The Roku 3 is a streaming device that’s halfway between a smart TV set top box and a media hub.
For £99 you get a device that lets you access subscription services like Netflix and Now TV on your TV. It’s also a gateway to free catch-up platforms like BBC iPlayer, 4oD and Demand 5.
Many smart TVs and connected platforms like Sky+HD, Virgin Media TiVo and YouView come with most of these as standard, suggesting that the Roku 3 is perhaps aimed more at people with non-smart TVs, those who don’t want (or can’t get) pay TV or don’t want to pay for multiroom services.
One area where the Roku 3 really differs from the competition is that it also gives you access to a growing army of apps, games and extra channels (over 450) through the Roku Channel Store.
But the Roku 3 isn’t just a portal to other streaming platforms – it’s also a way for you to easily access your own media files on your TV.
Whether they’re stored on a NAS or an external hard drive, with the Roku 3 you’ll be able to get at your files; content can be wirelessly over your home network or if you’ve not got any DLNA-compliant software set up you can simply plug an external drive into the USB port.
If that’s not enough, there are also motion-based games, played with the Nintendo Wii-style remote, like Angry Birds Space.
The Roku 3 itself is a tiny lozenge measuring 88.9 x 88.9 x 25.4mm (3.5 x 3.5 x 1 inches). It’s got a squashed look with convex edges and a slightly indented top, as if somebody has taken an Apple TV and whacked it with a mallet.
Nestled to the Roku 3 in the box is the remote control. This infra red remote acts as both a TV/media remote and a game controller; hold it horizontally and the directional keys come into play as a d-pad, and you’re free to use the A and B buttons on games that use them.
As well as coming with a Nintendo Wii-style wrist strap, the Roku 3’s remote can be waved around and used in gesture-based games.
You also get a pair of good quality in-ear headphones which connect to the Roku remote. This means you can listen to any game or film audio privately. This will come in handy if it’s late at night, you want to watch House of Cards on Netflix and not bother you housemates/family.
While the power cable and mains adapter are included we were surprised that there was no HDMI cable bunged in. HDMI cables are normally included as standard with TV devices – even the £10 Now TV Box comes with an HDMI cable – so, before you get started with your Roku 3 you’ll need to make sure you’ve got another one of these to hand or go shopping for one.
There is no Scart or component cable port, so if your TV doesn’t have an HDMI port you won’t be able to make use of the Roku 3.
Roku 3 review: setting up
Getting your Roku 3 up and running requires an active internet connection. You’ll also need to enter credit or debit card details on the Roku site to complete set up, so have your wallet and your laptop to hand.
If you’re connecting to your router via WiFi, then you’ll need your password to hand. Alternatively, if you’re connecting with an Ethernet cable you might want to have this connected before you begin set-up – if you don’t it’s no bother, you can always do this later.
Setting up the Roku 3 is relatively hassle free. Plug the device into the mains adapter, connect it to an available HDMI channel on your TV and turn it on.
When you first turn your Roku 3 on the Roku logo bounces around the screen in a charming, Pixar-esque fashion. The on-screen prompts are easy to follow and serve to get you accustomed to using the remote.
Towards the end of the set-up process a code with appear on the screen which you’ll need to enter at the Roku site to register your device. After you’ve done this you’ll then have to enter your card details.
While no payment is actually taken from you during the set up process, this enables you to easily pay for any apps you want to buy from the Roku Channel Store. You choose a four digit PIN at this point for confirming purchases – if you’ve got any children it might be an idea to choose a number that’s hard to guess.
Roku 3 review: Apps, Games and Channels
There are more than 450 apps or ‘channels’ available for you to download from the Roku Channel Store. Given that the great majority of these are streaming TV services, channels is a better name to describe them, but they’re still apps.
Apps are broken down into various categories including the aforementioned TV and streaming services (YouTube, TED, DailyMotion) and photos and video (Vimeo, Flickr, Picasa).
There are 51 international channels, bringing you content from across Africa, India, Iran, the Philippines and there’s even a Georgian channel (the country, not the American state).
While there’s a great degree of choice, quality control isn’t always exercised – bargain bin free streaming service Popcornflix is here, but it didn’t work at all. In fact, the only thing this app did at the time of writing is show us an advert before returning us to the Channel Store screen, having failed to load any films properly.
Some of the channels are reminiscent of the religious low-hanging fruit you sometimes find in the nether regions of pay TV programme guides. Unless you like your TV highly pixellated, we don’t see how this is fun for anyone.
Also, while you get Netflix and BBC iPlayer you currently can’t get Prime Instant Video (formerly known as Lovefilm Instant) or ITV Player.
That said, we think most customers will be happy with the selection of channels and services on offer. The YouTube app in particular recently updated, giving viewers a level of Chromecast-style functionality, which will be great in social situations where you can’t wait to show off the latest funny cat video.
Gameswise there’s not a huge number of titles on offer (61 at the last count) and many of them are of the casual gamer/puzzle variety. Angry Birds Space is loads of fun as is Unity-based platform-shooter Muffin Knight. Other titles include classics of yesteryear like Pac-Man: Championship Edition and Galaga – fun, but not exactly cutting edge.
Whichever apps, games and channels you end up downloading, what’s not apparent is how much space they take up. Roku doesn’t reveal how much internal storage you get with the Roku 3. It can’t be much, as we found out when we tried to install some games.
When attempting to download Muffin Knight, installation stalled at around 34 per cent every time, with no explanation offered. Our credit card details checked out (we’re good for the £1.49 asking price thank you very much) and our 100Mbps line into the office meant we should have installed the game in no time at all.
After a couple more failed attempts we realised that we might not have enough space on the Roku 3, but at no point did the box flash up any ‘insufficient storage’ messages or prompt us to insert a memory card. Once we’d popped a 4GB microSD card in there (you don’t get a memory card in the box), the Roku 3 quickly formatted the card and then downloaded everything with no fuss.
There’s no easy way to tell how much space all of the games and channels and what have you take up on your card. Jumping into the settings will tell you how much space you’ve got left (in terms of MB), but as the sizes of the apps themselves aren’t listed on the Roku Channel Store, it’s tricky to keep track of everything and weigh up how much room you’ve actually got.
TL;DR, if you want to download more than a couple of apps on the Roku 3, put a card in it. Go for a Class 2 microSD card, either 2GB, 4GB or 8GB in size. As only game and channel data is stored on these, you really don’t need anything big like 16GB or 32GB.
Roku 3 review: User interface
Once you’re all set up, you can start getting to grips with the Roku 3’s interface. The main screen is split into two columns; on the left you’ve got links to the list of channels you’ve downloaded, the Channel Store (where you can download more) and the settings.
On the right you’ve got large, colourful icons for your channels, apps and games. You can arrange these how you like so you’ve got quick access to your favourite services.
During the set up process, we were asked if we wanted things like BBC iPlayer, 4oD, Demand 5 and Netflix installed, so these were all present and correct the first time we used the Roku 3.
Navigating the Roku 3’s menus is a cheery experience; all cartoon flair and Cadbury’s colour scheme (which you can change if white and purple aren’t your thing). Button presses are met with confirmation clicks and beeps when you’re navigating and selecting options.
Roku 3 review: Streaming media
The Roku 3 supports HD streaming up to 1080p Full HD. You can set the output resolution to 720p or 1080p depending on the resolution of your TV set, but you can’t set it any lower.
If you’re connecting to your router over WiFi it’s worth noting that the Roku 3 is a dual-band device. This means if your router uses fancy dual-band technology too, you’ll be able to stream media over the less congested 5GHz band instead of using the 2.4GHz band all of your other gadgets (as well as everyone else’s phones and tablets) are using.
If you’ve got any NAS drives set up and you’re going to be accessing these wirelessly, this is something worth keeping in mind.
The Roku 3 will not support playback of your files out of the box, but you can download a free Roku Media Player app from the Channel Store that will let you access any connected hard drives or folders on your home network.
Video and audio file formats supported include MKV (H.264) MP4, MOV (H.264), TS (H.264), AAC, MP3, WMA, WAV (PCM), FLAC. Supported image file formats are JPEG, PNG, GIF.
MKV, MP4 and MOV files with Dolby Digital and MKVs with DTS sound are supported via passthrough on TVs that are capable of deoding either sound format over HDMI.
When we opened the Roku Media Player for the first time, it took a couple of minutes for a list of all available devices on our network to be populated. After this, every time we opened the Media Player, everything was there as it should be.
Roku 3 review: Mobile apps
If you’re keener on using your phone to control your TV than the supplied remote, you’ll be happy to learn that there’s a pair of official Roku apps available for iOS and Android (pictured below) devices.
Both of these map the basic controls of the remote to your phone letting you whizz through menus by tapping on a touchscreen instead of a remote control. Voice controls are also supported, letting you tap the microphone icon, say ‘iPlayer’, tap it again and have the Roku fire up BBC iPlayer.
The apps also give you the added ability to download apps from the Channel Store on your phone, which is handy.
You can also use the apps to stream locally stored photos, videos and music on your TV. While this is great for showing off holiday snaps, it also lets you engage party mode on your TV.
This feature is only really good for streaming files you’ve got on your phone at the moment. Sadly there doesn’t seem to be a way to play any Spotify lists you’ve synced to your phone through your TV.
You also can’t use your phone as a game controller, which would have been perfect for Angry Birds Space, and the headphones also don’t give you the same private listening feature as you get with the Roku remote.
Roku 3 review: ‘Wot, no search?’ and other Bad Points
It’s disappointing to see that there’s no search function built into the Roku 3 in the UK, something which you can get in the US. This lets you search for content based on title and actors across platforms, pulling in results much like the TankTop TV site does.
On that subject, it can be hard to search for new channels, owing to the fact that icons in the store can often take a while to load. You might be searching for a new service, app or game only to be greeted with a sea of blank squares. As well as looking a little naff, this makes discovering new services on your Roku 3 tiresome.
The overall experience is a mixed bag – it’s a nice-looking service that feels a little frayed at the edges. Hopefully Roku can stitch up some of these snags with future updates.
Roku 3 review: Verdict
In our review of the Now TV Box, we called it a ‘dumb-smart TV conversion kit’ and the same thinking applies to the Roku 3 – it’s a way of upgrading a non-smart TV for much less than the cost of a new TV set.
If you’re in the market for a smart TV then the Roku 3 might not be for you – many smart TVs these days come with access to catch-up and on-demand services and many of them will play media files – from either a connected USB drive or wirelessly over your home network.
For £99 though, it’s a good investment if you want to upgrade an older Freeview HD TV which doesn’t have any smart features of its own. You get a good selection of streaming services and an easy way to access your own media all through one slick portal.
If you just want subscription-free streaming on your older, dumber TV then a better consideration might be the Now TV Box which costs a tenner, or Google Chromecast for £30. Read our Roku 3 vs Chromecast and Roku 3 vs Now TV Box features for more direct side-by-side comparisons as well as our larger feature comparing a range of streaming devices.