Roku 3 review

Roku has refreshed its Roku set-top box lineup and with it announced the launch of the Roku 3, a £100 flagship box of tricks that promises to turn your TV into something considerably smarter.

But does the Roku 3 make sense given that you could buy the company's rebadged Now TV box for a mere tenner instead, and is it too limited in content terms in the UK?

What is it?

Roku is one of those companies that needs a bit of introduction. For some it's a household name, for others you'll be scratching your head wondering what the heck it's all about.

Roku 3 is the company's top-spec set-top box that plugs into your TV and enables streaming of content. Whether films, TV programmes, music or games, the interface opens you up to plenty of content direct from the internet - whether by Wi-Fi or Ethernet. You can also handle your own content via USB or microSD should you have files you want to get to play back on your TV.

But the company has American roots and, as such, it's taking a little time for UK support at every given angle. For example you can open up BBC iPlayer to catch up on services, but there's no 4 On Demand or ITV Player just yet. They'll come along at a later date, we believe, but for now it's all about playing the waiting game.

Design & setup

The Roku 3 box devices measures in at 89 x 89 x 25 mm in size and weighs just 170g, not that you'll be carrying it around. That makes for a diddy little box that, from the outside, doesn't really suggest the power that it contains within. More on that later.

The black box features curved edges giving it a somewhat pebble-like look and feel and is everything the Apple TV's black-block design isn't. It is finished with a piano gloss black paint job with the only distracting detail being a purple fabric label saying Roku on it.

The side sports a USB port, while the back hosts an HDMI, a somewhat hidden microSD slot, and an Ethernet socket. A lot of that hard-wired connectivity is what puts Roku 3 steps ahead of its Roku 2 XS predecessor. But it's not all about hard-wiring - Wi-Fi b/g/n is available as well for those that want to stream over the airwaves. The box itself is unimposing, and can be easily lost at the back of your TV as the included remote doesn't need a direct line of sight to work.

READ: Roku 2 XS review

Setting it up is incredibly easy too. Plug in the Roku 3 to your TV via an HMDI cable and go through the setup pages. Once you've connected to your wireless network you are asked to then validate the box via Roku's website on a separate device like your laptop, tablet, or smartphone.

This is to ensure you've got a Roku account, a requirement of getting everything to work. You'll also need to part with your credit card details even though there is no subscription or cost to pay - such ongoing payments will only come into play if you want to download certain subscription-based apps.

The remote

One up and running your former-vanilla TV is transformed into a channel-capable hub, complete with included remote control. It's comfortable in the hand, well built, and reminds is of a variant of the Nintendo Wii Remote in a piano gloss black finish. It's powered by two AA batteries and feels well thought out - this is no afterthought thrown into the box. 

The button configuration includes an array of buttons to help speed up your navigation around the Roku's on-screen menu system and that includes a d-pad, home button, back button and play/pause, fast forward and rewind. There is also an A and B for gaming, and the Wii reference adds further credence when you find out that the remote also offers motion control for games like Angry Birds.

There is no number pad or keyboard, but you don't really need channel numbers like a regular TV here as it's based around your own apps. If you really want to start searching for a lot of shows you can download a dedicated app for Android or iOS to use on your smartphone instead.

Probably something you aren't expecting or familiar with on a remote is a 3.5mm headphone jack. You can plug in a pair of headphones to mute the noise coming from the television and listen from afar, with a dedicated volume switch to control just how loud you can go. It's an amazingly simple idea, but one we love, especially if you are a regular late night TV watcher once the rest of the household has gone to bed.

Interface

Using the remote makes it easy to chop through the Roku's on-screen interface which, for the Roku 3, has been completely overhauled.

It's now based around two panels that you can scroll through or across. On the opening screen you have My Channels, Channel Store, and Settings on the left. On the right you have a grid of nine channel spaces to let you go straight to your favourite channels. Scrolling to the right gets rid of the first menu and instead of revealing more channel options a huge advert - either for Roku or Netflix or someone - appears, which is not only a bit naff but a huge waste of screen real estate.

You can move channels into the order you want them by pressing the asterisk button on the remote but you can't ever get more than nine tiles on the screen at any one time. To view more you have to scroll down.

There is some customisation, but not to fix the above nine tile problem. It's more cosmetic stuff: Roku allows you to change the look of the menu interface, swapping out the purple colour scheme for various seasonal themes or one of five presets that go by names such as "Daydream" - it's got clouds on it - or "Decaf" - it's brown.

The interface, although wasteful in use of space on screen, is easy to use and straightforward - but one thing to bear in mind is that because there is no overriding menu system forced on to app developers every app looks and feels different. That's either great or poor depending on how you look at these things. 

Channel Store

The core approach to Roku is that you can expand it by adding more "channels" via the Channel Store. Unlike Apple TV you don't have to wait for a system update to add more content or for more content to become available. Just wait for developers to get on and develop an app for it. Here there is plenty of choice and plenty being added frequently.

READ: Apple TV (2012) review

Big hitters already available include BBC iPlayer, Netflix, Now TV, Demand 5, Sky News, Crackle, Vevo, Plex, Spotify, and TuneIn Radio. There are also games like Angry Birds and Angry Birds Space, but those two really are the cream of the crop, while other apps like a third-party Dropbox app allow you to share your Dropbox-based photos on your TV. You can also get apps like Flickr, Facebook, and Picasa.

As with all app stores there are some good apps and services and a lot of rubbish, and it's the same here with Roku. Of the hundreds that are available you'll probably only be interested in the handful we've already mentioned. Still, the good news is that they are present and that if a new hot service launches it can very easily be added - none of this waiting for Apple to do add them as is the case with Apple TV.

What you don't get however is the chance to rent or buy content in the same way as the iTunes store, although with Now TV covering all the latest movies, and Netflix covering a large chunk of TV shows you should be pretty well covered. There are, as we mentioned earlier, some omissions however: no 4oD and no ITV Player might be a fairly big deal for you, but one we believe will be "plugged up" in the near future.

READ: Now TV box review

Specs

Roku 3 is more powerful than its Roku XS predecessor; it's got a similar spec to the iPad 3 when it comes to what's under the hood. And that means better games support - although we don't anticipate many will buy it for that reason.

When it comes to games like Angry Birds Space the Roku 3 work well, but then Angry Birds isn't very demanding. Loading times are kept to a minimum and everything runs smoothly rather than being laggy at any point.

But it's format support where the Roku 3 shows off its stuff. There's support for 480p, 720p, and 1080p resolutions along with 7.1 and 5.1 surround sound passed through the HDMI cable. Via the USB - which wasn't available in the Roku XS - you can play H.264 MP4 and MKV formats for video and AAC and MP3 for music. The Roku also supports playback of images stored in JPG or PNG formats. That's great if you have local files.

In practice, unless you are using some random video streaming codec, you should find those to cover the main bases. Failing that you can either side-load your content or stream it from your PC with apps like Plex.

READ: Plex (Android) review

Verdict

The Roku 3 is a decent TV set-top box that will offer plenty to most people looking to "cut the cable" as Americans would say. While there are some annoyances with the interface layout and a lot of dross in the app store - do you really want to pay £1.49 for a puppy screensaver? - the main catch-up TV services are here.

There are noticeable omissions - 4 On Demand and ITV Player being two - but the important ones like Netflix, Now, and BBC iPlayer are here. Does that make it worth the £100 asking price?

We think so, yes. The Roku 3 costs £30 more than the Roku XS, but adds the USB socket for localised file support, Ethernet port for speedy streaming support, and is a smoother, more deeply invested service than before. It might not be possible to download and store local content, like with Apple TV, but the added microSD card slot, the motion controller and faster processor make Roku 3 a worthwhile upgrade that fills in some of the omissions of its predecessor.

If, however, your plan is to just stream catch-up services then you will be more than happy with the Roku XS for less cash. If you don't care about Neflix then save yourself a lot of money and go for the Now TV box instead - although that's limited to 720p streaming, not 1080p support as found here - which might be nowhere near as powerful, but does deliver a lot for the outlay.