Do you want an easy way to get iPlayer and Netflix on your TV? If so, you might want to consider the Roku 3 -- the top of the range model in Roku's new collection of tiny Internet set-top boxes that bring online video on-demand services to your TV.
As this is the high-end model, it also comes with a Nintendo Wii-style motion-controller that you use to play the included Angry Birds Space game on your telly. The Roku 3 is very popular in the US due to its low price and strong support for catch up TV and movie on-demand services.
It costs $99 (£61) in the US but it's £100 in the UK -- and the range of services supported here is less impressive. You can get almost the same, bar the crucial Netflix support, from the Sky Now TV box for just £10, including delivery. So is it worth buying?
Design and connections
Like previous Roku models, the Roku 3 is very petite, measuring just 89mm square -- and it's had a design update. The distinctive Roku clothes-tag logo is still attached to the left hand side, but the top now has a slight indent and the sides bulge outwards so it looks like a squashed Apple TV. Unlike Apple's streamer, the Roku 3 uses an external power supply, so the overall design is not quite as neat.
As there's no fan, it is completely silent, which is ideal if you want to use it in a bedroom. It does get a little warm to the touch, but never gets excessively hot. Like the other models in Roku's range there's no off switch so it's permanently on, but it draws very little power, especially when it's not actively streaming content.
When it comes to inputs and outputs, the USB port is on the right hand side of the player and the power socket, HDMI port and Ethernet socket and are all neatly positioned on the rear. Naturally Wi-Fi is built in and the Roku 3 supports dual-band wireless so it can work with the newer 5GHz frequency.
This means if you've got a newer router you should benefit form a more robust wireless connection, with less glitches when streaming video. The player also has a microSD card slot hidden under the HDMI port. This can't be used for storing media, but instead allows you to up the onboard storage space for apps.
The Roku 3 has no analogue video output, so it can't be used with older TV sets without an HDMI port. It also lacks an optical audio out, so surround sound can only be output to HDMI AV receivers. The HDMI port can output video at 1080p though, unlike the Roku 2 LT and Now TV box (based on Roku hardware), which are both limited to 720p output.
Roku has cleverly placed the headphone jack on the remote control rather than the main unit. It's a brilliant idea and handy if you want to watch a film at night without disturbing your other half. When you plug in the headphones, audio on the TV is muted and you control the volume via buttons on the edge of the remote. Unplug the headphones and the volume returns to normal.
The wireless range of the remote is extremely good too and it remains in sync with the video, which isn't an easy technical feat -- the remote communicates with the player via Wi-Fi, not Bluetooth. Thankfully, the Roku 3 also has an IR receiver built-in, so you can use it with universal remotes, such as Logitech's Harmony series, if you want.
The supplied remote is small and very comfortable to hold thanks to its round back. There's a wrist loop at the bottom to stop it flying out of your hand when you're using the motion-sensing features to play the Angry Birds Space game, but the player's main menus are all controlled via the direction pad at the top -- not via motion.
You zip around the menus primarily using a combination of the direction pad and the OK, home and back buttons. The remote does have a few other buttons, including transport controls, but as you can fast forward and rewind videos in most apps using the direction pad, I found I hardly used them.
Setting it up
Setup should be pretty easy and straightforward, but sadly that wasn't the case for me, as it just wouldn't connect to my Virgin Media SuperHub2 router. The SuperHub2 may have its issues, but Virgin Media is the second largest broadband supplier in the UK so Roku should really have tested its product with Virgin's routers. Internet forums show that's clearly not the case, as this issue is very common and affects the older, original Virgin SuperHub too.
Luckily there is a way around it, but you have to enter the engineering menu on the Roku (press Home x 5, FF, Play, RW, Play, FF) and then select 'Disable network pings'.
But you still have a few more hoops to jump through. The Roku connects to the Internet, checks for any software updates and installs them automatically if they're available. It then reboots and displays a code on the screen. You have to make a note of this code, log on to the Roku website, enter the code and create an account before you can use the player.
It's slightly awkward and long winded, especially as you have to hand over payment details to create an account -- either a credit card or Paypal account. You don't actually have to pay any charges, but if you don't enter a payment method you can't use the device.
Once you're past this point you're asked to select the apps -- or channels, as Roku calls them -- that you want to install on your player. When you've made your choices they're automatically downloaded to the Roku. You can also add more channels later either on the Roku 3 itself or using this online interface.
Roku has updated the guide for this new generation of players -- now all the channels are shown on a grid rather than as a single banner across the centre of the screen. It's a small change, but a big improvement in usability, especially if you've got a lot of channels installed on the player.
What's more, you can now easily rearrange the order of the channels by tapping the star button on the remote and then using the direction controls to reposition the channel in the grid. Again, something that was missing from the older players, but a really welcome addition here.
The guide still doesn't look as attractive or as sophisticated as that on the Apple TV, but it is much faster than the older models guides due to the Roku 3's dual-core processor.
The Roku 3 has tonnes of content available for you to stream from the net -- but much of it is rubbish. The onboard channel store is padded out with lots of obscure apps such as Marengo (all cats, all the time!) and War Games with Historic Miniatures (everyone's got to have a hobby, I suppose).
When it comes to premium channels, it supports BBC iPlayer, Demand5, Sky News, Netflix and Now TV. The latter two are subscription services, so you have to pay to access them. Netflix doesn't need an introduction, but Now TV may not be familiar to many people. It's Sky's Internet service that provides on-demand access to the Sky Movies catalogue of films for a monthly fee, or Sky Sports channels at a daily charge.
Sky is now a major backer of Roku, which is why Now TV has been added to this box. The Now TV service is easy to use and nicely presented, but the quality of the video streams is quite poor, especially for the live sports broadcasts. Plus on the Roku 3, Now TV doesn't support HD streaming for the on-demand movies yet.
The Netflix app is also very easy to use and looks pretty much identical to the app you'll find on most of today's smart TVs. The only slight issue is that Roku hasn't updated it to support user profiles, whereas this feature has been added to most other platforms including the apps on the PS3 and Samsung and Panasonic TVs.
There are some other interesting apps, such as Cackle (free old movies), Picasa and Vevo, as well as CNET (cough). The Facebook app, however, is next to useless -- it only shows photos and videos, not status updates. There are also weird omissions -- no YouTube channel, for example. The biggest issue though, is that 4oD and ITV player aren't supported (they are accessible on Samsung's smart Blu-ray players and Sony's PS3 console) and Roku hasn't included a Lovefilm channel, even though it supports Amazon Instant, the US equivalent (Amazon owns Lovefilm).
This model does come with the full version of Angry Birds Space. It looks great and is really fun to play with the motion remote, which you use to set the angle of the catapult, before hitting OK to fire your angry avian friend. There are other games available in the channel store, but none of them as good as the Angry Bird titles -- Angry Birds and Angry Birds HD are also available to buy in the Channel Store.
The Roku 2XS that I tested a while back was quite sluggish to use. Apps were slow to load and the graphics were very workmanlike. It was nowhere near as slick and speedy as the Apple TV. The Roku 3 closes that gap considerably. Its dual-core processor means that it's much more responsive to use and apps launch far quicker. For example, with both BBC iPlayer and Netflix it took just 5 seconds to get from the main menu to the app being fully launched and ready to play video.
The TV guide now moves at a speedier pace too, making it a more satisfying box to use, even if the graphical presentation of the menus still isn't on a par with the Apple TV, or the interface for streaming services on consoles such as Sony's PS3.
There are still some drawbacks, however. The Roku 3 doesn't support downmixing of surround sound to stereo, so if you try playing a movie with an AC3 or DTS soundtrack from a USB drive directly to your TV you'll be met with silence on the audio front.
The box is much speedier than older Roku models, but you still have to use Plex for streaming over a home network.
What's more, although its format support has improved -- it'll now play MKVs via USB, for example -- it still struggles with some other file formats and doesn't have native support for DLNA network media streaming. You can install the Plex channel to enable streaming, but you'll need a PC turned on all the time and running the Plex server software to get it to work. Other streaming media players allow you to stream from networked hard drives without the need for a server in-between.
The Roku 3 improves on the older Roku players mainly because it's much speedier to use and has a slicker interface. It's still nowhere near as attractive a proposition in the UK as it is in the US though. It's much cheaper in the States and supports many more premium services. Priced at £100 and lacking support for the likes of Lovefilm, 4oD and ITV player, it just doesn't seem worth the money here.
Our advice would be to consider a smart Blu-ray player, such as the similarly priced Samsung BD-F6500 instead, or the slightly more expensive Sony PS3. Both of these support more premium catch-up TV services and movie on-demand apps. Alternatively, if you don't need Netflix check out the Sky Now TV box. It's basically a cut down Roku player, with the Netflix channel removed, but it's yours for just £10 from Sky.