Roku 3 Review: Simply brilliant

For years, I turned up my nose at the Roku line of devices made to stream internet-based video to TV sets. I never understood the big deal with Roku; my Windows Media Center PC could do anything a Roku could and plenty more besides.

Once again, I was wrong. Not only is the Roku a simple little device for folks who might hesitate to dedicate a computer to their TV sets, its user interface works so much better for watching video. I found this out when I finally bought a Roku 3 as part of DishWorld’s signup promotion.

So in honor of YouTube finally coming to Roku, here’s the Roku 3 review that I promised you back then. It’s so good that my family uses it even though there’s a perfectly good Windows Media Center PC next to it. It’s all about the interface.

Good ideas are cheap and plentiful, but good user interfaces are rare and valuable. From its opening, animated Roku-logo dance at startup to its ultra-simple remote, the Roku 3 interface rocks. It’s the best I’ve experienced since I put away my old TiVo.

When I look at most remote controls (check out this monster), I think of how Bill Cosby once described the console radio of his youth as “about six feet tall, had 287 knobs on it, of which only two worked: Off/On/Volume and the station selector.” The Roku remote has 10 buttons and a four-way direction control. Compare that to any other remote you have, and that other remote will start looking like 287 buttons. Three of the Roku buttons do most of the work: OK, Back, and Home. The direction control navigates on-screen rows and columns of rectangles, left or right, up or down.

What’s extra-cool about the Roku remote is a brilliant idea I’ve never seen anywhere else. The remote includes an audio jack to plug in earbuds, which then automatically mute the signal to the TV. In a noisy or do-not-disturb environment, it’s still easy to listen to TV as you watch.

The Roku remote’s simple design reflects the freedom that comes from throwing out channel numbers. I worry a little that the three-wide on-screen source guide might get too big, but by then, I’d probably remove some sources I never watch any more.

And oh, those sources, called channels in Roku-speak. There are dozens of channels available; most are free, a few require monthly fees, and some (HBO, Epix, etc.) are tied in to pay-TV subscriptions. Most of the live streaming sources I’ve talked about lately are also Roku channels: DishWorld, nimbleTV, simple.TV, and Aereo (but notably not FilmOn).

Here at FTABlog World Headquarters, the wife has put me on notice that over Christmas break this year, she intends to spend several hours a day of quality time with the Roku. Notice that choice. We have an unusual assortment of entertainment choices, including a Dish Network DVR with hundreds of live channels plus on-demand programming, another couple hundred free-to-air satellite TV channels, a fair-sized DVD and BluRay library, and all those streaming services that I keep talking about. To express her desire to binge-view TV the way she wants it, she calls out the Roku. That should tell you something.

In summary, the Roku 3 is really, really good. Right now, I can’t imagine how you could buy a better device for streaming internet content to your TV set.

As a bonus, instead of another receiver graphic, I thought I’d treat you to a video of Roku general manager Steve Shannon at the recent Streaming Media West conference. If you’d really rather see what the Roku 3 unit looks like, it’s easy to find photos of it.