Roku devices have been streaming Internet content since 2008. That would explain why every streaming content player, except for iTunes, supports the Roku brand. Unlike Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV, Roku does not have any content to push for. Roku has also opted for the “open source” format, like Boxee, allowing 3rd parties to provide “Private Channels”, another source of content for the Roku devices.
The latest Roku generation (Gen 3), the Roku 3, has seen a major hardware upgrade and a complete UI redesigned and it paid off. The Roku 3 makes a (dumb) TV looks smart, the content is easy to get to and a lag free navigation system.
|Roku 3 Specifications|
|Video Outputs||720p / 1080p|
|Digital Over HDMI (7.1 and 5.1 surround pass through)|
|Storage Expansion||microSD card slot for additional game and channel storage|
|Built in headphone jack and motion-control (uses Wi-Fi Direct). Streaming player includes IR receiver (compatible with various universal remotes)|
|802.11 dual-band (a/b/g/n compatible) with WEP, WPA, and WPA2 support 10/100 Base-T Ethernet|
|USB Media Formats||Video: MP4 (H.264), MKV (H.264)|
udio: AAC, MP3
Image: JPG, PNG
|Less than 3.5W (typical) when streaming HD video|
|3.5 x 3.5 x 1 inches|
|12V – 1A power adapter|
The device is barely smaller than the Roku XS 2 (3.7 x 3.7 x 1.2 inches) although a bit heavier, 5 vs 3.5 oz. Which should help with placement because of the dangling cords. Personally, I am not concerned about the size, the device would be half hidden somewhere within the TV cabinet/stand area anyway. I do check for heat and adjust the placement for a better airflow if needed. A temperature check was performed after about one hour of streaming showed 94F on the top, the room temperature was 77F.
The back side is compact and crowded with, a DC-IN, a reset slot, a 10/100 ethernet port, an HDMI and a Micro SD slot. On the side is a single USB port for playback media. Gone is the standard AV. Which probably helped with the size reduction.
Before you start opening the box and jump in the setup, make sure you have a spare HDMI cable because it is not included. Connecting the device to the TV is a matter of connecting the right cable to the right port. Turn on the TV, select the right HDMI port and you are ready to start the software configuration.
The initial setup is pretty much about picking a language and configuring the network connection (Wired/WiFi). The device will be “paired” to a Roku account. You will need to set it up if this is your first Roku device. All is well, except credit card information were asked during the account creation. However, it can be removed later. I assume it is needed to facilitate movie or show purchases on paid channels. There is a safeguard in place where a PIN is required to make purchases. Still, this could be a show stopper for some.
Once the main setup is complete, screen resolution, data rate and other settings can be reviewed.
The Roku 3 network settings is pretty basic. WiFi dual band and wired is supported (not all Roku devices support wired connection). A wired connection is DHCP only means no static IP setup of the device. There is no support for VPN or Proxy.
The redesigned UI has a better presentation and use of the screen real estate by switching to a grid display instead of the horizontal layout. Nine channels or apps are available per screen instead of five compared to the Roku 2. The icons can be moved around and rearranged for better accessibility. The overall user interface is spacious and very intuitive to navigate.
One oddity is how the menu on the left side, “My channels, Channel Store, etc” and the channels images loops indefinitely. When the last item in the menu is reached, I do not expect to be able to keep scrolling down. But in this case, the menu keeps cycling through. I am not sure what to think about that behavior.
Five different skins are available if you wish to personalize the UI.
This is area where Roku 3 scores a lot of points. It does not matter how attractive or well thought the UI is, if the user inputs and data processing are not responsive. The Roku 3 is powered by a dual core BCM11130 clocking at 900MHz (five time faster than the Roku 2). Still, it is not as fast as the Amazon Fire TV, with a 1.7 GHz quad core humming under the hood but it is fast enough.
It translates to a very snappy response when navigating through the menus and all the channels. Loading applications, playing videos and music are very fast.
Remote Control and App Remote Control.
The Roku remote control is an interesting piece of hardware. Operating as a remote control, I found it has the right amount of buttons and the layout is intuitive. Communication with the Roku device is through WiFi Direct instead of Infra-Red. Obvious advantage, there is no more line-of-sight requirement. No need to point at the device and press the buttons. Well, that is cool, but the real benefit with WiFi Direct is a larger bandwidth, up to 250 Mbps compared 25 Mbps with Bluetooth technology.
One of the direct application for WiFi Direct is the headphone port built in the remote. I found the feature very innovative to contain the TV noise pollution to…nothing. The provided purple earbuds are decent and the range is about 25 ft. The headphone volume is independent from the TV’s.
Horizontally, the remote control morphs into a gamepad and support motion detection. I tried the free version of Angry Bird. While it is functional, it is not really a Wii experience.
One of the most painful process with those top-boxes setup is when there is a need to type data, such as searches for instance. Unlike the Boxee, there is no keyboard on the back of the remote."INSTALLED THE MOBILE APP ON AN ANDROID TABLET OR IPAD AND YOU'D GET AN EVEN BIGGER REMOTE!"
Fortunately, Roku has an app for both iOS and Android which include a virtual keyboard. The app is full of features and can take over the Roku remote, except for the headphone and the gaming pad. Installed the app on an Android tablet or iPad and you get an even bigger remote!
Channels can be started from the smartphone without going through the main menu. Even better, speak the channel name to load it in Roku. It may be not as cool as the Fire TV voice search but it works!
Not as slick as the AirPlay, “PlayOnRoku” will let you stream photos and music directly from your smartphone local storage. “Twonky” supports videos, as well as music and photos. It “worked”, it found all the media servers on my network but felt buggy. I beamed a few movies, all MP4 files, few did played on the Roku, but a couple crashed with the message “Media is not supported or invalid”. The UI is a bit convoluted. I also noticed that the Samsung Note 3 battery took a beating while messing with Twonky.
Finally, the Roku receiver supports IR, which means it would work with the Harmony One for instance.
Channels and Games.
Roku claims 1,500+channels, that’s a lot, how many are relevant is still to be determined. What matter is the most popular are available, Netflix, HuluPlus, YouTube, Amazon Instant Video, Crackle, Popconrflix, ESPNWatch, Pandora, iHeartRadio, History Channel for a starter. It will take some time to research and discover the ones that fit your likings. One word of advice, keep a laptop within reach because you will need to link or pair the account with the device.
Cross application searches are functional. If the movie is out on DVD then it will be available on Vudu. The majority of them are paid-per-view or require a subscription, Netflix, Amazon or HuluPlus. Older or “B” movies may show up on a free channel like PopcornFlix or Crackle. Your best luck for TV shows is probably going to be on HuluPlus, Netflix and Amazon. As a fair warning, Comcast subscribers do not have access to HBO GO on the Roku 3.
For live sport events, the best option is probably ESPNWatch. Your internet plan is likely to include access to “ESPN3” so there is no additional charge. “ESPN” and “ESPN2” are only available to TV subscribers and finally “ESPN-U” is premium. I sampled the popular sports, MLB.tv, NBA Game Time, NHL Gamecenter, MLS live, WWE Network, are subscription based. The Roku web site lists 65 sports channels to choose from.
81 apps are listed in the “game” channel. I’d say most of them are paid game. Price ranges from $0.99 to $4.99, Galaga.
Local Content Support
Local content are supported via the USB port, file formats support are limited to MP4, MKV, AAC, MP3, JPG and PNG. I tried a couple apps, “MyMedia” from PlayOn and “Roku Media Player”. The latter, “Roku Media Player” needs to be installed if you planned on playing local media content. I am not sure why it was not installed by default. At any rate, the app recognized both FAT32 and NTFS file system.
Both pretty much browse and display the folders content and, MyMedia, requires a PC running as a server on the network. If you are going that route, you would be better off looking into running a Plex server. There is a 30 days trial for the Plex app on Roku, after that it costs $4.99 or get Plex Pass. I use it and it worth it, with or without the Roku 3.
Roku 3 has the largest channel support, which means more content. And if it is not enough, there is an equally large number of “private channels”. I found the pictures to be surprisingly good. The system is lag free which is a nice improvement from the Roku 2. The remote built-in headphone port offers an added value to the system.
How does the Roku 3 fit in the consumer market?
For the “newcomer”, the choices are probably, the Roku 3, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast. The safest choice would be the Roku 3 then the Amazon Fire TV. Both offer more features and content than the Chromecast but with a higher price tag. Although at $35, It is hard to not consider it, especially with the growing support from content providers and TV networks.
The Apple Fan is already living in the apple ecosystem with iTunes and AirPlay, the obvious choice here is the Apple TV or wait for the next generation. Just for the record, I do like the Apple TV interface the best."THE ROKU HAS MORE CONTENT THAN ANY COMPETITORS AT THIS TIME"
The enthusiast already own some kind of top box setup device, he/she is probably trying to justify his/her next upgrade because he/she just bought another TV. If there is already a previous Roku in the household, Roku 3 is a worthwhile upgrade over the Roku 2. Between Amazon TV and Roku 3, it’s really a toss up. If I had to pick one, it would be the Roku because of the iOS/Android app and the “Private Channels”. Although the Amazon Fire TV specs are quite impressive, quad core CPU, GPU and 2GB RAM vs Dual Core, no GPU and 512MB RAM.
|Amazon Fire TV||Apple TV||Chromecast||Roku 3|
|Connectivity||WiFi (Dual Band)|
|WiFi||WiFi Dual Band|
|Processor||Quad Core / GPU||Single Core||Single Core||Dual Core|
|Memory (RAM)||2048 MB (2GB)||512 MB||512 MB||512 MB|
Micro SD Slot
|No support for||iTunes|
HBO Go (Comcast)
|Search: Cross Apps||No||No||No||Yes|
|Beam from:||Kindle Fire||AirPlay||App||Apps|
(PlayOnRoku & Twonky)
I rate the Roku 3 at 8 out of 10. Thanks to the hardware specs the user experience is very satisfactory, the built-in headphone is innovative, the mobile app is functional. Finally, the Roku has more content than any competitors at this time. Although quantity does not always translate into quality. But that is another debate.
Next Story: Surface Pro 3 Review