Roku was founded nearly a dozen years ago by one of the creators of the DVR, Anthony Wood, and the company has built its popularity on two ideas: simplicity and variety. The company has attracted nearly every major—and minor—streaming content player from Pandora to Stitcher, Amazon to Netflix. Roku has also honed its interface to make toggling through the virtually limitless variety of content as quick as possible.
Roku also has several eponymous models to suit nearly every type of viewer. The $100 Roku 3 is the most advanced, with full 1080p HD video support and Ethernet, HDMI and USB ports — plus a microSD slot for additional media. Add in a remote with headphone capability, and it's easy to see why this is our top pick among set-top boxes.
The Roku 3 has rounded corners and invites the hockey puck analogy, much like Apple TV. It is a far cry from the big, black A/V boxes of old, measuring just 3.5 x 3.5 x 1 inches and weighing 5 ounces. You can connect the device to your TV and then hide it just about anywhere below or beside the set. If you want the absolute smallest device, consider the $50 dongle-style Roku Streaming Stick. But Roku 3 offers several additional capabilities and features for its larger price and size, including a faster processor and more-sophisticated remote.
Setting up the Roku 3 is as simple as possible. Plug in the power adapter, connect an HDMI cable from the Roku 3 to your TV or A/V receiver, and power it on. (Note: An HDMI cable is not included, so make sure to purchase one, which should cost no more than $10.)
Roku then takes you through a three-step process. First, select and provide the login information for your home Wi-Fi network (or connect Roku using an Ethernet cable). Roku then displays an activation code that you enter in a registration form on Roku's website. Finally, Roku will ask you to update to the latest software, which triggers a download, installation and restart.
You then log into whatever online services you'd like to use, such as Hulu or Pandora. Some apps require you to enter the username and password from the Roku interface. Others provide an online activation tool. In general, you can skim through the Channel Store and just select streaming services of interest.
Roku has done an excellent job of combining hundreds of online services into a unified front. It uses bigger, crisper artwork than Apple TV's interface, and it's easier to follow and find what you want to watch.
If you select Roku Feed from the Roku 3's main menu (via a software update), you'll see a number of upcoming movies. Simply click to add them to your feed, and check back periodically to see if the movie is available to buy, rent or stream, or if the price drops.
The feature is not nearly as useful as it could be. First off, you can select only from a predetermined list of movies that comprise the biggest Hollywood hits, and little else. You can't search for movies or TV shows that interest you, or track content that's already available — for example, to find out when a movie that's already available to buy will be available to rent.
Roku Feed doesn't notify users via pop-ups or e-mail about when their content updates, either. You have to check in manually. This isn't much easier than just checking a site like Can I Stream.it? periodically.
Roku includes a simple RF remote control that offers less than a dozen buttons (home, back, play/pause, etc.) and a four-way directional pad. It's easy to master and has two ingenious features. The first is motion control sensors for playing casual games delivered through the box. The Roku 3 is the only Roku model with this capability.
Better yet, there's a headphone jack in the remote control, turning any set of cans into wireless headphones for late-night or private TV watching. Roku includes a pair of earbuds, but you can attach any headphones with a standard 3.5mm jack. One caveat: Using headphones will deplete the remote's two AA batteries more rapidly.
Roku allows you to search across a range of entertainment sources — a feat unmatched by the competition. Searching for the movie "Argo," for example, revealed that it's available for rent from Redbox for $2.99 versus $4.99 on Amazon. Roku will not search broadcast and cable TV listings, but it does now search across the contents of more than 10 sources, including Netflix. We like that you can find the best price, as well as avoid inadvertently paying for a movie you could watch on a subscription service you already have.
A software update provides the Roku 3 (and other current-model players) with voice search, allowing Roku to join the ranks of rivals such as the Amazon Fire TV, the Google Nexus Player and the Xbox One. Only Roku 3s sold after about April 2015 get a microphone-equipped remote control; older models get voice search through the Roku Android and iOS apps only.
Just hit the Search button on the new Roku 3 remote, and a microphone icon will appear on screen. (You can select Text Search if you prefer to do things the old-fashioned way.) From there, you can say the name of any actor, director, movie, TV show or Roku channel you want, and the system will find that item for you, in theory.
In practice, the voice recognition stinks. For simple queries, it was OK: BBC show The Thick of It and actor Patrick Stewart both garnered predictable results. Anything even slightly more complex was an often hilarious disaster.
"The Coen Brothers" translated as "The Quadfather's." It took multiple tries to parse Nicole deBoer, the actress who played Ezri Dax in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Even when Roku did finally recognize her name, it couldn't find anything she ever acted in. The crowning moment was when I attempted to search for Dragon Ball Z and received a notification that there were no results for "Dragon Ballsy." Whatever that show is, it probably has a very different target audience than the martial arts anime of my adolescence. Voice search is also available via the mobile app, but I found similar results while trying the feature out on a Motorola Moto X.
To be fair, on the few occasions when I did find what I was looking for, the search feature was fairly robust. It not only showed me a list of all the channels where I could find my content, but compared prices for it as well. The Roku was also very thorough about actors' and directors' filmographies — well-known actors, anyway.
As with the other leading streaming boxes and devices, the Roku 3 delivers up to full 1080p HD video. The image quality ultimately depends on the quality of your Internet connection. Roku claims that the processor in the Roku 3 is five times faster than those in its other devices, but for a set-top box, the responsiveness depends largely on the Internet connection and on the individual channel provider. However, there is one notable strength of this Roku box.
After testing the Roku 3 in multiple locations, we found that its dual-band (2.4 GHz and 5GHz) Wi-Fi is particularly good at picking up and retaining a connection even in places where Wi-Fi-equipped smart TVs and other devices (connected Blu-ray players, game consoles and smartphones) have failed. Depending on your setup, that ability could mean better quality video than you get from some competing devices.
If there's a streaming media service online, Roku probably supports it. From Cantonese primetime shows to the likes of Amazon Instant Video, Roku's Channel Store is the inspiration for people who have chosen to ditch their cable company. Roku has a cornucopia of more than 1,500 subscription, on-demand and free Internet video and music channels.
The options range from spiritual shows to libertarian programs. Because Roku doesn't have its own movie or music service, it doesn't have to keep out competing services, as Apple does with some video and music providers So there are plenty of competing services, such as Redbox, Amazon, Blockbuster and Netflix. Roku offers many offerings that Apple TV lacks — Pandora, Spotify, Stitcher and Facebook, to name just a few. Roku does, however, offer prominent placement for M-GO, an a la carte video service with which it shares purchase and rental revenue.
Roku continues to add more channels at a rapid rate. Roku even has its own Facebook client. There are also hundreds of so-called "private" channels run by individual companies, ranging from training programs to HR support videos. Private channels are not listed in the Roku channel store but you can add private channels to your Roku 3 by entering a code the channel maker provides into a form on Roku's website. (See our tutorial on adding private channels for instructions.)
The Roku 3 also has limited Chromecast-style casting ability. Currently the Android and iOS apps for YouTube and Netflix include a button to mirror their content on the Roku player. But since nearly every content app can be installed directly in the Roku 3, there isn't such a strong need for casting as there is for the Chromecast, which requires that method and enabled apps to get any content on the device at all.
Accessing Personal Content
If you have your own videos or music files that you'd like to get to the TV, you can load them into the Roku 3 by plugging a USB stick into the port on the back of device. To learn how, see our tutorial on loading content from a USB drive.
In addition, Roku's remote-control app can stream videos, photos and songs that reside on your mobile device to your TV. From the mobile app, you select Play on Roku and then navigate to the collections on your device.
A streaming media player is not going to supplant an Xbox One or PlayStation 4, but Roku proves that it can deliver some casual divertissements. It has now amassed more than 60 games on its device, including popular titles like "Angry Birds" and "Centipede," that you can easily control from the motion sensitive remote.
If you are running short of storage for all those games, you can insert a microSD card into the slot on the back of the player.
Most consumers like choice, and Roku offers the most choices in this category, covering all the major sources of video and music entertainment. Yes, there are lots of obscure channels devoted to religious or special interest topics that you may never watch, but it's good to have the options if you're going the cord-cutting route. We also appreciate Roku's powerful search feature, which gets you to the content you want quickly--without having to wade through individual channel apps. Moreover, the headphone jack on the remote for private listening is an invaluable feature for midnight movie fans.