Roku 3 Arrives With New Interface & WiFi Direct

Dave Zatz —  March 6, 2013 — 51 Comments

Roku-3-with-Headphones

As we’d previously reported, the new Roku 3 has indeed launched with a refreshed UI and audio-capable remote control. The 3 takes over the Roku 2 XS‘s top slot in their lineup, running a competitive $100. In fact, the Roku 2 XS is no longer present in the company’s model comparison chart. Like its predecessor, the Roku 3 remote incorporates Hillcrest Labs Wii-esque motion control capabilities for gaming purposes – such as Angry Birds Space. But, the ways in which the remote communicate are new to Roku’s set-top box line. In place of Bluetooth, Roku is now using WiFi Direct – a similar and possibly ascendent technology that we’ve been tracking and potentially one piece of the Roku Miracast puzzle. Another remote innovation is the inclusion of an audio jacks (and pair of bundled Roku-purple earbuds) for “private listening.” The way I understand it, inserting a headset (theirs or yours) into the remote will redirect audio output from television to the handheld, with volume controlled via rocker buttons. It’s an innovative feature, but probably not one that would be appreciated in our household – especially given the duplicity of Roku and tablet apps/channels.

On the hardware front, as Roku’s high-end model, they’ve decided to do away with analog and standard def connectivity options… leaving a sole HDMI jack to handle both video and audio transmission duties. And, speaking of transmission, both Ethernet and dual-band 802.11n are provided for connectivity. We’re told this is the most powerful Roku ever… although the company didn’t get into component details, so we’ll circle back once someone cracks one open. Aesthetically, the Roku 3 is certainly the most beautiful one yet and they’ve come such a long way from the original single-channel Netflix box sourced from off-the-shelf parts. While we can’t say for certain, we suspect that Bould Design was once again tapped to move the product forward. But, beyond visual design, this Roku model is also somewhat heavier to prevent HDMI cables from pulling it across the television stand. And, perhaps, to inspire a higher quality feel. 

roku-channel-ui

The most notable update, really, is the introduction of the long promised and possibly overdue interface refresh. And the best way to get a feel for it is via CNET’s review and their embedded Roku 3 video below. While the homescreens are very attractive, seem quite sprightly, and better utilize screen real estate to more efficiently browse and view channels… it all still seems somewhat flat beyond maybe some box art and optional color schemes. Compared to, say, the smartphone-esque widgets, customizable background imagery, and topical homescreens of the WD TV Play. Also beefed up is cross platform search and truly the key to happiness in an over-the-top future. Well, maybe after playlists and subscriptions. Related, some of our favorite channels like Amazon Instant and VEVO are present and Roku provides exponentially more channels the competition (at 750+), yet YouTube remains missing in action. As to why, the jury is out. But I’d be willing to bet it’ll show up this year. How could it not? And, at the end of the day, Roku (plus Plex) is still one of the most versatile streamers at any price point.

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51 responses to Roku 3 Arrives With New Interface & WiFi Direct

  1. Good news, folks – all currently available Roku models (2, LT, HD, Stick) will be receiving the new UI… as early as April.

  2. Can Roku devices stream local HD content?

  3. Wonder how long the remote’s batteries will last? New interface looks good, especially with the integrated search!

  4. i hope this thing doesnt ouput in RGB only. roku 1 worked great, roku 2 switched to RGB and caused a lot of headaches for people. ordered mine this morning.

  5. scarymike, not natively. But there are a few ways to do it – running Plex server on a computer and the Plex app on Roku is probably the best.

    Adam, yeah the search looks interesting and I like how they prioritize content from channels you have installed over other options. This is going to be critically important moving forward I think. Unless everyone just launched a YouTube Channel. Hm. I assume battery life would be comparable to Bluetooth, give or take, and my friends at CNET believe the Roku Stick has had WiFi Direct in its remote.

    You’ll have to let us know, Al.

  6. Wow, how many new products, User Interfaces, and updates has Roku had since the TiVo Premiere was introduced?

  7. So.. it would be super awesome if you could set up the remote so when the headphones aren’t plugged in, you could change the volume on your TV… because honestly that’s the biggest problem I have with the Apple TV and Roku remotes.

  8. Dan, I don’t believe the remote has IR out capabilities or a learning/programmable mode. Agreed TV volume and power control would have more practical value for most than the audio streaming.

    Mike, probably more than we believe as by my count the Roku 3 is at least the Roku 4.

  9. Dave: Yeah, it looked to me like there was no IR window on the front. They seem to iterate their remotes often, so i guess I can dream!

  10. More HP in the processor. YAY! Now, forget the lame YoutTube obsession. Sure that would be nice, but what we really need is MORE CODEC SUPPORT for video and audio so we can actually stream our content from our HTPC in formats other than what the Roku 2 XS currently supports.

  11. Wait, so this device can’t be controlled with a standard learning universal remote?

  12. @scarymike I think it still can, you can see the IR window on some of the pictures The Verge put up. The remote on the other hand, doesn’t look like it has IR on it.

  13. Hey, 5Ghz wifi is actually something to be excited about! Nice.

    Still needs youtube, though.

  14. Michael Burstin March 6, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    Any word on when it ships (or is it now)? Best Buy looks to be taking orders online but none in stores. Amazon doesn’t have it listed.

  15. scary, it can be controlled via IR. However the remote itself does not beam IR as far as I know. Similar to the Roku 2 XS.

    Michael, Roku is taking orders now and presumably shipping soon. Roku informed me the 3 should be on Amazon shortly – I had actually been waiting to post until it showed up, but obviously gave up. Should be in Best Buy in a few weeks.

  16. Amazon direct link to buy http://amzn.to/12uK4dd

  17. Love the 1 star review about the guy’s warranty issue with the Roku 2. Hopefully Amazon removes it as it has nothing to do with the Roku 3. Why do people feel the need to do things like that?

  18. Michael Burstin March 6, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    Thanks for the Amazon link. It shows next day delivery available, so obviously they have them in stock :)

  19. No watch ESPN support? Really?

    Plex is a joke. So is PlayOn. Both are YAST’s (Yet another shitty transcoder). Might as well use pytivo and ffmpeg. Combine this box with the WD Live network streaming and codec support and you have something compelling. Throw in the Xbox content partners and you could sell hundred of millions of these things.

    These guys may have made 4 iterations of hardware since Tivo launched the Premiere, but there is nothing innovative here. Headphone jack in the remote may qualify as the most useless feature ever designed.

    If I bought this I would still need my xbox for ESPN and my WD Live to play all the MKV files with DTS audio than I steal off the internet months before I can legally rent or buy.

    Gonna hold off for now. But thanks for the review Dave.

  20. I took the liberty of replacing Adam’s link with an affiliate one of our own. We are a for profit entity and subsidized through contextual advertising. Thank you for your understanding. :)

    Brian, not sure what’s holding back the proliferation of ESPN but I’m pretty sure it’s on their end. I’d think Plex would handle your MKVs, regardless of origination – have you previously or recently tried it? I believe our very own Chucky is a fan of offloading TiVo recordings then pushing them back out to the television via Plex+Roku.

  21. @Brian: Plex is actually a pretty good transcoder, but of course you’re right that native codec support is the way to go.

  22. Plex doesn’t have to transcode. I never did transcoding running Plex on a NAS to a Roku 2 XS.

  23. I believe Plex streams natively videos with containers, codecs, bitrates, etc the endpoint can handle. Here’s the support site covering what Roku can handle via its USB “channel” – including MKV:

    http://support.roku.com/entries/423946-What-media-file-types-does-the-Roku-USB-Media-Player-channel-support-

    Also, fyi, earlier today I had reached out to Roku to see if they’re prepared to discuss additional codec capabilities and such at this point. Will report back if I learn anything.

  24. That’s right, if your video happens to be in a format/codec/container that roku can natively play, it won’t transcode.

  25. Dave, that’s cool with the USB channel. I was just wondering about that. I’ll have to check out the reviews and see if it winds up being able to read metadata in the files too.

  26. “I believe our very own Chucky is a fan of offloading TiVo recordings then pushing them back out to the television via Plex+Roku.”

    Ah. I am indeed a big fan of offloading TiVo recording to my NAS and playing them back via Plex. However, I use a Mac Mini as my Plex client instead of Roku precisely because I don’t want to transcode. Any Mac Mini produced in 2009 or later can natively handle pretty much any codec you throw at it at 1080 size.

    (My setup is TiVo on input 1, Mac Mini on input 2, and Roku 2 XS on input 3.)

    And Plex calls its Mac client its “flagship” client for good reason. Excellent local caching of file thumbnails for very snappy navigation, excellent UX, and all native playback. It’s the Plex client with the most deliciousness by far.

    I’ve briefly played with the Roku client for Plex, and while it works, both the UX and the transcoding of some material is massively inferior to the Mac client. However, if you’re content with the PQ of Netflix “HD”, then you’ll be more than content with PQ of a Plex+Roku transcode of offloaded TiVo files.

    My recommendation for someone with a local media library of any kind who wants easy playback and doesn’t want to spring for a Mac Mini as a client is that Roku is the best answer. Plex Media Server allows you to organize easily, so you’ll have a far nicer lean-back experience than with something like the WD TV, or Roku USB ports, or the like.

    —–

    “I believe Plex streams natively videos with containers, codecs, bitrates, etc the endpoint can handle.”

    For the reasons I just discussed, I only casually follow this topic, but I do believe it to be the case. To the best of my limited understanding, if the Plex client can playback natively, it does. If not, it transcodes. And again, a transcode of good quality local media is going to beat the hell out of what you get out of Netflix “HD” streaming.

    One interesting quick test I did with the Roku was to compare an HBO program I’d offloaded from TiVo versus the same program on HBO Go on a good day when HBO Go was sending out its “HD” stream. The Plex trancoded TiVo file to the Roku was clearly better than the HBO Go stream.

    And finally, just a brief tangential note on Roku PQ: no one ever seems to note that of the 4 ‘premium’ all-you-can-eat services on the Roku, the PQ of Amazon Prime beats out the other 3 all-you-can-eat services by a country mile. Amazon is really good at fulfillment, whether it’s a box or a stream of bits.

  27. “Thanks for the Amazon link. It shows next day delivery available, so obviously they have them in stock”

    We don’t need no stinkin’ next day. They’ve got it available for same day delivery. Order it at 7:30am tomorrow morning, and you’ll still get it tomorrow. Like I say, Amazon is good at fulfillment…

  28. “Good news, folks – the all current Roku models (2, LT, HD, Stick) will be receiving the new UI… as early as April.”

    Good news if the new (forced to your unit without your consent) OS runs as fast on v2 hardware as the old OS. Otherwise, bad news. We shall see.

    —–

    Finally, finally, big kudos to Roku for the 5ghz radio receiver.

    The two things I wanted to see Roku do with their next unit was a 5ghz radio receiver, and a remote with programmable TV power, input, and volume rocker buttons.

    One out of two ain’t bad.

  29. Michael Burstin March 6, 2013 at 8:10 pm

    @Chucky – out of sheer interest, how do you get HBO off of your Tivo?

  30. Re: Plex transcoding MKV on Roku

    See this thread over at Plex:
    http://forums.plexapp.com/index.php/topic/62484-direct-play/

    According to the Plex dev, while the Roku can decode MKV from USB, there’s a bug that prevents it from doing so over HTTP. That said, I run 720p MKVs to my Roku 2 XS all the time and they look great. The bigger problem for me right now is that there’s a bug in 5.1 audio playback. Fortunately, the Plex devs have identified the problem and have promised a fix soon.

  31. The post above by matonmacs is exactly the problem with Roku/Plex solution. MKV, DTS, DD 5.1 issues etc. Whatever I throw at the WD Live it just plays mostly over DLNA. Sometimes I have to browse to the network share to get a file to play that isn’t part of the DLNA spec. Outside of DTS-HD MA the WD box has played everything I have tried.

    When someone comes along with a box that combines the best of WD and Roku together I would consider that. Until then I guess I will just stick with my Xbox and WD Live combo.

  32. My Roku3 I ordered from BestBuy today is showing delivery on Friday. Hopefully UPS doesn’t screw up the delivery.

    I also noticed the heavier weight mentioned. The Roku3 is 66% heavier than the Roku2 XS. That is a big difference. It’s supposedly 5oz instead of 3oz.

  33. Yeah, I’ve tried Roku’s supposed MKV support before. Wouldn’t play a single MKV file I threw at it. We’ll have to see with the 3 of course, but once burned…

    Does look purty though. Both the box (irrelevant of course) and the remote (not irrelevant).

    The headphone jack though? Really? Does this only work with Roku originated content like I think it does? What if I’m watching stuff from a different source?

    I guess since there’s apparently porn channels on Roku there could be a particular reason for the headphones just for this one source and not any others. But still. Seems pretty stupid. Weird the CNet guy was impressed by this feature…

    Maybe all of my remotes should incorporate this function? And as I switch sources I could move my headphones from one remote to the other?

  34. “@Chucky – out of sheer interest, how do you get HBO off of your Tivo?”

    Well, I can’t, anymore. But from the moment I got my TiVo until about six months ago, I religiously archived pretty much all my HBO TiVo recordings to my NAS.

    I think HBO’s content is the bee’s knees, and I’ve got years’ worth locally cached.

  35. “The post above by matonmacs is exactly the problem with Roku/Plex solution. MKV, DTS, DD 5.1 issues etc. Whatever I throw at the WD Live it just plays mostly over DLNA. Sometimes I have to browse to the network share to get a file to play that isn’t part of the DLNA spec. Outside of DTS-HD MA the WD box has played everything I have tried.”

    So, the downside to Roku/Plex is transcoding of certain files. But the big upside is a massive convenience upgrade, with playback of everything, very easy lean-back navigation, and auto-pulled program info and thumbnails. Depends on your needs.

    (We’re a single teevee household, so the Mac Mini solution made the best sense for us. But if we had multiple teevees, I’d go with a Mac Mini for the big teevee, and Roku/Plex for secondary smaller teevees to save dollars.)

  36. Michael Burstin March 7, 2013 at 8:03 am

    @Chucky – okay, that makes sense. Comcast has always had all of the premium channels blocked.

    @everyone else — GRR, why can’t someone just make a box that just works – and has all of the content. I picked up a NewTV because it has WiDi support, but that attempts to play my BluRay mks files from my NAS and takes like 5 minutes to buffer (and WiDi doesn’t seem too good for fast-action streaming) and NeoTV doesn’t support Amazon. I thought about the Roku because it has NHL Gamecenter support and Amazon Prime – but now it sounds like MKS support will be sketchy, at best.

    Makes it sound like the only good solution is something like a Mac Mini or a Windows HTPC or to run a long-ish HDMI cable from my laptop…

  37. “@Chucky – okay, that makes sense. Comcast has always had all of the premium channels blocked.”

    You can read my real-time incredulousness about the FIOS policy back in 2009 when I initially found about it…

    “@everyone else — GRR, why can’t someone just make a box that just works – and has all of the content.”

    Someone does. It’s called a TiVoMacMiniRoku. The form factor is more than a bit weird, and the initial cost outlay is a bit high, (though it’ll stay functional for a long time, thus bringing down the amortized cost), but it just works, works incredibly well, and it has all the content.

  38. My non-tech wife loves the idea of the headphone with the remote. I can use it when I’m up watching late. And for a second purpose, she can plug in a remote mini-speaker right next to her ear (after years as a flight Attendant, she’s lost some of her hearing).

  39. @chucky, I use the Tivo + Roku + Plex in a similar manner. However, I can only stream Tivo files after converting from .tivo format to .mpg format with Videoredo. I’d love to be able to stream .tivo files directly. Are you able to?

  40. Chucky, thanks. Your posts have been super informative.

    Off topic a bit, but I use a jailbroken appleTV (firecore) to play my mkv files and I think they look awesome on my 65 inch plasma Panny. I’m assuming this is not trans-coding, since I don’t run anything on the computer the files are being pulled from. Is that accurate?

    My only complaint is that fast-forward and rewind functions pretty much suck. But I’m assuming this is true for any streaming solution?

  41. The thing that bothers me most about roku is seeing ads all over. I get thats how you support yourself when theres no monthly fee but they need to blend in better. Roku is always slamming them right in your face. The new UI seems a little more elegant just takes up 1/3 of your screen now instead of a small slice at the bottom.

  42. Wow 41 comments already – that may be a record for ZNF.

    Loving the whole idea of the headphones on the remote for a number of reasons: with Spotify, I Heart Radio and other audio apps on Roku, the TV makes a good stereo and I don’t have to run down the battery on my phone to listen to music. Plus, as several of you have mentioned, since the remote doesn’t do volume adjustment, it’s sort of useless once you pick your show, so music player gives it another purpose. Plus it’s one of those simple-but-brilliant ideas I wish I’d thought of.

    Heavier weight is good too: I had an actual rock on my first Roku to prevent the HDMI cable from lifting it into the air.

    Not missing YouTube that much since a goodly % of YouTube videos look like crap on the big screen, and even those that are in HD – it’s a hassle switching over for a 90 second video.

    Very very psyched about the new UI too – the filmstrip format was not user-friendly and I spent too much time culling out channels I didn’t watch much and adjusting the order so that I didn’t have to spend as much time scrolling through it. (Yeah, that’s probably diagnosable, but I like order J)

  43. Re: ESPN – I’ve wondered that a lot too and I’m guessing they have a lot of pressure on them not to make their apps available over Roku as it would make the whole cord-cutting scenario look way too easy. I understand you couldn’t get ESPN unless you authenticated with an existing MVPD subscription, but seeing it there next to Netflix and Hulu would put too many crazy ideas into people’s heads…

  44. There are ads on the Roku?? i never noticed them when I’ve used my Roku2 boxes. Although I don’t usually notice ads unless they are directly in my face or there is some thing moving around on the screen.

  45. There’s usually one promoted channel in the strip and a banner ad on the bottom. The “Channel” store also sells Angry Birds dolls… which is somewhat bizarre. But nothing that’s really bothered me.

  46. I think the headphone jack might be nice if you plug it into an IPod dock or some similar device. Our TV is not that far from the kitchen where we have a dock. It would be cool to stream Pandora that way.

  47. I think the headphone jack is a great idea for a couple of reasons: (1) old folks (any folks) w/hearing problems and (2) when someone wants to watch something on the Roku in bed and their SO is trying to sleep. Heck, there are a few shows my wife watches that I would prefer she watched on headphones all the time. I swear it seems like >50% of the dialog is people screaming at each other! But I digress…

  48. Is the headphone jack just audio out or does it have a mic also, for possible voice chat applications, like an xbox controller?

  49. soory! it’s compatible with slingbox ?

  50. The Roku 3 only outputs over HDMI so the only Slingbox it would possibly work with is the Slingbox 500. I assume it’d work, however Sling does honor HDCP and anything that’s copy restricted they may not stream. Again, I assume it’s all open but I haven’t tried it… when I get my 500 back in a week or so, I’ll give it a go.

  51. Thanks in favor of sharing such a fastidious thought, piece of writing is fastidious, thats why i hhave read it fully

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