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.
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.
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. This means 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 from second generation units can simply authorize the box online and add it to their inventory (apparently it's not unusually for fans to employ multiple boxes), and the process takes but a few minutes.
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. It can't parse 4K streams sadly, but this leaves Roku room to explore UHD in the yet-unannounced Roku 4.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of opting for the Roku 3 instead of a cheaper model like the Roku Streaming Stick 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.
Roku has made its mission to make their box as easy to get onto for content providers as possible. Thus, the platform features more than 200 content sources in its Channel Store, with many more available as "private channels" that anyone can create at will. Most users will probably stick to the store channels, and use only a handful at that. Nevertheless, this content breadth and flexibility is quite impressive when compared with Amazon and Apple's boxes.
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 and Demand 5 in the UK, and Amazon Instant Video, HBO Go, Google Play Store, Vimeo and DailyMotion in the US.
Cord cutters who live in the US will also have access to Sling TV. Sling made a splash on the Roku 3 by offering a $50 discount on the device to new subscribers who prepay for three months of service. Overall the service works really well, and while it doesn't present the same content-to-dollar ratio that Netflix or Amazon Instant present, it's well worth it's $20 per month price tag.
Audio apps of note include Spotify, Rdio, Tunein and Vevo. In addition to the official channel store selection, you can also browse a selection of Invitation channels off-piste.
Roku takes the gaming aspect of its player quite seriously. The remote control incorporates a motion sensor, a built-in mic for voice search and has a Wii-style safety strap. Angry Birds is obviously the star 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.
The amount of content available on Roku's boxes is shockingly broad, but the majority of the options are either worthless (Facebook's inane implementation) or irrelevant (local news stations from the other side of the country). It's likely that most users will spend the lion's share of their time in Netflix, Hulu Plus or Amazon's apps and never venture too far afield. Still, for those that care, the additional options don't hurt, and the ability to customize the items and order of your My Channels section means you only ever have to see the channels you want to see.
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 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. Consider it a must for any Roku owner.
One of the biggest faults of the system, though, is that the internals are severely limited when stacked against the competition. This means longer load times between screens and a few second delays when starting content. It's not unusable in its current state, but it does get annoying.
Roku Feed and Movies Coming Soon
Roku Feed and Movies Coming Soon are two new features the company rolled out in April to help users track down their favorite new films.
It's simple to setup and quite helpful once you've parsed the 40-or-so films in the Movies Coming Soon section of the home page. Add a film to your Roku Feed using the asterisk button and your Roku will keep you up to date on which services the movie is on and how much it costs.
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 no screen mirroring functionality (a la Chromecast), there are several methods for streaming content from your network or PC to Roku 3, all involving third party apps such as Plex or MyMedia. We had differing levels of success with them. In addition, many of these services duplicate channels or content available through other apps on the system.
Roku is the exception among its primary competitors - Amazon Fire TV and Nexus Player - in that it is not subtly selling its own content platform. It's in Apple's interest for your to buy content on iTunes, just as it's in Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Sony's interest for you to buy from their services. Not caring about the promotion or survival of any given channel has liberated Roku to create a more egalitarian box, and Roku's offerings are some of the most open on the market, boasting more than 1,000 possible channels.
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. It's responsive, simple and not beholden to a proprietary content library. Whether you're looking for a streaming box to help you cut the cord, or augment your cable subscription, the Roku 3 has the features, build quality and simplicity you're looking for.
Overall, we rate this latest iteration as the best Roku yet made.
Original review written in November 2013