Roku 3 Review
The Puck of Plenty
The Roku 3 has been available in the US for some time now but only very recently introduced on this side of the pond.Roku decided to use the product to spearhead a new range of streaming media players for the UK market so we can’t really blame them for making us wait. As well as this device, there are also some slightly less spec-tastic little boxes in the range, with prices beginning as low as £59.99 and the model here suggested to set you back a penny short of a hundred.So what’s new from the former UK Flagship Roku 2 XS? The two headlining upgrades come in the shape of a headphone jack on the remote and a new, much improved processing chip inside. Most importantly, we’d also like to see some more blockbuster channels added to the roster so it’s time to check in and check up on progress.
Design & Box ContentsAside from the player, itself, which is a little bigger and heavier than the outgoing models, inside the packaging comes nearly all you need to get started, including a power adapter, the remote and set of earphones to plug in to the controller for personal listening. To give a bit of perspective on 'bigger and heavier', it's still a dinky little thing that could burrow itself away in just about anyone's setup, yet still carries an air of solidity and quality engineering.
Bigger but not really big.
The things not inside the box that you will need to get going are a TV (of course), a connecting lead to said telly (HDMI is the only option) and a working internet connection.
Connections and SetupThere's not much to set up and the UI will guide you through the process but, before any physical connections are established, you will need to sign up for a Roku account in order to be able to use the 'Channels'. This does entail leaving your credit/debit card or PayPal details and perhaps that should be optional but until Roku builds in some form of pay mechanism to the box, likely to remain the case.
The back of the unit packs in a connection for the power adapter, a HDMI port, an Ethernet socket and a slot for a micro SD card for additional game and channel storage. There is also built-in dual band WiFi that has seen a boost in its range of operations and we had no issues streaming HD via a router, a floor and three walls away.
To the side of the box is a USB port that can be used to playback photo, video and music files - provided you download the appropriate channel from the store.Assuming you have created your Roku account, connected to your home network and display, the box will ask you for a PIN code and then download the channels you chose during online setup, as well as a few that come whether you ask for them or not. Just about the only essential things you need to do then are choose the correct display resolution and audio settings.
One thing we would like to be able to do in the Network setup is choose our own DNS settings but that is still not an option and all but rules out the possibility of streaming US Netflix. We'd like to see Roku open up this side of the box and we know many of our readers will feel the same way but, reading between the lines, it seems to be a deliberate policy intended to keep content partners happy. It's fair enough, of course, but competing products offer more freedom here.
Netflix USA is pretty much off the cards.
A controller has to be pretty special to warrant its own dedicated section and this one is a veritable little marvel. The Roku 3 remote communicates to the main unit via WiFi Direct, meaning you don't need line of sight to operate and in several weeks of use has proved flawless and steadfast. The controller can also be used Wii-stylee for motion controlled gaming, thanks to the in-built gyroscopic sensors and, again, these worked well and seemed an improvement over the Roku 2XS, in that regard. There are also some special dedicate gaming buttons and a directional pad to complete the homage to Nintendo's controllers.
But the big new feature of the Roku 3's handset is the headphone socket and corresponding volume controls on the other side. It's a 3.5mm jack, so almost all your headphones will fit although Roku does supply some. These aren't of the highest quality, of course, and with a decent set of phones attached performance is considerably better. In fact we were quite surprised just how good it was and although no substitute for a dedicated amp, much better than the headphone performance of the average flat-panel TV and sync always maintained perfectly. We did - once or twice - encounter some 'whiney' interference but with so many wireless devices around, it's difficult to know where to attribute the blame. That said, it's something Roku should be made aware of.
MenusRoku's UI is just about as straightforward as it gets and although there is many a sub menu, each is very easy to understand. We were far from disappointed with the responsiveness of the 2XS but the '3' is on another level, entirely, in terms of processing prowess, allowing you to navigate around at breakneck pace.
As well as being able to alter the video output with choices of 1080p and 720p, you can also select to pass both 5.1 or 7.1 audio but, again, it's HDMI only so you'll need compatible audio components for multichannel. Next time we'd like to see a digital audio only connection, we're sure they'll find room somewhere. There are also a few Themes to play with and you can elect - or otherwise - to allow Roku to feed your box seasonal themes. With Halloween just gone, you can imagine the sort of thing.
Mobile AppIt is, of course, mandatory to provide a control app nowadays and Roku duly does so for both iOS and Android devices. It is, perhaps, the best app we've used in conjunction with a video device acting not only as a full remote control replacement, with the added option of voice control to launch and search for channels but as a means by which you can stream video, music and photographs to the player. It all works seamlessly and, should you have more than one Roku in the house, you can easily switch between them from the app interface. The app also lets you visit the Roku channel Store to browse and download and mange your channels too and just about the only thing it doesn't let you do is listen back through the mobile device. Oh, and it would have been nice if there was a landscape orientation option for tablet users.
Probably the best App we've used with a video device.
ChannelsThe rest of the World would probably call the content in the Roku Store 'apps', but they prefer Channels which, bearing in mind this is almost exclusively a video device, is fair enough we guess and by which this little box of tricks will be ultimately judged. It's all very well having a super-slick interface, processing grunt to spare and a fancy, multi-purpose remote control but if there is nothing worth watching, then all that effort is for nought.
To tell the truth the story is somewhat mixed, at present, but the foundations are mostly in place and if you're prepared to put in a little more effort, than you might have initially expected to, the connected world is almost your oyster. There are already plenty of pearls there; Netflix, iPlayer, NOW TV, Demand 5 and VEVO (for the young 'uns) would rank chief amongst those but there are at almost the same number of major omissions for the UK market. There is no YouTube, 4oD, ITV Player, LOVEFiLM or blinkbox at your disposal so it's not quite the one-stop shop for those with very demanding on-demand needs.
More headline Channels needed.
Roku and YouTube fell out some time ago in a dispute about advert placement and there's no current sign of a thawing in relations but, as we said above, there are ways and means to achieve most things on the Roku 3. For YouTube duties we would recommend the Twonky Beam app for your tablet or phone which, as the name suggests, allows you to beam web or locally stored content to the player. It's certainly more of a phaff than it ought to be but simple enough to do and very reliable in its operation.
There is also a PLEX channel which is a very versatile media server built on the foundations of XBMC. As well as satisfying your DLNA requirements, PLEX is also able to accommodate a variety of plug-ins which further extends the functtionality of the Roku. There's a perfectly good YouTube channel, for instance, and we even managed to get at Netflix USA via PLEX but playback wasn't really satisfactory in quality. The major disadvantage with PLEX is that it requires the server to be running to function with the Roku so that will more than likely mean you'll have to leave your PC running. And that AVForums Channel logo needs updating!
Naturally Roku also has an eye on the future and, to this end, have recently announced that they will soon be updating their boxes to add the DIAL (Discovery and Launch) protocol to its platform, which will allow users to send content and control the device via a tablet or smartphone. For instance, you would launch your mobile Netflix app and it will then play on the Roku but the crucial thing is, DIAL just allows the player to lock on to the stream rather than stream from the mobile device, meaning it won't drain the battery and will effectively turn your phone or tablet in to the ultimate remote control. This is exactly how Google's Chromecast device operates but Roku has the advantage of having both more and longer established content license agreements than Google. Or so they tell us. Either way it's an exciting development and probably something like the 'future of TV'.
Chromecast like abilities incoming.
Something closer on the horizon, but not landed on the review sample yet, is a major update to the Netflix user interface. We've seen it running on our PS3 - and the Roku 3 is also amongst the first wave of products to receive it - but, for now, we're still waiting for its gorgeousness to land.
As per the slickness of the interface, all the channels seem very well optimised for the platform although with, at last count, approximately 550 channels available to UK customers, we can't say we tried each every one but the stars of the show were all most certainly up to snuff. It's just a shame there aren't more big-hitters available. The UK and Europe are notoriously difficult markets when it comes to licensing deals but Roku must pursue as many deals with the major players, as possible, for this worthy device to be a true success. Don't get us wrong, there's still a ton of fun but we want tons.
- Fantastically responsive interface
- Remote control features are excellent
- Very large selection of channels
- Set up is a breeze
- Dual band wifi is a plus
- Top notch app for iOS and Android
- Loads of flexibility
- The platform needs more big hitters in the UK
- Occasional interference with headphone socket
Roku 3 ReviewThe Roku 3 is a well-crafted and polished bit of kit. It might be small but it's well appointed, in terms of connectivity, for the digital age. It would have been nice to have the option of a dedicated digital audio output and, for that matter, more governance over network setup in the menus but neither looks to be seriously on the cards.
The Menus, themselves, are as welcomingly user friendly as the rest of the package, and we'd imagine most people capable of using a smartphone would have no issues at all with this device. In fact, in many ways, its more straightforward than most.
We'll give a special mention to the nifty little controller bundled with the Roku 3. It really is a joy to use for everyday operations as well as the added fun to be had using it Wii-style, as a motion controller with certain games. If that's not enough to impress, how about the built-in headphone socket and volume controls that sync perfectly to the box's audio output?
The little handset really does add to the package and Roku even throws in a set of earphones. OK, they're not the best but you can always use your own.
The Roku is supported by a very large number of channels, in the UK, although admittedly most won't be well known to you. The big hitters include iPlayer, Netflix and NOW TV but the 'big-missers' number YouTube, ITV Player and LOVEFilM amongst their ranks. There are 'workarounds' to get at a lot of those that are missing but they need native platform support to make this player all that it could be.
Once a few more of the key services are on board, this superb little device can be a bona fide one-stop shop for your streaming needs but for what it already does, and how it does it, the Roku 3 comes Highly Recommended.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £99.99
Networking, Internet, Streaming quality8
Set up, Menus, Remote9
Value for Money8
Our Review Ethos
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