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As more content becomes available online, the need for a traditional television subscription may not be enough anymore to justify the costs. Instead, if all the content you care about is available online, there’s little reason to keep your TV service going.
If you’re already subscribed to services like Netflix or Hulu Plus, now may be the time to make the switch. You will still need a computer or system that can access all of that content for you — more commonly, it’s called a media streamer or a home theatre PC. While you can build your own HTPC, it might be easier to just buy something like the Roku 3. We purchased a unit to review and give away to a lucky reader, so let’s see whether it lives up to the hype!
About the Roku 3
The Roku 3 is, logically, the successor to the Roku and Roku 2. It is a $99 online media delivery system, which means that it’s a dedicated media center box which you connect to your television as well as the Internet via some form of Internet connection such as Wi-Fi or ethernet. It specializes in retrieving content from multiple online sources, such as Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, and much more.
The unit has increasingly become smaller, but also more powerful as it delivers on consumer demands for high-definition video streaming. The product line has also shrunk down from multiple different models to just one, but this one model should be enough to satisfy the needs of all consumers.
Some competitors to the Roku 3 include the Apple TV at $99, which offers much of the same functionality such as on-demand movies and TV shows, but is more integrated into the Apple ecosystem; and requires one computer to be the dedicated iTunes server in order to watch local video files. Next, the Boxee Box at around $180, offers more or less the same features, but isn’t quite as complete. Boxee is also known to erratically drop support on existing customers and phase out products really quickly. Judging from what’s happening in Boxee’s support forum, the Boxee Box could have very well reached the end of its life.
The Roku 3 comes in a relatively small box, but this is also because the Roku 3 isn’t very big. After taking off the top, you’ll see a “Let’s get started” guide, where underneath lies the Roku 3 unit as well as the remote.
If you pull out the cardboard, you’ll find a power supply for the unit as well as batteries for the remote and earphones on the left and right sides of the cardboard. At the very bottom of the box is a product information pamphlet.
About the unit
As I said, the Roku 3 unit is very small. It measures at just 3.5 inches x 3.5 inches by 1 inch, and weighs in at only 5 ounces. The case is made from a hard plastic which should protect it from bumps and scratches. The glossy surface is also nice, especially with the “3” created by a non-glossy border, but it definitely shows off the fingerprints that it collects.
The Roku 3 comes with decent connectivity as it includes a USB port, an HDMI port, and an ethernet port. The USB port allows you to connect additional storage to play content from. Supported formats include MP4, MKV, MP3, AAC, JPG, and PNG; and plays 720p and 1080p HD video. As the Roku 3 only has an HDMI port, it is only compatible with TVs or monitors with an HDMI input. The Roku 3 also doesn’t have a separate audio port, so remember that both audio and video will be transmitted via the HDMI cable.
The Roku 3 has internal storage for saving your added channels and games, although Roku doesn’t state how much internal storage the device has. However, underneath the HDMI port is a microSD card reader which can provide additional storage space for more channels when the internal storage runs out. While the Roku 3 offers a 10/100 ethernet port, it is also dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi compatible with support for WEP, WPA, and WPA2 encryption.
The power plug is rather small, as the Roku 3 is advertised to use only 3.5 watts while streaming HD video. This number is rather impressive, considering that the Roku 3 packs a processor that is “5 times faster” than that found in the previous generation. That’s some serious muscle power to stream HD video as smoothly as possible.
The included remote is interesting to say the least. The first thing you’ll notice is that neither the remote nor the Roku 3 have an IR receiver — instead, they communicate with each other using Wi-Fi Direct. This simply means that the two devices create an ad-hoc wireless network with which they can communicate. Previous generations used either an IR receiver or Bluetooth. The remote also comes with rather minimal buttons, which makes the Roku 3 quite simple (but sometimes tedious) to use. Surprisingly enough though, the remote also comes with motion control which is used for some games that are available on the Roku 3.
One of the biggest advantages to the Wi-Fi Direct method of communication is that the remote is able to receive a lot more data from the main unit. Why in the world would the remote be receiving data from the Roku 3? If you look on the left side of the remote, you’ll see that you can plug in any headphones so that you’re able to move around and enjoy your content without having to disturb others. While the idea of plugging headphones into a remote may be strange at first, I am absolutely enthusiastic about this idea simply because the remote is extremely mobile. You can enjoy your videos quite wherever you’re not alone are in the room.
With hardware out of the way, let’s take a look at the actual experience with the Roku 3. When you plug it in for the first time, you’ll have to go through a setup process in which you choose your language, wireless network if you don’t have an ethernet cable plugged in, and a linking process where you have to link the Roku 3 with your Roku account. If you don’t have an account, you’ll need to make one in order to use your Roku 3. While I don’t have an issue with making an account, I do not like that it forces you to enter your payment information, even if you don’t plan on making any Roku purchases. However, the account creation process will also ask you whether you want to enter a PIN for making a purchase, so you’re still protected from accidentally spending money. With a Roku account, you can also add private channels, manage your subscriptions, check your purchase history, and deactivate your account.
Once you have everything set up, you can add different “channels”, which are your different content providers. There are channels for every big name in content, from Hulu Plus and Netflix to Pandora, Disney, Fox News Channel. However, the library of channels is huge and includes so much more than just those. You can also find interesting channels such as Dailymotion, cnet, NASA, TED Talks, and even MIT OpenCourseware.
Although most channels are freely available, some require a paid subscription to really use them; and then there are some which require you to pay in order to add the channel to your Roku 3. There are also private channels which you can add via your account online using a code. A good place to start looking for private channels would be StreamFree.TV. There aren’t any credible channel repositories — just the available private channels.
The general experience across all apps is pleasing. The user interfaces are easy to navigate, and best of all they are pretty predictable after you’ve looked at one or two channels. For example, if you want to watch a TV show or movie on Netflix, it’s really easy provided you already have your Internet connection set up. Just navigate to the Netflix channel and hit OK. Then, after it loads a little more, you can scroll around for your TV show or movie, and then hit OK again. Then just hit Play on the screen, and it should load.
Pandora works similarly, where you navigate to the Pandora channel, choose the station you’d like to listen to, and you’re already done. As everything is channel-based, you won’t find a web browser or file explorer that you can use. The Roku 3 is also supposed to be able to connect to other PCs on the network and stream from them, but I haven’t been able to get it to work because of the network scenario where I live.
Interestingly enough, you can also play a handful of games on the Roku 3 after adding them to your device. One of the most popular games is Angry Birds Space, and I’d have to say that it’s pretty fun to play on. The graphics are very good, and playing with the remote is pretty cool. You can point with the remote to move the on-screen pointer around, and in the case of Angry Birds you can also pull back by moving the remote to the left. I’m not sure how it recognizes the motion, but it works reasonably well. You don’t even have to point it at the Roku unit — it works even when pointing the remote in the complete opposite direction. I still prefer using a smartphone or tablet when playing Angry Birds, however.
Besides plenty of available channels and games, there isn’t a whole lot more to the Roku 3. It’s fantastic at what it’s meant to do — streaming online content. However, there are a few downsides to the Roku 3. First, if you haven’t noticed yet, there is no official YouTube channel despite the number of channels that are available for the device. As a college student, I do enjoy any content that is available for free, and YouTube is my go-to source for that. As the Roku 3 doesn’t offer YouTube, that’s a huge turn off in my eyes. After doing a bit of research, I’ve discovered that this is Google’s fault for trying to make a YouTube app exclusive to Google and Apple TV devices, and not Roku’s. I just hope that YouTube comes to the device in the near future, no matter whose fault it really is.
Next, I dislike the fact that I have to make an account for the Roku 3, but I see the reasons why I would want to do so. However, I definitely didn’t like that I was forced to enter in my payment information — maybe I’m asking a bit too much in that area. Finally, I think that the power cable is too short at just 5 feet, as I wasn’t able to place the Roku 3 exactly where I would have preferred it to be.
Overall, this is a fantastic streaming solution that makes the switch to online TV content a whole lot easier. Despite some of my gripes, the device has barely any downsides, although I’m still highly disappointed about the lack of an official YouTube channel. As most of my viewed content comes from YouTube, it makes the Roku 3 a lot less useful for me.
Also, if you’re invested in the Apple ecosystem, you may have a better time getting an Apple TV instead. While it doesn’t have quite as many channels as the Roku 3, it does connect to most major content providers (including YouTube) as well as your iCloud purchases and content.