Roku 3 review

Roku 3 is better than ever thanks to a voice search function and Roku Feed feature

Roku 3
Roku 3 is a tiny box with lots of skills

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.

roku 3 buds

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.

Roku 3

The other new addition, voice search, is activated on the remote itself or via the downloadable Roku app on iOS and Android devices. Voice search can display movies, TV shows, actors or directors, before taking you to a screen that shows the cheapest places to find them. For example, searching "Shawshank Redemption" will bring up the 1994 classic. Select it with the remote and Roku will display all the places to find it, which includes Vudu, Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, Hulu, MGo, Crackle, Cinema Now and Plex, as long as you have the corresponding app already installed.

File support

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, DropBox 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 3

Verdict

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