There's stiff competition in the set-top box world.
From Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, and Google Nexus Player, there are plenty of big guns already established for on-demand content and media handling - but it's Roku that continues to make its mark. And for 2015, it has updated its flagship set-top box, the Roku 3, with voice-controlled search and a faster interface.
The company has also updated its Roku 2 - which, minus the voice-enabled controller included, is positioned as a cheaper device, making both models just as fast as one another. Is the fancier voice-controlled bundled remote really worth the extra investment? We've spent a couple weeks using the new Roku 3 to find out.
The black box
The Roku 3 is a small black box with rounded corners - measuring an 89mm square footprint by 35mm tall - designed to sit under your TV. It couldn't exactly be described as remarkable in appearance, aping the original Roku design, but there's nothing wrong with that either. The finish is all-glossy black, apart from the purple fabric Roku tag on the left corner, and easily blends in among other gear.
Around the left and right edges and on the backside of the box are various slots, ports, and buttons for set-up. Comprising HDMI, Ethernet, USB, power, reset, and microSD, there are all the necessary staples here. You'll want a spare socket near the TV for the power cable to avoid trailing wires everywhere.
Figuring out how to get the new Roku 3 working with your HDTV is straightforward, but you'll need to buy an HDMI cable as one isn't included in the box. Plugging the two together and powering up took less than a minute total - and we didn't even need to check the instructions. Easy peasy.
The new Roku 3 remote appears similar to the pill-shaped remote that came with the old Roku 3, but it features a pinhole microphone on the front to enable voice search. The new remote is radio-based and uses Wi-Fi Direct as well, meaning it doesn't need line-of-sight to work.
It also has a headphone jack and comes with a pair of purple earbuds. Plugging the buds into the remote will automatically mute your TV set and allow you to listen through the buds. It's a useful feature that Roku has only recently decided to remove from the Roku 2.
The new remote, which is tiny, black, and glossy like the box, definitely appears rounder and feels a bit heftier than the sleek remotes for Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, and Google Nexus Player. But, at the end of the day, it's just a control wand and gets the job done nicely.
Roku has replaced the Return button found on the previous remote with a little magnifying glass button on the latest remote. Pressing this will turn on the remote mic and kick in a voice search dialog, at which point you'll want to hold the remote close while speaking loud and clearly.
Other features on the new remote include four dedicated buttons for quick access to Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, Netflix, and Rdio (you can't change or reprogram these buttons), as well as motion controls and A/B buttons for playing a limited selection of games.
Although the remote's dedicated buttons seem like a good idea, we think it's a strange departure from Roku's existing philosophy of not favouring one type of content or service over another. We also don't like how the remote's OK key is awkwardly placed below the four-way cursor.
Keep in mind the Roku 3 box does support infrared (IR) commands, making it compatible with most universal remotes, but if you're going to use it with a universal remote, you might as well just buy the cheaper Roku 2, which comes with a simpler remote (minus the mic).
Neutral software experience
Roku didn't change its tile-based interface much when it updated the Roku 2 and 3. The software is still designed to treat channels, apps and services equally - whether it be Amazon Instant Video or Google Play Movies and TV. If Apple had an iTunes app for Roku, it would likely get fair treatment as well.
Roku doesn't surface one type of content or service over another, though it allows you customise which apps are prioritised and enables the moving or removal of app tiles on the homepage. All of this functionality means you can browse content only from places you're subscribed to or prefer, rather than having to sift through apps of no interest.
By contrast the Amazon Fire TV highlights Amazon apps and content over non-Amazon sources. The Apple TV does a similar thing by not letting you move or remove Apple-branded apps, while the Nexus Player is basically a hub for the Google Play store. Roku feels like neutral ground.
Roku Feed is the main difference between Roku's old interface and the new one. It's designed for all of Roku's devices, including its Streaming Stick, and is meant to alert you when new content is available to watch on a Roku channel.
If you're interested in a film playing in cinemas right now, such as The Age of Adaline starring Blake Lively, you can follow that film with Roku Feed - but then you must check "My Feed" regularly for a notification that'll say when it's available to stream via whichever relevant apps are installed on Roku.
And that doesn't always work out well. While first testing the new Roku 3, we followed American Sniper, but then forgot all about it. We didn't even know it became available for purchase until days later, when we manually went to My Feed and saw that Amazon Instant Video recently added the film.
Roku Feed has initially kicked off with just the Movies Coming Soon category, but Roku has confirmed it will add new tricks in the future for other content. While we think the entire feature is handy, it could be fine-tuned to alert more efficiently.
For example: an alert notification, placed at the top of the interface, would make better sense for at-a-glance updates. Roku could even send a push notification through the Roku mobile app. We also think Movies Coming Soon should include more new releases - there were only 40 or so available during our testing.
Ah, voice search. Now this is why you should consider the new Roku 3. Roku's voice search is (mostly) universal and works across the existing 17 services that also support Roku text search. In the States those include Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Crackle, Fox Now, HBO Go, M-Go, and more (some of which aren't available in the UK).
Voice search with Roku 3 works like this: press the magnifying glass button on the new remote, then wait for an on-screen voice dialogue box to appear, and speak your query into the remote's mic. Simple. It only a few seconds to show results. We loved the entire experience, with the exception that Roku pulls you out of whatever you're watching when you do a voice search in order to process and display results.
Make no mistake that you must always speak loud and clearly, and if you do, the set-top box should be able to recognise the names of most popular TV shows, films, actors, and actresses. If you're a mumbler, it might not work first time.
Roku's remote-based voice search is quite similar to what the Amazon Fire TV and Nexus Player already offer, but it works with more services and, again, doesn't play favourites. The Fire TV is different in that it omits search results from Netflix and prominently serves up content from Amazon.
When searching for The Lego Movie, for instance, Roku provides various options through various apps, while Amazon Fire TV only shows a pricey HD version available from Amazon. It didn't even show the standard-definition version from Amazon Instant Video.
Roku always displays the costs of content next to the channel it's available through, so you needn't open the individual app, but if you're paying for a subscription service, such as Netflix or Amazon Prime, you'll see search results listed as "free" alongside buying options from other pay-per-view services. When we voice-searched for Django Unchained, for example, Roku showed it as "free" on Netflix, whereas Fire TV wanted a rental or purchase from Amazon - despite it being available elsewhere at no additional cost.
All that said, there are two things that make search through Amazon Fire TV far superior. First, you can voice search for genres and character names. Second is a feature called X-Ray, which was previously available on Amazon's Kindle tablets, that accesses the data base of IMDB.com (also owned by Amazon) in order to display on-screen information about films and episodes. We love both capabilities, and wish Roku had something similar.
Before we get to the conclusion, there are a few things to point out about the new Roku 3 and entire Roku platform.
The Roku 3 supports Ethernet or Wi-Fi, meaning those of you with an outdated or cheap Wi-Fi router can rest assure that the box offers a stable, wired connection. The Roku 3 also supports 1080p output, so streaming will be crisp and clear. We'd love 4K support - but maybe next time.
As far as media files go, you can see a full list of supported types here (MKV, MP4, MOV, WMV, AAC, MP3, WMA, FLAC, WAV, JPG, PNG, GIF, etc). So for media handling there's plenty of scope to view whatever format you prefer.
The new Roku 3 also supports screen mirroring, but it requires an Android 4.2.2 or higher device or a PC running Windows 8.1. We thought it worked well, but if streaming is your only concern, keep in mind the Roku Streaming Stick is cheaper and also supports mirroring.
If you don't want to send the contents of your mobile device or PC screen to your TV via Roku and would rather send photos and music from your mobile device, you can use any Roku player with the free Roku app. We just wished it supported videos too, even non-protected ones.
Speaking of the Roku app, if you should ever lose the new Roku 3 remote, you can still voice-control any Roku with your phone or tablet. Just download the Roku app for iOS or Android. It supports voice and text input and can even stream media to your TV via Roku.
The new Roku 3 is certainly a top-of-the-line streamer, but the Roku 2 is just as cool and even more affordable. Sure, the cheaper model doesn't have the voice search-enabled microphone or dedicated listening via the remote's headphone socket, though you can always use the Roku app to control the Roku 2 by voice if you want.
There's also little point in upgrading if you have the older Roku 3, as any speed improvements in the new model are barely noticeable and, again, you can still get access to voice search with the Roku app. If you only want screen mirroring, get the Roku Streaming Stick - it's the cheapest Roku after all.
If you're locked into Apple's ecosystem then you'll want to go with the Apple TV, even though it hasn't been updated in years. Also, Apple is rumoured to be launching a new box this summer, so you might want to wait for that announcement before making a decision. If you're locked into Google's or Amazon's ecosystem, you should probably stick with their respective set-top boxes and streaming sticks, but you can still buy Roku and get access to Amazon Instant Video as well as Google Play Movies and TV shows.
Overall the new Roku 3 is among the best set-top boxes out there, even if it's nothing radically different to before. We love that search results are neutral rather than brand-promoted as in the Amazon, Apple and Google products. The only shortcoming isn't so much a fault in the product, it's simply the presence of the cheaper Roku 2.