It’s weird but true: of all the countless standalone Internet-TV-streaming boxes which have appeared over the past few years, just two have been unqualified successes. One is Apple TV. The other is Roku, which has thrived by offering a vast selection of stuff, driving prices down as low as $49.99 and otherwise not changing a whole lot. Its sheer simplicity is its strong suit.
But it also presents a challenge. When Roku’s box debuted in 2008, it was called the Netflix player and boasted a single channel of content. Today, it has more than 750 of them, including major movie channels, music, sports, a bevy of specialty stations and 50 games. The interface, however, hasn’t evolved much since it just had a handful of items to choose from. Though still pleasingly straightforward, it’s not scaled to the quantity of offerings at hand.
Enter the Roku 3, which is available online now and in stores next month. Replacing the current high-end version, the $99.99 Roku 2 XS, it’s not a radical departure from a hardware standpoint. The case, which is swoopier but about the same size, packs a faster processor and more robust 2×2 dual-band wifi for snappier performance and more glitch-free streaming. The wireless remote control still incorporates motion sensors for use in casual games such as Angry Birds; now it also has a headphone jack, letting you listen to TV in bed without annoying your spouse. (The box comes with earbuds in Roku’s signature purple, but you can also use your own; basically, it turns any headphones into wireless headphones.)
What’s most significant about the new Roku, though, is its new interface — and one of the most significant things about it is that it doesn’t set out to be an interesting new interface. For everything that’s new, which is an awful lot, it still looks like the overarching goal is to fade into the background rather than call attention to itself. (I got a bit of hands-on time with it during a recent briefing by Roku executives.)
Until now, the main Roku interface has featured a row of channels which only let you see five choices at a time. Now, it sports a 3-by-3 grid, which presents nine channels at a time and lets you scroll through additional ones at a much faster clip; it wraps around, so if you sail past your last channels you arrive back at your first ones. The Channel Store looks much the same as the main screen, but with a large spot reserved for promotional space for movies and channels.
Roku’s pan-channel search feature has also been spruced up. When you search for a show or movie, it lists any channels you already have installed first, and then other channels — and you can add a channel without leaving the search results.
The one aspect of the new interface that’s very slightly flashy? The new themes, which skin the interface with custom visuals. There are five of them, such as the cloud-oriented one shown here. And even they aren’t that fancy.
Here’s another plus of Roku’s new look: you don’t need to buy a new Roku to get it. In April, the company will be rolling it out to its other models — the Roku LT, HD, 2 HD and Streaming Stick — all of which remain available.
Roku is the most-watched streaming box in the McCracken household. (Several McCracken households, actually — my non-geek parents and non-geek sister also equipped their homes with boxes, though not at my urging, and seem to be fans.) It’s fun that a small company has figured out a product category that some big companies (coughcoughGoogleTV) have failed to nail. And from what I’ve seen of the Roku 3 and the revised interface, the company has done a good job of continuing the steady-eddie approach to product evolution which has served it well to date.
Here’s Roku’s own video about the new experience: