Roku is a pioneer in video-streaming media hubs, but as Apple TV became popular, and HDTVs and Blu-ray players began supporting Netflix and other online services, Roku boxes started to look less unique and less useful. The latest box, the Roku 3 ($99.99 direct) changes that. What's new? More power, a streamlined interface, an invaluable cross-service search feature, and a remote-mounted headphone jack. The Roku 3 costs twice as much as the budget-price Roku LT, but the faster speed and new features make it worth it the price. Even still, a slicker interface, better local network media streaming, and YouTube support keep the same-price Apple TV our top choice for media hubs.
The new box is curvier than previous Rokus, and it's lighter and even more compact. The 3.5-inch glossy black square with rounded corners stands just 1 inch tall and weighs a scant 5 ounces. In fact, it's light enough to get kicked around if you use too heavy an HDMI cable to connect it. There's an indicator light on the front panel and power, Ethernet, and HDMI ports on the back next to a microSD card slot and a reset button. A USB port sits on the side of the box.?
The remote is a light, wriststrap-equipped, half-sausage-link-shaped piece of rounded black plastic, almost identical to the one that's bundled with its predecessor, the Roku 2 XS. There's one major exception: It now has a headphone jack on the left side. The 3.5mm audio port can be used with the included (admittedly low-quality) purple earbuds or with your own headphones to listen to audio played through the Roku. The box automatically mutes sound through the HDTV when you plug in headphones, so you can seamlessly switch back and forth. It's ideal if you're watching late-night TV and don't want to keep anyone else up, even if it's not particularly useful beyond that sort of scenario.
A dedicated volume rocker on the right side of the remote, opposite of the headphone jack, adjusts volume through the headphones without affecting the volume on your HDTV. Besides the headphone jack, the remote has a directional pad, basic playback and navigation buttons, A and B buttons for use while playing games available through the Channel Store on the box, and a motion-sensing feature that works with the included Angry Birds Space.
The biggest changes to the Roku 3 are on the inside. Roku claims it added a lot of processing power to the system compared with the Roku 2 boxes (Roku doesn't specify the exact technical differences, but the responsiveness is notable), and the speed is apparent as soon as you navigate the new interface. Menus shifts back and forth quickly, and it only takes a few seconds to load most channels. The channels are also much easier to navigate structurally, thanks to the new menu system discussed below. The new interface will be pushed to older Roku boxes via a firmware update in April, but it might seem comparatively sluggish since the Roku 3 wields greater processing power.?