Ten years ago, few would believe that we could become so reliant on streaming media but these days many people are taking advantage of streaming HD video content from web services at an increasing rate. So much so that new services and options keep popping up continually. Recently I had the chance to spend some time with the new Roku 3, a streaming player tailor made for those who want to take advantage of all these video streaming services. There is no shortage of competition here either. If you’re into Netflix and YouTube, for example, there seems to be a way to stream that content from virtually every device out there. Many of these devices are multitaskers, that are primarily game consoles, or other sorts of gadgets that just happen to integrate a few streaming services. With the Roku 3 you get a dedicated device that specializes in streaming online content. With that focus comes a certain simplicity and clarity to the device.
Specifications and features
The Roku 3 may seem like a fairly simple device but that simplicity is a great feature. You don’t need to worry about all the tech under the hood. Roku makes streaming high quality video content to your HDTV almost as simple as plugging in your toaster. There isn’t much to do for setup and hardly any learning curve. The Roku 3 is capable of delivering snappy 1080p quality HD video and Dolby 7.1 surround sound over the HDMI connection. The processor seemed to have no difficulties with any content I threw at it, and I was able to flip between content without any slowdown.
Onboard you’ll find 802.11 dual-band a/b/g/n WiFi for connectivity for great HD video streaming without the need for any wires. If you prefer a wired connection they’ve included a 10/100 Base-T Ethernet port too. The device also hosts a microSD card slot for additional storage should you desire any, and a USB port so if you have files loaded up on a USB storage device you can simply plug it in here and enjoy. It is compatible with H.264 MP4 and MKV video formats as well as MP3s, and JPEG pictures. All of that is packed in to a diminutive 3.5” square gadget that resembles a square hockey puck.
The Roku 3 also comes with a special remote control. This is a ‘point anywhere’ remote which doesn’t require line-of-sight to the Roku 3 unit which you can tuck away out of sight if you like. The remote itself features an integrated microphone for voice search, a headphone jack so you can enjoy your shows in privacy without disturbing anybody else, motion-control, and even has dedicated buttons for Netflix and YouTube!
With the Roku 3 the fact that it can stream popular video services isn’t what makes it stand out. Like I said, that functionality is becoming ubiquitous with modern gadgets. It has some great features like voice search and a headphone jack integrated in to the remote control but that too isn’t my favorite thing about this device. Without a doubt the most compelling feature here is the simplicity itself. Roku has done an excellent job streamlining everything about it. The hardware is discrete and simple both to set up and to use. It will take you seconds to unbox it and set it up, even if you have no idea what you’re doing. Getting started is such a smooth process that you’ll be online watching your favorite videos before you know it.
This principal of simplicity is even carried over through the software. The interface is refreshingly straightforward and intuitive. You can tell they put a lot of work in to fine tuning it to make it as clear and simple as possible without sacrificing functionality. It even juggles all the various streaming services and channels for you so you don’t have to. Want to watch a certain show or movie? Just search for it. You can use your voice instead of typing on-screen which is much more natural. All you need to do is press the dedicated search button on the remote. The Roku 3 responds instantly.
Want to use text search instead? No problem! The Roku 3 searches as you type to save you time. It looks for actors, channels, movies, you name it. Scroll over to highlight any of the results and you’re presented with all the pertinent details in a snap. Select the content you want and you’ll be shown which channels have that content, and how much it will cost you to stream it, if anything. Being able to search across services, and sort the results according to price and availability is phenomenally handy in this digital age. It takes all of these disparate services and unifies them under one cohesive experience.
You can even ‘follow’ certain content (like the latest movies) and be notified when it becomes available for streaming. You can even be notified if the price changes. All of this happens in a fluid and consistent experience that is straightforward enough for even the technically challenged among us.
Aesthetically the Roku 3 couldn’t be much simpler. It is a small 1” high 3.5” square with a small handful of ports on the back and a rubberized surface on the bottom to keep it from sliding around. The remote is large enough to be comfortable to hold, and has few enough buttons to still be very clear and straightforward to use. You’ll never really find yourself hunting for the right button to use. It couldn’t be much more straightforward.
There are four dedicated buttons for specific services on the remote; Netflix, YouTube, Rdio, and Google play. While I appreciate having dedicated app buttons for quick navigation, I can’t help but wish these were changeable to different services as user preferences do tend to vary. I might not miss these buttons if they were omitted from the remote but with them there I am left wishing they were programmable. I also wish the ‘OK’ button was in the center of the direction buttons. That is not a big deal but just a convention I had become accustomed to from other devices.
Overall I was thoroughly impressed with the Roku 3. It does something that no other media streaming device seems to do. It unifies all of these services, and makes it easier to discover, find, and stream all the content you like. You don’t have to separately search across services anymore. You won’t have to worry about checking on sales, or if that new video you want to watch is out yet on y our favorite service. Everything with the Roku 3 is made simple and straightforward. It even has features you don’t yet realize you want like a headphone jack in the remote. Being able to watch a movie on Netflix without disturbing someone sleeping nearby is fantastic and once you have this ability, you’ll find yourself taking advantage of it more than you expect.
The Roku 3 does a lot of things so very right it is definitely worth some praise. If you’re looking for a device that is dedicated to making streaming online media as easy as possible, and does that alone then the Roku 3 is definitely worth consideration. It removes many of the challenges and complications of online streaming to your HDTV.