The latest update of the Roku media player, hitherto known as the Roku 3, features a number of welcome refinements over the cheaper Roku 2 and entry-level 720p Roku LT.
It offers wired and wireless connectivity and a much faster dual-core Broadcom chipset. In short, it's the best built Roku player seen to date, rivaling set-top mainstay Amazon Fire TV as the king of the proverbial castle. But, despite a plethora of improvements, the Roku 3 still has foibles.
A cursory glance might suggest that nothing much has changed in Rokuville.
This new player is still a glossy black puck, although with slightly less girth, at 90mm across. In situ, it looks like little a futuristic pebble sprouting cables.
The distinctive Roku fabric tab is still in evidence and there's a tiny status LED which glows when the unit's on.
While the Roku 3 has integrated dual-band Wi-Fi (a/b/g/n compatible), the wired Ethernet option is invariably the best choice when it comes to streaming. The unit sports an HDMI output and USB for local media playback.
Completing the I/O roster is a MicroSD storage expansion slot used to increase the capacity of the player (which is apparently limited to 512Mb). Cards might typically be used to store game apps or an overflow of Roku channels. Incidentally, there's no power-off; the player stays online (consuming less than 3.5w) and updates itself automatically.
The main Roku user interface is unchanged and set-up remains straightforward.
If you're new to the platform, you'll need to open an account before you can get anywhere. This allows easy debiting should you pay to view content but for general use you won't be parting with any cash.
It's a bit of a pain because it forces you to connect to the internet to update the firmware before you can even get into the menu. If you don't have an active internet connection you will not be able to use the Roku 3 even for offline tasks.
It's also a pain that you have to give your credit card details even if you don't have any intention of spending money with them.
Existing Rokuites upgrading kit can simply authorise the box online and add it to their inventory (apparently it's not unusually for fans to employ multiple boxes). The process takes but a few minutes.
Roku seemingly takes the gaming aspect of its player quite seriously. The remote control incorporates a motion sensor and has a Wii-style safety strap. Angry Birds is obviously the star turn here, and it plays beautifully on this device with smooth animation, but there's also Galaga, Downhill Bowling, Sudoko and US game-show spin-offs Wheel of fortune and Jeopardy to dabble with.
While there's very little to actually be done when it comes to setup, the menu does offer a selection of UI templates. Most are a bit dour, however the cartoon blue skies of Daydream make for a sunny enough interface.
The Roku 3 offers a choice of video resolutions up to 1080p, and while the native content available in the brand's Channel Store doesn't match this, the unit does a good enough job upscaling to warrant optimism.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of opting for the Roku 3 is the upgraded silicon inside. The first Roku with a dual core processor, this thing is speedy. Navigating menus is lighting fast while jumping to and from TV channel apps is exceptionally fast. For example, hopping between BBC iPlayer and Netflix takes no time at all.
As a content platform, Roku provides a solid selection of services via its Channel Store. Here you'll find some major streaming attractions, including Sky's Now TV platform (Sky being a shareholder in Roku), the ubiquitous Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Demand 5, Vimeo and DailyMotion. Unfortunately, there's some notable exceptions to (itvPlayer, 4OD, YouTube) plus a heap of crusty curiosities of limited appeal (Moonlight Movies, Zombee TV to name but two).
Audio apps of note include Spotify, Tunein and Vevo. In addition to the official channel store selection, you can also browse a selection of Invitation channels off-piste.
Overall image performance is extremely good, provided your channel source is up to snuff. With a fast broadband connection, premium services such as Netflix and iPlayer appear crisp and textured.
The remote control itself offers a 3.5mm headphone jack for Private Listening. When headphones are inserted, the screen audio mutes. Unfortunately, the supplied earbuds are dreadful. Their tapered design is awkward enough, but the shrill noise they emit makes for a penalty few would willingly opt to endure.
Swapping in some convenient Sennheisers brought a significant improvement, although the Bluetooth delivered output was still far from pleasant, perhaps evidence of a pretty woeful headphone amplifier. While convenient, Private Listening is not a feature we would expect to make much use of.
If the Bluetooth controller doesn't quite fit the bill, there's a Roku app for iOS and Android too. In addition to basic menu controls, you can use this to scroll through channels, search for content and throw compatible music and video files, along jpegs, from your mobile device to the player, using the integrated Play On Roku feature.
Where this Roku singularly fails to impress is as a media player. While there are actually several media playing channel options, none allow the Roku 3 to function as a competent replacement for a dedicated media player, Smart TV or connected Blu-ray deck.
Its native video codec/container support is way too limited at just MP4 and MKV. While the Roku is MKV friendly, it's unable to downmix the AC3 audio commonly found on MKV downloads and this means you'll need to run the player through an AV receiver just to decode audio. If you connect directly to a TV, the file simply plays silent.
While there's a Plex media serving channel available in the store, this requires a Plex installation on a networked PC to work, which is no small undertaking.
Overall, we rate this latest iteration as the best Roku yet made. But that $100/£100 price tag seems punishingly expensive given the lackadaisical attitude to file playback and lack of UK specific catch-up content.
Remember, you can buy Sky's similar Roku-made Now TV box for under a tenner (sans Netflix) which offers much of the same functionality. Ultimately, where the Roku 3 really scores is in its wonderful usability, be it the blazing processor speed or the improved functionality the hardware tweaks have bestowed upon it. Worth auditioning, but consider its limitations carefully.
Original review written in November 2013