How do you get someone to buy your streaming-video puck when everything already streams Netflix?
That's the question Roku has answered definitively with the Roku 3 ($99), by serving up more content sources than anyone else, with lightning-fast navigation and an onscreen interface that's finally competitive with the Apple TV. The Roku 3's updated processor and always-on design means you go from "TV off" to "House of Cards" much faster than alternative streamers, and the overhauled interface and improved cross-platform search lets you quickly find the content you want to watch. And there's a lot to watch, with more than 750 channels including Netflix, Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Pandora, MLB.TV, Amazon Cloud Player, and Vudu. Add in the Roku's neat new remote with a built-in headphone jack -- a killer feature for anyone with roommates or a late-night movie habit -- and there's more than enough reasons buy the Roku 3 when you can already stream Netflix.
The Roku 3 isn't without faults. It still doesn't have an official YouTube channel, and those with hard drives full of digital media will also find the Roku 3's paltry file-format support lacking. And Apple fans will still want to give a long look at the Apple TV ($99), which is so tightly integrated with the Apple ecosystem.
But those faults are easily forgotten once you pick up the remote, start streaming, and maybe even plug in the included earbuds. The Roku 3 is the best streaming-video box yet, earning CNET's Editors' Choice Award for the category.
User interface: Fully redesigned
The biggest change with the Roku 3 is the new interface. The first thing you'll notice is that you can see nine channels at once -- compared with just five on the old interface -- and even more once you navigate further into the menus. The new layout also reveals three more channels with every click, which lets you zip through all your channels in a fraction of the time it used to take.
Roku's Channel Store is also now integrated right into the main menu, instead of pushing you to an entirely separate interface, which took forever on the old Roku boxes. There's a persistent menu bar on the left for selecting categories, which makes it much quicker to find the channel you're looking for.
There are other little design touches that add to the feeling of polish, such as a small check mark indicating a channel is installed, and smooth, animated transitions between menus. Overall, the new look seems better in just about every way, and for the first time it's on par with the Apple TV's interface.
The only time you'll be reminded of Roku's old interface is when loading apps that use Roku's default channel template, such as TWiT and Giant Bomb. The older style guidelines affect many smaller channels, and even big name players like HBO Go and Amazon Instant are noticeably inferior compared to their apps on other platforms. Roku is planning on updating its generic template (that is, its SDK), although there's no specific release date.
The new interface is currently exclusive to Roku 3, but not for long. All current-gen Roku boxes (Roku LT, Roku HD, Roku 2 XD, Roku 2 XS, and Roku Streaming Stick) will be getting the new user interface in April via a software update.
Design: Smaller, heavier, glossier
Roku boxes have tended to look "fine," but the Roku 3 is the first one I'd say looks good. It's about the same size as the diminutive Roku LT, but has a more striking look with a glossier finish and nicely rounded edges.
Roku also purposefully added weight to the Roku 3, which comes in at 5 ounces -- a little heavier than the 3-ounce Roku 2 XS. That extra heft gives the perception of higher build quality, but it also has the real-world benefit of keeping the Roku 3 planted -- even with heavy HDMI cables hanging off the back. There's also additional nonskid rubber on the bottom to help keep the box from sliding on a tabletop.
It all adds up to a much nicer Roku box, although its plasticky cabinet keeps it from being in the same league as the Apple TV. Personally, I don't think it matters much for a puck that sits under your TV.
The back panel is more compact than ever, with an Ethernet port, HDMI output, microSD slot, and power plug. There's also a USB port on the side, which can be used for playing back digital media files, although not nearly on the same scale as competitors like the WD TV Play.
Noticeably missing is the standard-def AV output that was included on the Roku 2 XS, but that feature survives on the Roku LT, Roku HD, and Roku 2 XD if you need it. My only complaint is the Roku 3 still requires a "wall wart" AC adapter, unlike the Apple TV's sleeker integrated power supply. But even that adapter is on the small side.
Remote: Built-in headphone jack, plus Wi-Fi Direct
The Roku 3's marquee feature is the remote's private listening mode: plug a pair of headphones into the remote's headphone jack and you can listen to whatever's playing on your Roku. Plugging in the headphones also automatically mutes your TV, and headphone volume can be adjusted using the rocker on the right side of the remote. Another smart feature: the headphone volume leaves the TV volume unaffected, so cranking it up in private-listening mode won't mean you blast the room when you pop out the headphones.
It's essentially a makeshift wireless-headphones solution, and I think it's a feature that will get regular use -- consider spouse-friendly late-night viewing or kids' programming that can remain seen but not heard in the room at large. Roku is even including a pair of earbuds in the box with the Roku 3, which should encourage new buyers to give the feature a shot. (The freebie earbuds are surprisingly decent, too.)
Part of what makes the private listening mode possible is that Roku's remote works via Wi-Fi Direct, rather than standard infrared or even Bluetooth. That means you don't have to point the remote at the box, plus you're free to stash the Roku in a cabinet. Roku even sells a $10 mount if you want to stick the box on the back of your TV. And if you're using a universal remote, such as a Harmony, note that the Roku 3 still has an infrared receiver, so it's still compatible.
And new tech aside, Roku deserves credit for keeping its remote simple, especially when there's always a temptation to add more buttons. The buttons are well laid out, with the exception of the OK button, which I'd prefer in the center of the directional pad. The remote can do motion-sensing (a la the Wiimote), but aside from Angry Birds, I haven't seen that feature used anywhere else.
Finally, the Roku 3 can also be controlled by Roku's excellent smartphone app. Rather than merely providing the same buttons available on the remote, Roku's app lets you browse your channels directly, stopping you from having to constantly look from your phone to your TV. There's even an option to "push" photos and music saved on your smartphone to the Roku, delivering a limited AirPlay-like functionality.
What can you watch? Nearly everything but YouTube and iTunes
Roku offers more than 750 "channels," which is hundreds more than any competitor. And while a lot of those channels are are filler -- or, at least, extremely specialized -- there's a ton of good stuff. Highlights are below; Roku has a full list. Note, of course, that most of the really good ones require separate paid subscriptions.
Movies and TV: Netflix, Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Crackle, Vudu, Disney
Sports: MLB.TV, NBA GameTime, NHL GameCenter, UFCTV, MLS Live, SEC Digital Network
Music: Pandora, Spotify, Amazon Cloud Player, Slacker, Rdio, Vevo, Mog
Internet: CNET, TED Talks, Revision3, TWiT, Vimeo, Picasa, Flickr
The biggest omission is still YouTube. There were indications that Roku's older hardware simply wasn't powerful enough for YouTube's HTML app, but the more powerful Roku 3 still doesn't have an official YouTube channel, even though it's supported by seemingly every other device. It's hard to tell what the real story is behind the Roku-YouTube rift, but when speaking with Roku representatives, I got the impression it wasn't going to be resolved anytime soon. In the meantime, there are workarounds to get YouTube on Roku using Plex or unsupported "private" channels like VideoBuzz.