In the crowded set-top-box/media streamer/smart TV add-on market, there are a lot of players, but only a handful of winners. There’s Apple TV, with its recently lowered price of $69 and its tight integration with iTunes and AirPlay; Google’s Chromecast, which remains the budget champion at $35 — and then there’s Roku. An outlier in the sense that it is neither tied to Apple’s ecosystem nor does it make use of the relatively new Android TV platform, Roku has nonetheless proven a favorite among those who want a simple, intuitive way to access streaming and non-streaming media on their existing TVs.
This year’s incarnation of the range-topping Roku 3 ($99.99) takes an already proven formula and makes it better through improvements to Search and a voice recognition feature that is all function, no gimmicks.
If you’ve never used a Roku device before, here’s the quick 101: Each Roku uses the concept of “channels.” Once you complete the free sign-up process, you get access to a huge variety of channels (these include by default: Netflix, Rdio, Amazon Instant Video and HuluPlus). Just like shopping for apps on Apple’s App Store or Google Play, you add channels to your account, which then show up on your Home screen. Some channels, like the default ones, require a subscription, but many don’t. Channels can be removed at any time. Each Roku comes with its own proprietary remote. Depending on the model, the remote can be used for navigation and playback control only, or, in the case of the Roku 3, it can also act as a wireless headphone receiver and a motion-sensitive game controller.
You won’t find many changes to the Roku’s external appearance. The main unit itself is basically identical to the previous version. It maintains its diminutive size, with a smaller overall footprint than Apple TV (but slightly taller). Connectivity and storage options are likewise untouched: You still get HDMI, Ethernet, MicroSD (for channel storage), and USB. Even the internals haven’t changed: 256 MB of channel storage and a 900Mhz processor, which is plenty quick for most tasks. Fanboys may notice that the “3” on top of the case is now a little more subtle than on the previous version.
The big change for this version (and by “big” I mean, you could easily miss it entirely if you didn’t know what to look for) is on the remote, which now features a magnifying-glass button where the 7-second replay button used to sit. There’s also an embedded microphone, which is nestled near the top of the remote between the Back and Home buttons. That’s it. Shortcut buttons, headphone jack, and side-mounted volume rocker are all the same as last year’s Roku 3.
Let’s start the user experience overview with the Roku 3’s biggest improvement: Voice Search. Most of the time, I find it a lot faster to use my fingers and thumbs on my iPhone than to use Siri. But when it comes to the on-screen keyboards that have become the standard method for text entry on every device from the PS3 to Apple TV, I would do anything to avoid the stupid hunt-and-click letter-by-letter input we’re forced to use. It’s easily one of the least user-friendly experiences in our modern world. So it was with great enthusiasm that I greeted the Roku 3’s Voice Search. I desperately hoped that it would work as well as advertised. It does.
With a press on the magnifying-glass button, an on-screen microphone icon appears and invites you to speak your search words. Just say whatever you want: “Mission Impossible,” “Tom Cruise,” “James Cameron,” are all valid examples. Whatever you would normally key in, you can now say. Not only did the function interpret my words accurately in almost all cases, it did so quickly, often in less than 2 seconds. That’s the key to a feature like Voice Search, of course — it has to be quick and accurate; otherwise, what’s the point?
What really impresses me about Roku’s approach to voice recognition is what they haven’t done with it. They don’t use it for simple navigation — there’s no yelling “Home!” or “Back!” at your TV. They’ve kept it strictly for search, which is absolutely the best use for it I can think of. The only way they could improve it would be by letting us use it to input our Wi-Fi credentials during set-up. But given that it requires Internet connectivity to work, that (for now) is a non-starter.
Speaking of Search, if you’re a current Roku user sitting there wondering I’m talking about, that’s because Search is actually a new feature of the Roku platform and is being rolled out on all of its current generation devices.
Much like on the web, search is truly a killer app. The more content you have access to, the more search becomes a must-have, not a nice-to-have. With Roku’s new search feature, you can of course use Voice Search, or you can revert to the old hunt-and-click method. Doing so might be more tedious, but it has the advantage of showing you a lot more results, including matching streaming or game channels.
Your best bet, however, is to use the title, actor name, or director name for either a movie or TV show; search will return all matches across all of your streaming channels. Better yet, it will show you if the matches are “free” in the sense that you can watch them right away without further payment, or whether there’s a charge to buy or rent.
If you have a Netflix subscription and Mission Impossible is available on that service, it would show up at the top of your list. If it’s also available for rent via Google Play or Amazon Instant Video, those will show up too, with the price displayed. Curiously, you will see matches even from channels you haven’t added to your Roku account. This could be a good thing as it increases your awareness of channels you don’t have, or it could just be annoying.
At the moment, only a few of the thousands of Roku Channels are search-enabled. Our Canadian test unit was limited to results from Netflix, Crackle, and Popcornflix — hardly a comprehensive universe of available media. Roku says this will be improving over time as channel providers rejigger their code to be search-compatible. In the U.S., the list is up to 18 channels, including favorites like Hulu Plus, Vudu, HBO Go, and Amazon Instant Video.
As good as this new search feature is, it could still be improved. You can’t, for instance, search your own private media collection if you have it attached via the USB port. Similarly, if you use the excellent PLEX media server platform at home with the compatible PLEX Roku channel, none of this content will be revealed using Roku’s built-in search. Hopefully both of these libraries will be added with future software updates.
Another new feature for all of the current Roku devices, including the Roku 3, is Roku Feed. If Search is the key to unlocking all of the content that you currently have access to via your Roku channels, then Feed is the key to knowing when new content becomes available.
Just like the rest of the Roku interface, it’s super easy to use. Just start with the Movies Coming Soon section and scan through its list of current theatrical releases. When you find one that’s of interest, you simply add it to your feed. From then on, that movie appears in your My Feed with its status — which will say “Check back later for updates” until it’s available via one of Roku’s channels.
Each time the status changes, the movie will jump to the top of your Feed (“Now on Netflix”). You can remove an item from your Feed just as easily.
The Roku Feed, much like Search, is a great idea that will hopefully get better with time. At the moment, the Movies Coming Soon section isn’t included in Search, which seems like a big oversight. In other words, if there’s a movie you want to add to My Feed, it’s either in the list or it’s not. There’s no way to add a movie manually.
One of my favorite features of the Roku 3 when it debuted 2 years ago was the ability to use the remote as a wireless headphone receiver, and it remains a unique and valuable feature. Just pop any 3.5mm stereo jack-equipped set of earbuds into the side of the Roku 3’s remote and you can listen privately to any content the Roku can play. Because it uses Wi-Fi, the range is impressive, giving you an easy way to roam your entire house listening to your content.
While we’re on the topic of content, the other great feature of the Roku 3 — especially when compared to Apple TV or Chromecast — is the ability to access movies, photos and music stored on an external drive or USB key. Out of the box, it’s only compatible with MP4 and MKV for videos and AAC or MP3 for audio, but you can extend this through third-party channels that support other formats. I found that most files played without a hitch, but the occasional MP4 just wouldn’t play for some reason. Update: Apparently even though the Roku is equipped to handle MP4 files, it is not compatible with MP4s encoded with 6-channel AAC audio. A free video converter should help with this.
Play On Roku
There’s really only one area that disappoints when it comes to the Roku experience, and that’s the Play On Roku feature, which you can access from the free Roku app on iOS and Android. Ostensibly, it will let you pick any photo, music track, or video on your smartphone or tablet and beam it directly to your Roku for playback on your TV. It’s a great idea, but in my experience, your mileage will vary. It’s possible that my house is simply the place where device-to-device Wi-Fi goes to die, but I have yet to get this feature working reliably on any device, be it AirPlay from my iPhone to my Apple TV or Casting to my Chromecast. Sadly, Play On Roku didn’t fare much better. Photos were OK but slow, music worked but often dropped out, and videos just didn’t work at all.
The new Roku 3 maintains its leadership as the most capable and easy-to-use streaming player on the planet. With a dead-simple interface that makes clever use of voice recognition for searching content, and an array of services that includes thousands of user-selectable channels, plus games, plus private content on USB drives as well as networked ones, you get a ton of bang for your hundred bucks.
The new Roku Search, which is available on all of the company’s current devices, is going to be a powerful tool for finding content once all of the major channel providers are on board. Its My Feed notification system is also a welcome addition, giving movie lovers an easy way to track their favorite titles as they move from box office to digital release.
While it’s possible that Apple’s next generation of Apple TV will reinvigorate interest in that device, for now, the Roku 3 is the king of the streaming media hill.
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