264, audio AAC and MP3, and JPG/PNG image files

- MicroSD card slot to serve as storage expansion to install
  additional games and channels,

- Power adapter jack since the Roku lacks an integrated power supply;
  instead, it makes use of a compact AC adapter pack.

Gone are the analog audio and video connectivity options present on previous Roku versions. This means that the new Roku does not support connectivity to older TVs; this makes the Roku 3 more in line with the Apple TV than traditional Roku streaming players. If you need analog connectivity, the Roku 3 is simply not for you; your best option would be the Roku 2 HD or the cheaper Roku LT.

A Perfect Wireless Streaming Player... almost!

The Roku 3 is surely an incredible piece of hardware; rather, it is the best wireless streaming player we have ever come across. However, as already indicated above, it still misses on a few 'not so important' aspects.

It is hard to understand why Roku keeps leaving out a YouTube channel at a time when this is readily available on most Internet-enabled TV platforms on HDTVs and related AV gear. Luckily, thanks to the so-called unsupported private channels, YouTube is still available on the Roku line of streaming players.

The absence of a Roku supported YouTube channel is not the only content limitation; you cannot access anything on your Roku purchased or rented from the iTunes stores; as stated earlier on, this is not a Roku-only limitation but an Apple restriction. This means that if you have invested heavily in iTunes content, then your best streaming player option remains the Apple TV.

Year after year, Roku players keep failing to support DLNA network connectivity; if you have many media files stored on your networked PCs, this is surely a handicap. It is true that Roku provides media file support via its USB port but there again, file format support is too lacking though somewhat adequate for most situations. If most of the content you watch is stored on your networked PCs, then the Western Digital TV Live represents a better choice.

But that is as far as our complaints list goes

You would surely soon forget about these 'few' limitations once you start playing around with the Roku 3! It feels super fast, there is more content then you will ever want, and the new user interface lacks nothing in comparison to what you find on the Apple TV.

If you have $99 to spend on a wireless streaming player, the Roku 3 is definitely the one that delivers the ultimate TV streaming experience!

Readers Comments

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Article Index

Quick links to issues discussed in this Roku review:

Blue bullet  Introducing the new Roku Player: More than just a new glossy design!

Blue bullet  A fully loaded wireless streaming player!
Roku's reply to the new challenging environment...
- More content
- Much faster
- New User Interface
- Dual-band Wi-Fi support
- An innovative remote
- A new Smart Roku App

Blue bullet  The new Roku design:
Stylish but... one that comes with reduced connectivity

Blue bullet  Not exactly the perfect streaming player but almost!
Identifying the Roku 3 limitations

Blue bullet  Readers' Comments: Join in and submit your comments!