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The Roku 3 features a new, improved interface. The really good news is that according to Roku, the new interface will be made available via a free firmware update to all Roku 2, Roku HD and Roku LT players in April.

Here’s a look at the old interface on the Roku 2XS. You’ll note that the channels are arranged in a single line that you have to scroll through. The settings menu, the search feature and the Channel Store are all shown in the same linear presentation.

Old User Interface

Old User Interface

The new user interface, shown below, breaks out My Channels, Channel Store, Search and Settings into individual menu entries shown along the left side of the screen. On the right side of the screen you can quickly navigate using the cursor keys on the remote. It’s also quite easy to re-arrange your channels so that the ones you use the most appear at the top of the first screen.

New User Interface

New User Interface

A robust search feature is nothing new to Roku. Models prior to the Roku 3 were also able to search across multile subscription channels. Currently, search scans Amazon, Hulu Plus, NetFlix, Vudu, Crackle, HBO Go and Blockbuster On Demand.

What is new with the new One Stop Search feature on theRoku 3, and soon for the rest of Roku products following the April upgrade, is the ability to search not only for TV shows, Movies, Actors and Directors, but for channels and games as well. The previous search UI has also been spiffed up a bit.

The gallery below shows both the old UI and the new UI using a search for Jeff Bridges. I selected True Grit so see how the interface worked on both platforms. Both platforms returned the same results, but the new interface was a bit easier to use. I also searched for games and channels on both interfaces. The new interface on the Roku 3 found both channels and games that were not found using the current search feature on the Roku 2XS.

Channels (Apps) – There’s really not anything new to report here. The channels that I tested, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Picasa, TED and Pandora on the Roku 3 had the exact same interfaces as the ones on the Roku 2XS. Thus, as noted in the head-to-head comparison between the Roku 2XS and the Netgear NeoTV Max, the Max still edges out the Roku for user interface on Picasa, Pandora and Netflix.

USB Playback - Similarly, there’s nothing new to report about media playback from USB storage. The Roku 3 supports the same limited file types as the Roku 2XS:

  • Video: MP4 (H.264), MKV (H.264)
  • Audio: AAC, MP3
  • Image: JPG, PNG

Neither device natively supports media playback from DLNA servers or from network shares. There are solutions available via the Channel store such as Plex, but they involve installing and running companion server applications on a Windows or MacOS computer.

I tested playing back media from a USB key and playback worked as expected. Tested file types were: MP4, MP3, PNG and JPG.

Remote Control

Roku provides remote control apps for both the iOS and Android platforms. For the iOS platform, Roku only provides an iPhone app which, of course, will also run on the iPad platform. For both platforms, there are also a number of third party apps for controlling Roku devices.

I downloaded the apps from Roku for each platform. I tested the iOS app on my iPad and the Android app on a Nexus 7. Both apps were able to find both the Roku 3 and the Roku 2XS on my network and were able to control them without a problem. One really nice feature, available on both platforms, is the ability to stream audio or photos from your mobile device to the Roku devices. It was also quite easy to switch between the two Roku devices on my network.

Updated 3/28/2013

As noted earlier, the new remote on the Roku 3 has a headphone jack on the left side and volume up/down controls on the right side. It uses Bluetooth Wi-Fi Direct. The Roku 3 itself also has an IR receiver so that you can control it via universal remotes. When you plug a pair of headphones into the remote the audio that was coming out of the TV is automatically redirected to the headphones. The volume control only works when headphones are plugged in.

This is a really nice feature if you want to view or listen to streaming content without disturbing others in the same room. The Roku 3 comes with a pair of earbud headphones, or you can plug in your own headphones. I tried both and the audio streamed as expected. The audio and video remained in synch during a Netflix playback.

Final Thoughts

The Roku 3 is a nice addition to the Roku product line. With more features at the same price point, it’s more than a worthy replacement for the Roku 2XS. Doing a direct side-by-side comparison with the Roku 2XS, the new interface for both the main pages as well as the updated interface for the search are welcome upgrades.

Keep in mind, however, that the zippy new interface stops at the channel browsing level. Once you select a channel, your user experience is the same as on your current Roku.

The media search feature is quite good. I like that it searches across premium content providers and tells me whether or not search results are free. However, since Roku is going to roll the new interface and search out to Roku 2, XD and LT players, it’s not really a compelling reason to upgrade. That is, unless, the new interface running on old hardware appreciably slows your browsing experience.

Undoubtedly, some people will want to connect their media streamer to a 5GHz wireless network rather than a 2.4GHz network. For those people, the Roku 3 is the only choice. Chances are that those people won’t miss the AV port that was eliminated on the Roku 3.

While I was disappointed by the wireless connection problem that I experienced following a firmware upgrade, the solution, a power cycle, was a simple fix. And it gave me a change to check out Roku’s tech support.

When it comes to content, Roku is the king. No other media streamer manufacturer claims to have nearly as many channels as Roku. By my count, there were about 719 (!) available channels. If you run out of storage room for channels on your Roku 3, you can expand your channel storage capacity by inserting a micro SD card into the slot on the rear of the unit.

Updated 3/28/2013

Even with the massive number of channels, I did have a several disappointments. First, I was thrilled to see that the Roku 3 had an HBO GO channel. However, as I discovered while trying to set it up, Roku doesn’t yet support Comcast. Nor does it support Time Warner. It does support HBO GO on Time Warner, but TWC isn't currently listed in the Activate A Device dialog shown below.

Supported Service Providers for HBO GO on the Roku 3

Supported Service Providers for HBO GO on the Roku 3

Comcast is one of the largest U.S. cable providers, so I find it surprising that the Roku doesn’t support HBO GO on its service– at least not yet. Hopefully a firmware upgrade and successful negotiations that include enough money will fix that problem.

If HBO GO is a deal breaker for you, you might want to hold off purchasing one until you can confirm that your service provider is supported. (Use Roku’s tech support online chat to find out).

I was also surprised that there wasn’t a YouTube channel available on the device or in the Channel Store. Again, this is most likely a contractual, not a technical issue.

The faster processor in the Roku 3 doesn’t appear to be a great selling feature – at least not yet. I’ve experienced no problems streaming video from any content provider on either the Roku 2XS or the Roku 3. Maybe in the future, game developers will take advantage of the dual core processor in the Roku 3, but for now, it seems to be a checklist feature.

The “sleeper” new feature on the Roku 3 could well be the remote headphone support. Watching or listening to internet content privately and not disturbing others nearby is a unique feature and one that just might tip the balance in favor of the Roku 3.

In the end, what you plan to do with your media streamer will impact your buying decision. If having a massive number of channels is important to you, one of the Roku devices is a good choice. If streaming content from your NAS/DLNA server outweighs streaming from the internet, you’ll probably want to look at the WD TV Play, which has significantly better file support and DLNA/SMB support.

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