Roku 3 review
The new Roku 3 is a better Roku, but is that good enough?
Previously, I reviewed the Roku LT (£49.99), a tiny box that gives you access to streamed video content. The new Roku 3 is at the other end of the Roku range, costs twice as much for basically performing the same job somewhat more smartly. On first exposure, the Roku 3 seemed to address almost all the less desirable aspects I'd noticed with the Roku LT, most noticeably its sluggish nature.
Roku claims the CPU in this box is now five times faster than the old Roku 2 XS, and the dual-core A9 Broadcom BCM11130 Merlyn it's used does have more computing muscle. That gives the Roku 3 much better responses, and it can deliver 1080p video content very smoothly from either a streamed or file source.
Connection to the internet using either 10/100 Ethernet or cual-band wireless (wi-fi a/b/g/n compatible), but for higher quality streams I'd recommend wires. Once you're connected, Roku provides a reasonable, but still very US-centric, selection of streamed channels. They include Netflix, Sky Now TV and BBC iPlayer but no ITV or Channel 4 access so far, and there are many channels you've probably never heard of.
For Netflix it's great, and the BBC iPlayer is in 'HD', but there are plenty of special interest channels on here I'd rather not see.
As for file format support, the Roku 3 will natively decode MKV, MP4, MOV video, AAC and MP3 audio and JPG and PNG images. The trick, however, is to get access to those resources, as the box won't connect to a shared network resource or even a DNLA server.
This functionality could easily be added with an application, but clearly it's at odds with Roku's business model that takes a cut of paid channel access. There are some tools that allow you to get to cloud-based files or special media streaming services like Plex, but they're not practical for most people with large media collections.
One option Roku has allowed is a single USB port, although my attempts to use it for MKV file playback seem destined to be thwarted. By default, any USB storage device is ignored until you load the Roku USB Player, which is oddly hidden in the 'Music' section of the app store. Why it wasn't one of the default apps is beyond me.
Once installed, you can access the drive (FAT32, NTFS and HFS+ supported), and play the files. Playback, however, is somewhat hit and miss. MKV support is fine, but only if the audio isn't Dolby Digital or DTS, doesn't include subtitles and doesn't contain multiple soundtracks. Dolby and DTS audio streams are passed though for those few with digital sound processing hardware, but for most it means silence. In this respect, the Roku 3 isn't a feasible replacement for the WD TV Live box or similar.
Another direction Roku took its device in was gaming, because given the extra power on board, it can play a reasonable game of Angry Birds Space, which you get free. To enable games to work better, Roku bundled a more sophisticated controller that includes a motion sensor enabling it to work as a primitive mouse and joystick. It's not amazing, but it works.
A side benefit to the new remote using wireless not IR is that it enables audio to be heard through a mini-jack on it, and you get some ear-bud headphones in Roku purple to utilise this feature. That's ideal for those who'd like to listen to music or movies without waking the person snoring through their Netflix selections nearby.
While I appreciate the wireless remote connectivity that doesn't require line of sight, it did beg the question why Roku used proprietary wireless technology and not Bluetooth. Using more holistic thinking, Roku has released an iOS/Android app allowing control via networking. What I wasn't so keen on was Roku's choice not to include a power on/off button. Even if the Roku 3 only uses 3.5W streaming 1080p video, being powered 24/seven isn't environmentally friendly.
The strength of this device is for anyone who needs Netflix, Spotify or Sky Sports access, which works smoothly without a PC involved. Where it falls down is in the rather mixed attempts to widen its appeal through the games and media player roles. At just $99 in the USA, the UK pricing also represents a hefty mark-up for being on this side of the Atlantic.
From a technical viewpoint, it's head and shoulders above its Roku's previous media streaming hardware, but I'm not so convinced it's going to compete with less powerful but more flexible devices at this price.
• Price: £99
• Manufacturer: Roku
• Website: www.roku.com
• Required spec: Broadband connection of 1.5Mbps or better, a PC for configuration