Recently, we decided to cut the cord. DirecTV, that is, and moved to an internet only household. For a tech geek, like me, this was not a problem. I would be happy with a computer plugged into the TV and a web-browser . . . but not everyone wants to use a mouse and keyboard to control their living room television. More importantly, my wife and kids don’t want to use a mouse and keyboard to control their living room television.
Once we cut the cord, I went a little crazy with testing different options. We’ve tried using the XBOX 360, Apple TV, Playstation 4, Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, and even a Windows 7 desktop computer (first running Windows 7 alone, then Windows Media Center, and lastly XBMC). While they all had their advantages and disadvantages, we’ve finally settled on the Roku 3.
We had previously used a 2nd Generation Roku HD in our bedroom rather than pay the extra fees for additional DirecTV boxes and installation fees, so we were familiar with the brand and comfortable with its interface and with the release of the Roku 3, I figured it was a good solution.
The Basic Facts:
The Roku 3 is a small black box, measuring 3.5” x 3.5” x 1” and weighs only 5 ounces. It has rounded curves and a single white LED light on the front that glows when the system is on. The Roku 3 only uses HDMI for video (720p or 1080p) and audio (5.1 and 7.1 surround pass through). This model does NOT use any analog connections, so it will only work with an HDTV. There are additional models that offer other connection options. Also on the back is a port for the power connector, an Ethernet port for wired internet access, USB slot for (limited) local video and audio playback, and a small slot for a MicroSD card used primarily to download games.
How it Works:
The Roku 3 uses apps, called “channels”, to deliver content to you. These channels vary from the well known options like Netflix, Amazon, and Pandora to the unknown, random, and sometimes odd (like Fydo, which provides free full length films based on popular fan fiction. Any Harry / Malfoy shippers reading this? – http://www.roku.com/channels/#!details/24997/f-y-d-o). Services like Netflix, Amazon, and HBO Go require a separate subscription to use. There are free options for Roku, but in practice the content will vary wildly from neat niche channels to insanely bad.
The Roku requires an internet connection. To achieve this, the Roku has built in WiFi (802.11 a/b/g/n compatible) and also an ethernet port to plug directly into your home network. (I personally use and recommend using Ethernet to connect to your home network. In use, I’ve found that video quality over WiFi can drop and become laggy due to the nature of WiFi and video streaming.)
What We Like:
The remote that comes with this thing is awesome. It’s small, measuring about 4 inches with a rounded bottom and smooth plastic feel. The buttons include an D-pad for selecting things, a Home and Back button, and an A and B button meant for games (like the original Nintendo controller). This remote uses a local WiFi connection between the Roku and itself to connect. What this means for you is you don’t have to point the remote at the box for it to work. (The Roku also supports standard IR, so your universal remote will work with it.) On the side of the remote is a headphone jack and volume rocker control. If you’re watching and don’t want to disturb your spouse or wake the kids, you can plug your headphones into the remote and crank it up.
The interface of the Roku 3 itself is very speedy and responsive. There’s a nice menu on the left side to access your channels, movie and TV rentals (provided by Roku), news, and options. Selecting one takes you to a list of options on the right side. The Channels appear as icons.
One of the most common questions I’ve gotten from other nerdy friends is if the Roku can play your personal movies, tv, and music. Plex is a media center application. First you install an application on the computer your media is stored on and tell it where your media lives. It scans it, downloads the metadata (posters, descriptions, etc.), and it’s done. Next, you install the Plex channel on the Roku and it will find your Plex server giving you access to your media on your TV without a huge desktop. As a bonus, Plex works on LOTS of other systems including your tablet and smartphone.
Search on the Roku searches all of the channels you have. Looking to watch Braveheart? Search for it and the Roku will show you where you can watch it. This is really cool and rare in the media center world.
The little things . . .
The box is nice looking. It have rounded sides and is small. Since the remote uses wireless to connect, you can hide it in your entertainment center or behind the TV if you don’t like it.
Batteries last a long time. We made our purchase before Christmas last year and have not yet had to replace the batteries in the remote. It’s a small thing, but it counts.
The Roku 3 is weighted on the bottom. With the Roku 2, our HDMI cable would pull the box off of the desk it was placed on as it weighed more than the box itself. With this model, it feels sturdy on the top of the entertainment center.
What We Don’t Like:
The channels, much like apps on your smartphone, differ wildly in quality. Some are top-notch like Netflix where the interface is smooth and clean and nice. Others are just ugly and difficult to navigate. Since the channels differ, the controls for the channels differ also. Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon all work differently, sort their content differently, etc. This is not a Roku problem since they don’t control the channels, but it’s an issue either way.
Automatic Upgrades is turned on by default. If you’re unaware of this, it’s entirely likely that you’ll walk in and find a new interface on your favorite app.
The channels that don’t require a subscription are crappy. For the good stuff, you’ll have to opt into a subscription (or multiple). This is the case for Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO Go, and more. While these fees typically aren’t expensive, they do add up and quickly.
The Roku is a great device. You will need a good internet connection to make it work properly and a subscription to a service or two to make it worthwhile. In my opinion, compared to the other devices I’ve used, the Roku is the easiest and best desktop streaming box available. Highly recommended.