I spent a few hours buying and setting up a new Roku 3 last night. It’s a replacement/upgrade for my old Roku XD (2050X), which was gifted to me years ago and has streamed its fair share of movies and TV, even influenced my parents into buying a Roku 2. But the first-gen Rokus are at the end of their service lives: they can’t upgrade to the newest software with its slick layout and search function that combs multiple apps; they don’t have the same impressive hardware as the new version; and the old boxes block several high-profile channels like PBS and Spotify.
The old box is going downstairs to support an older TV that gets less use—one of the great features of the old Rokus is their analog component/composite cable ports, while the newer ones push HDMI for HDTVs.
Setup is pretty easy; logging into my Roku account, it automatically downloaded all of my stations—even ones no longer supported or usable, so thanks for that—and as soon as I went into any of them, it gave me a four- to six-character passcode. Logging into that app’s website and entering that passcode was all it took to access my content, playlists, and queues. It probably could have taken less time to get everything squared away, but my desktop is at the opposite end of the house. (I avoided using my tablet because I hate typing on touchscreens and didn’t want to fight the various services when they’d inevitably try to route me to their mobile sites or apps, which was not where I needed to go.)
And I have to say, the Roku 3 is a zippy little devil. The Roku XD can chug along like a champ, but it will take a good 20-40 seconds to finish loading a channel, and often pause to buffer 720p HD content back down to two or three dots’ worth of SD quality. (No, it’s not because of my internet speed or provider; yes, it’s because my residential gateway is across the house with my PC.) The Roku 3 uses dual-band wi-fi, so the connection is stronger and I haven’t had any issues streaming HD content. It blazes through menus, opens apps/channels in seconds, and begins streaming in a snap. That’s probably because it’s powered by a dual-core Broadcom ARM Cortex-A9 system-on-a-chip, a great speed boost compared to the legacy 400mhz and 600mhz processors. Consider that similar dual-core Cortex A9 SOCs power capable tablets and smartphones like the iPhone 4S, iPad 3rd gen, and Galaxy S II; quad-core A9 SOCs are in my Nexus 7 and dad’s Transformer Prime TF201.
Roku was the original streaming box—its first name was the Netflix Streaming Box when it ran the rumor mills back in, what, 2007? Compare those images with early 2008 Roku design—and it remains the sweet spot for midrange streamers. Hardcore technologists would build their own home theater PC (HTPC) or Steam box in a mini-ATX case, or take routes as divergent as jailbreaking original Xboxes to run XBMC or re-purposing Mac Minis as media storage servers. Most video game consoles and Blu-Ray players come with app support these days for Netflix, HuluPlus, and others. Other users are content with the OEM appstores that come with their smart TV. But most people just want a plug and play device, hence the rise of set-top-boxes and media streamers, and in the olden days of SDTVs and “dumb” HDTVs, a set-top-box was the easiest way to watch Netflix or HuluPlus in the living room.
Roku has more or less won that round. Google TV went from a canned prototype device to become another app-store for smart TVs, powering OEM set-top-boxes. Apple TV remains a niche product line, a great buy for anyone plugged into the Apple ecosystem—Mirror your iOS device! Stream your iTunes media library! All on your home TV!—but has a slimmer range of content providers and less technical innovation. (The similarly-priced Roku 3 has a Micro SD slot hidden under its HDMI port, and a USB jack so you can connect a flash drive or external HD and play your own content). Start-up Boxee was recently folded into the Samsung electronics empire. The OUYA has finally hit the scene, several years and several million customers behind the rest of the set-top-box crowd, though with a principled mission of end-user modification.
Part of it is from simplicity—Roku just works. There’s even the Roku Streaming Stick, a $99 USB drive to stream your content; talk about plug and play. Part of it is from content providers; while Roku is going quantity over quality here, it’s got the grand video trifecta of Netflix-HuluPlus-Amazon Instant Video, along with music from MOG, Rdio, and Spotify, plus several other high-end apps as well: Vudu HD videos, Pandora internet radio, MLB.TV, and value-added channels for subscribers of HBO, Epix, Time Warner Cable, and others. And as the Roku 3 shows, innovation. The new menus and layout shows a wealth of content at a glance, rather than the limited “carousel” view of the 1st gens; the search function will ply through various most-used channels to see who can provide your content; the dual-band wi-fi and Cortex A9 SOC give it a speed boost, and it excels in other technological departments as well, such as the remote connecting via wi-fi (making it omnidirectional and usable in other rooms) and has its own headphone jack so you can stream at night without waking up the spouse (or the parents).
About the only things Roku ain’t got is a YouTube channel; not that I’d use it much, unless YouTube users start producing content in HD, considering I already pay for music and video subscription services. (I’d actually prefer a Last.FM station, over Pandora.) Another improvement would be a remote with a QWERTY keyboard on the back, a feature I desperately missed while going through initial setup. The new remote is also perfect for old-school gaming—directional pad and A/B buttons make it look like an NES controller when turned sideways—but apart from a few 8-bit Namco games, Angry Birds, and some trivia spin-offs (You Don’t Know Jack, Jeopardy), the Roku’s gaming experience is dead on arrival. Give it time and hopefully some enterprising developer will come up with their own private channel to run side-loaded S/NES ROMs. Roku’s Dev support has been second to none.
As much as I love Roku—not just the device, but the brand, which is very supportive of its customer base… if you discount the just-90-days warranty and abandonment of the 1st gen Rokus—I have to wonder what their future holds. Browsing the big-box stores today finds you a legion of smart TVs, and in another few years just about every TV will come with its own brand of smart TV features, which will cause the need for a set-top-box to diminish—unless I’m wrong about consumers, the streaming box is an evolutionary dead-end. Most of the smart TVs I’ve tried were as slow and sluggish as my 1st gen Roku, if not more so, and their user interfaces leave a lot to be desired. There’s a reason the Roku 3 is cleaning their clocks. It hasn’t led to à la carte TV channel subscriptions—you need an HBO subscription through your cable/satellite provider to use HBOGO; and they wonder why people pirate Game of Thrones?—but it has led to a dead simple way to get your subscription streaming services on a dumb TV.
Still, smart TVs will just keep on improving as they become more and more commonplace; Roku can’t hope that smart TVs will be stupidly designed forever. I have the feeling that in another few years, all Samsung smart TVs will come with their own Boxee app center, their own Boxee circuit board bolted to the back. I could see Roku going in that direction, getting picked up by some HDTV manufacturer who wants to weld existing streaming technology to their existing line of HDTVs. That, or Roku can keep surprising me with added functionality and improved hardware, and take their box in new and impressive directions.