There's no shortage of devices with so-called smart TV functions.
You have the Apple TV that connects to your iTunes content. The Boxee that lets you record network TV on a virtual online DVR. TV makers like Samsung and LG have streaming apps built directly into their web-connected TV sets. And so on.
But at their core, none of these devices revolutionize television the way many are hoping Apple will if it ever launches its rumored television set. Most of these gadgets, the current Apple TV box included, function largely the same. You get access to the standard library of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, plus the option to buy and rent movies and TV shows.
That's about it.
What's most important in today's streaming devices is the interface, an interface that lets you find what you want to watch as quickly as possibly and jump in. You also need plenty of good content to enjoy.
The newest box from Roku, the Roku 3, achieves both these things better than any other device I've used, making the $99.99 streaming box the best you can buy today.
The Roku 3 interface is a complete overhaul of the last one, and it's so good I'm going to have trouble going back to my clunky Apple TV.
Unlike the Apple TV which can make you click through as many as four or five menus before you're able to jump into the thing you want to watch, every detail in the Roku 3's user interface is designed to minimize your effort.
Scrolling vertically lets you cycle through apps or menu options in an infinite loop so there's no need to navigate back to the top of a list. (If you've used Apple TV's menus before, you know this can be a pain.) Scrolling horizontally lets you dive deeper into your selection, meaning you can launch the app you want or get more information on a specific piece of content. These are tiny details, but they feel so natural that the interface almost disappears. I haven't seen anyone pull that off on the television screen yet.
But the best feature by a longshot is search, which lets you look up content by actor, director, title, etc. and provides you with a list of all streaming sources you can watch the video on. For example, a search for "South Park" gives you the option to stream the show on Netflix, Hulu, or purchase individual episodes.
There's no clicking through endless menus and search options. There's no hoping what you want to watch is on Hulu or Netflix or Amazon or whatever else before you search that individual app. You just search for the stuff you want and the Roku finds it for you wherever it lives. It's such an essential and simple feature that I'm shocked it's not standard on all streaming devices by now.
Because Roku is open to third-party developers, you have a much larger content selection than you get on Apple TV. The Roku has all the standard stuff Apple TV has like Netflix, Hulu, and sports services like MLB.tv. But you also get a lot of stuff the Apple TV doesn't have yet like HBO GO, Amazon Instant, Spotify, and Pandora.
Plus there are several casual games like Angry Birds and other streaming video apps to choose from in Roku's virtual store.
If you want to buy or rent videos, there's Vudu, a virtual store with a selection about as good as Apple's. You can stream purchased videos directly to your Roku and they remain tied to your account so you can access them whenever you want. It also has several shows available the day after the air, which can come in handy for those who no longer subscribe to cable.
That was my biggest problem with the Roku 3. Over the years I've purchased a ton of movies and TV shows through iTunes, meaning I'm already locked into Apple's system. The Roku 3 is so good I regret doing that. If you're like me, you'll have to repurchase a lot of your favorite content through Vudu if you decide to switch to the Roku.
Yes, Apple TV is slowly letting more apps onto its platform. Hulu Plus finally got the green light last year. HBO GO is reportedly coming soon and you can now use AirPlay to beam videos from the the iPhone or iPad version to your Apple TV. And there's increased talk that Apple will open Apple TV to third-party developers soon, meaning even more content could be on the way.
But as it stands now, Roku simply offers you more content options for the same price as the Apple TV.
The Roku 3 does have a few hardware advances worth mentioning, especially when it comes to the remote control. In fact, the remote is probably the biggest hardware innovation the Roku 3 offers: a headphone jack on the side that automatically mutes your TV and pumps the audio to your headphones instead.
It's perfect if you want to watch TV in bed without disturbing your partner. It's perfect if you only have one TV and want to share the living room with someone who'd rather be reading instead of listening to some gory "Game of Thrones" battle. Like the user interface, the headphone jack is a simple detail that was perfectly executed and solves a common annoyance on our TVs that no one has really tried to tackle before. If you've ever had to compete for the sound waves in your living room, you know what I'm talking about.
The remote also has built-in motion controls for gaming, sort of like the remote on the Wii video game console. But I found it's not as accurate as the remote on the Wii. When playing Angry Birds Space, for example, the cursor didn't always match up perfectly to where I pointed the remote, so I had to keep resetting the position to match what I was seeing on the screen. It was a minor annoyance, but definitely worth noting in case you think the Roku would make a good gaming machine.
Other than the remote, there's not much different with the Roku 3. It looks very similar to the last version, a small squarish device that can fit in the palm of your hand. But it does has a faster processor so apps and games run slightly smoother than before. It also has a dual-band WiFi chip for faster wireless speeds, but you'll need a special router to take advantage of that. (I think you're better off plugging the Ethernet cable directly into the Roku if you can.)
Finally, there's a USB port so you can plug in an external hard drive or thumb drive and play video files that you've made yourself or downloaded from somewhere else.
The new hardware features are nice, but there's no need to upgrade from the second-generation Roku unless you really, really want that new remote with the headphone jack. All those great software features I mentioned? You'll get them in a software update soon if you haven't already.
If you don't have a Roku, the hardware upgrades are definitely more versatile than what you get with the Apple TV.
As I said in the intro, no streaming box can offer you some sort of revolution in web-based video watching. But the Roku is the best at working with what is out there already. You get access to more streaming services and content than the Apple TV has, plus an incredible interface that helps you find what you want better than anything else out there.
It's that good.
Unless you already have a lot of content purchased through iTunes, the Roku 3 is the best choice.
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