There are two things you should know about me right up front. One is the list of shows I'm currently watching: at this moment I'm at various points in The West Wing, Homeland, House of Cards, Scandal, Alias, Mad Men, Community, The Office, Parks and Recreation, How I Met Your Mother, Workaholics, The League, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Girls, New Girl, Modern Family, The Newsroom, 30 Rock, Friday Night Lights, Louie, and The Wire. (And those are just the ones I've watched recently.) I also watch a lot of movies, and religiously follow three different sports. The second thing you should know is that I don't have cable, so I'm entirely reliant on the internet to get my fill.
That combination has led me to audition nearly a dozen different set-top boxes over the last couple of years. I've used an Xbox 360 for my TV-watching needs; I've been a relatively happy WD TV Live Hub owner; my Apple TV remains one of the most-used gadgets I own; I at one point used a Chromebox for streaming movies straight through a browser; I've even repurposed a Mac Mini and an old Windows laptop as ersatz media centers. One device has just never done the trick for me, because I watch so many things and the industry is unfortunately in a place where almost no device or service has everything I need.
Actually, Roku's slowly begun to offer the stuff I want to watch, but it's also always offered clunky interfaces and underpowered devices. But with its latest model, the $99.99 Roku 3, the company claims it's changed its ways — it promises a cleaner, faster interface, better content discovery, and even a remote with some tricks up its sleeve. Could this finally be the whole package, the brains-and-beauty-alike set-top box I've spent so much time looking for?
I want my set-top box to me as small and non-descript as possible — in my home theater stack, design flair is a problem. The Roku 3 is fortunately both: a glossy black rectangle, 3.5 inches squared and an inch tall, that blends nicely with the also-black, also-glossy stand on my TV. It's a little heavier than previous Roku models, but that's a good thing — it's now sturdy enough to not slide off the back of your TV stand when a cable's attached. There's a "3" emblazoned on the top, the words "Roku 3" on the front edge, and the company's telltale purple tag sticking off the side, but other than the branding there's no decoration to the device whatsoever. Power, ethernet, HDMI, and microSD ports carve up the puck's back, and there's a USB 3.0 port on the right side for plugging in a drive and playing local content. The layout is smart — you're going to use the USB port more, so it makes sense to have it more accessible — and helps the device slide unnoticed into your home theater setup.
While testing the Roku 3, I got the sense over and over that the company just gets what people want from a set-top box. That's especially true with the remote — it's simple, spartan, and impossibly easy to decipher. The glossy black rectangle feels a little cheap and chintzy, but there's a surprising amount of cool tech inside. It works via Wi-Fi Direct, which means you don't need to point it at the box to get it to work — feel free to stick the Roku 3 in a closet or hide it behind your TV. There's also an accelerometer built into the remote, which means you can fire your Angry Birds slingshot with just a flick of your wrist — there are a bunch of games on the Roku 3, and they're all fun, though gaming isn't really a reason to buy this device.
Roku just seems to get what I want in a set-top box
All that is great, but the headphone jack in the remote immediately became my favorite feature of the Roku 3. Plug in a pair of headphones, and audio automatically stops playing on the TV and comes through your headphones instead; unplug them, and it starts playing on your TV speakers again, all without the video ever skipping a beat. (A pair of purple headphones is even bundled, though they don't sound particularly good.) There's a volume control on the remote, but it only applies to the headphones, which means that you unfortunately can't control TV volume on the Roku remote but also means you won't accidentally blow out your speakers when you unplug your headphones. All in all, probably a smart choice.
I should mention here that there are other Roku models out there, all of them cheaper than the Roku 3. The $49.99 Roku LT comes with all the same content as the latest box, and will be getting the new interface soon as a software update, but only the most expensive model offers the more powerful internals, the headphone jack in the remote, 5GHz Wi-Fi the USB port, and 1080p playback. It's the most powerful box by far, and is easily worth the upgrade if you can afford it.
Getting set up couldn't be easier, but you will need a computer handy. You just plug the Roku in to an outlet and your TV, and follow a bunch of on-screen prompts. The first connects you to the internet, which you can do via Wi-Fi or ethernet (I mostly used Wi-Fi). Then you need to connect the box to your Roku account, which is where the PC comes in — Roku has a great web interface for creating an account and adding and managing channels, and it's worth spending ten minutes getting everything you want loaded on your box.
You should also install the Roku app, available for iOS and Android, because it makes setup a whole lot easier. Entering your Wi-Fi password on your TV is a down-right-right-right-down-down nightmare, and the apps let you type it in right from your phone; same goes for logging into all your various content services. The app isn't a great replacement for general navigation on the Roku — you're better off using the actual remote, which doesn't make you constantly look down to ensure you're hitting the right button — but it is great for jumping between channels, which you can see in a list on your phone rather than having to go back to the Roku's homescreen and interrupt whatever you were watching.
Over the last few months and years, Roku has quietly built an ecosystem, an "app store" if you will, that utterly decimates nearly every one of its competitors. The company boasts it has 750 "channels," ranging from Netflix and Hulu to Asian Crush, the Old Time Radio Network, and about a half-dozen channels devoted exclusively to horror movies. There are even apps for Time Warner Cable and a couple of other cable providers, plus TBS, SyFy, Fox, and other channels, which means the Roku can double as a second cable box for your house. You can play local content, up to 1080p (with sound up to 7.1 channel surround), using the USB or microSD slots. The file formats are pretty limited, though: MP4 and MKV for video, AAC and MP3 for music, and JPG and PNG images. If you have a giant hard drive full of movies you want to play, you're better off looking elsewhere.
Once all the channels you want are installed — Netflix, Hulu, and a few others come preinstalled, but you'll need to add all your niche programming — and you're logged in everywhere, there are two ways to go about using the Roku, which I call "the iPhone approach" and "the Google approach." The iPhone approach is to go into an app — Hulu, Netflix, HBO, Crunchyroll, what have you — and look around for something to watch. It's kind of like channel-surfing on your TV, since each Roku channel looks different and offers different content. A few are clunky or confusing to navigate because they still use Roku's old interface, but most apps (and all the popular ones) are hyper-visual and easy to use.
Everything's fast, too, thanks to the Roku 3's new processor, which improves the whole experience — menus and videos load faster than on the Apple TV, and much faster than on any previous Roku. The Roku menu is simpler and faster as well: the old interface has been replaced by a split screen menu, with quick navigation — "My Channels," "Channel Store," "Search," and "Settings" — on the left side and a grid of nine channel icons on the right. It's simple, fast, a little reminiscent of the Apple TV interface, and works really well.
A set-top box is useless without something to watch
If you know what you want to watch, though, there's a better option: the Google approach. Go to the Roku home screen, select "Search," and enter in whatever you want to watch (again, your phone keyboard comes in handy here). Up comes a list of where you can watch it, and how much (if anything) it costs. A search through my channels for 500 Days of Summer let me know I could rent it from Amazon, Vudu, or Blockbuster, for between $2.99 and $3.99. Searching for Jiro Dreams of Sushi brought up the same results, plus the option to stream for free on Netflix or Amazon Prime. The more channels you add, the more options you'll get, and search is impressively well integrated across Roku's most popular channels, from Vudu to Netflix to Crackle. Only a few times did the search come up empty, and that was only when I worked pretty hard to stump the box. Everything I found myself actually wanting to watch, Roku found me a way.
What I watch isn't necessarily what you watch, though, and making sure your set-top box has everything you need should be step one when you're thinking about which one to buy. Unless you have remarkably specific and niche taste, the Roku should have you covered – from movies and TV to sports and music, there's very little it doesn't offer. Of course, you may have to subscribe to several dozen different services to get them all to work, but it's all there if you want it.
Well, all but one thing: YouTube. There's never been a YouTube app for Roku, which means to stream music videos or sports bloopers, your only options are clunky third-party apps like VideoBuzz. There are a number of theories about why the otherwise-ubiquitous service is missing from such a popular and otherwise content-rich platform, but regardless of the reason, it doesn't seem like it's coming anytime soon. I can do without it, but your mileage may vary.
The other feature I miss on the Roku 3 is AirPlay. Partly because Apple's service lets you stream YouTube videos from your phone or tablet onto your TV, which would solve that particular problem, but mostly because it's such a clean way of getting things off your device and onto your TV. There's a "Play On Roku" feature in the Roku mobile apps that lets you send pictures and music to your TV, but that's only part of what AirPlay can do; I find myself often using my Apple TV to show someone what's on my laptop screen, or push a movie to a bigger screen with better sound. With some elbow grease, you can set up Plex to do most of the same things, but Apple TV and AirPlay are such an elegant, simple solution.
I've found myself using both an Apple TV and a Roku 3 over the last couple of weeks — the Roku as a set-top box, and the Apple TV purely as an AirPlay device, its other functions made redundant by the Roku's breadth of content. That combination works perfectly, but at $200 isn't a cheap home theater add-on. The good news is that if you're not an Apple user or don't have much need for AirPlay, you only need one box — and that box is the $99.99 Roku 3. It's the best, most versatile, and most usable set-top box on the market, and buying it is a no-brainer. It was for me, anyway – mine's on its way to me as I write this.