It's been almost two years since Roku refreshed its set-top box; in fact, the Roku 2 did its job so well that people weren't really anticipating an upgrade. Yet, a few days ago, Roku announced the Roku 3 for $99.99. Even though Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal opines that this new device is "not revolutionary," but "more evolutionary," there certainly are a number of minor improvements that, overall, lead to a better user experience.
Do such minor updates turn the Roku 3 into the only streaming device you'll ever need? Should you choose the Roku 3 over the Apple TV? Is it worth the upgrade from your current Roku box? Let's take a look at what respectable news sources are saying about the Roku 3 to find out!
Hardware: A New Remote Scores High Marks
At 3.5" wide and 1" high, the Roku's footprint is the same as the previous generation, but its case is rounder — making it look like a Roku that ate one too many movies. The most notable new feature on the box itself is the inclusion of a USB 3.0 port, which is located on the side of the device, an ideal place if you're going to be plugging in flash drives.
Yet the hardware feature that reviewers can't seem to get enough of is the new remote. It's been upgraded to feature WiFi Direct, which means that it'll work through walls, potentially leading to all kinds of high jinks. The Verge's favorite feature, and what CNET calls "nifty" is the on-remote headphone port. You can plug in a pair of earphones, and instantly the TV mutes and the sound is piped through the headset.
Other hardware modifications of note include the disappearance of composite video outs. The Roku 3 can only be connected to an HDTV via HDMI. Along those lines, they've also dropped support for 480i streaming; the new device will output only 480p, 720p, and 1080p. Finally, the CPU has been bumped up to a dual-core chip resulting in "menus and videos [that] load faster than on the Apple TV, and much faster than any previous Roku," according to The Verge. The general consensus is that this change has resulted in a more snappy overall experience.
Software: Better Search Functionality
According to Laptop Mag, Roku "has given its UI a major makeover, making it simple to find the movie, show, or even actor you're looking for." Not only has the company cleaned up the Roku home page, so that there are fewer clicks required to get to where you want to go, but there's now a universal search function. In other words, a search for "The Office" will display episodes available on Hulu, Amazon, Vudu, and any other installed channel. Searching for an actor will turn up every available movie and TV show s/he's been in, and the cost of renting or buying them.
Apple TV Still Holds an Edge for Apple Users
Most of the Roku 3 reviews agree with the Wall Street Journal's perspective that only two things are missing from the Roku 3: YouTube and wireless streaming from mobile devices. There's an app for Roku that lets users push pictures and music to the device from a handset, but it's the lack of a true AirPlay competitor that irks most reviewers. However, pundits do qualify the lack of Apple TV AirPlay functionality by noting that it's only a drawback for folks who are a part of the Apple universe. As The Verge puts it, "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 ... Roku 3." But if you're a Mac user, as CNET so bluntly puts it: "The Apple TV still works better within the Apple ecosystem."
However, Laptop Mag points out that the "Roku offers a lot of channels that Apple doesn't have, including Amazon Instant Video, Facebook, NBC and Fox News, Pandora and Spotify, plus hundreds of other channels in various subject areas." It's up to the consumer to decide if such offerings are more important than the ability to AirPlay a movie from a laptop to the TV.
Is it Worth the Money?
Despite the lack of AirPlay or an AirPlay-like service, everyone seems to agree that the Roku 3 is a device worthy of your dollars. The Wall Street Journal calls it "an improvement that enhances the experience of what was already a good product;" CNET raves that "the Roku 3 is the best streaming-video box yet," giving it an Editors' Choice rating; and The Verge says that "it's the best, most versatile, and most usable set-top box on the market, and buying it is a no-brainer." The only caveat, as Laptop Mag cautions, is "if you currently own a Roku box, there isn't much incentive to upgrade, as the updated software is coming to all current-generation Roku devices in April."
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