REVIEW: Roku 3

Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, HBO and more -- this little media player offers the best of US streaming video to those who are prepared to bend the rules to beat geo-blocking.

Australians are often treated like second class citizens when it comes to online video, but with the Roku 3 and a little geo-dodging know-how you can issue yourself a virtual green card and enjoy US-only services. It involves bending the rules, but at least you're still paying for content rather than resorting to going down the BitTorrent channel.

You won't find the Roku 3 on Australian shelves, but there are plenty of ways to get one shipped here. When it arrives you'll need to set it up correctly, otherwise you'll only have access to a handful of decent online services such as Ted, Vimeo, TWiT, Rdio and TuneIn – accompanied by lots of second-rate rubbish that's available on most devices. The lack of a YouTube app is odd, but likely designed to drive you to content partners. If you set it up correctly, the Roku 3 also delivers a host of extra US-only services into your lounge room.

Roku started out building streaming music players but later branched into video players to tap into streaming services like Netflix. The little $US99 ($106.75) Roku 3 is a lot like the minimalist $US99 Apple TV, with only power, Ethernet, USB and HDMI connectors as well as built-in Wi-Fi. This palm-sized box tucks away neatly amongst your other home entertainment gear, with a micro-SD slot giving it one advantage over its Apple rival.

The Apple TV lets US-based users tap into Netflix, Hulu and a handful of other services, but the Roku 3 offers a whole lot more via a built-in app store. Roku refers to apps as "channels" to keep things simple, as most apps only offer easy access to online video content and you can find a full list here. To install channels you'll need to create a Roku account as part of the set-up process, but we'll get to that in a minute.

At this point it's worth mentioning that, even if you're not interested in online video, the Roku 3 is also a slick media player with some neat tricks but also some serious limitations. It's most impressive trick is that the remote control has a built-in headphone jack. Plug in headphones and the Roku box is automatically muted. The audio stays in sync while you're watching the TV and you can even add an extra remote – handy if you're watching TV late at night and don't want to wake the whole house. Meanwhile, the most serious limitation is that it lacks DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) and Samba support for streaming video around your house, although there are workarounds that we'll get to later.

Working the geo-dodge

So what is the Roku 3 good for? Watching stuff you're not supposed to be able to watch in Australia. The trick to this is to set up a US Roku account via the browser on your computer, rather than plugging in the Roku 3 and setting up an account using the on-screen menus. It's important that Roku thinks you're in the US when you do this. Then you need to trick the Roku 3 box into thinking it's in the US when you first set it up and link it to your account.

It sounds easy enough but Roku boxes are notoriously fickle outside the US. To add an extra level of difficulty, the Roku 3 won't let you customise your DNS settings to work around geo-blocking, as you can with the Apple TV and most other devices. Instead you'll need to change your DNS settings in your broadband modem/router, using a service like Unblock US, UnoTelly or Tunlr. Alternatively you might run a VPN on your router, but the DNS option is much less hassle.

In theory you should only need to use Unblock US's DNS settings in your router, which should be enough to trick the Roku website and the box. For some people it works straight away, for others it doesn't. As usual, I fell into the second category. I even tried running a VPN on my computer when I created my account.

If Roku doesn't believe you're in the US it creates an international account for you, but there's no way to tell this is happening. You only realise when you link your Roku 3 to that account and you can't see Netflix in the channel store.

At this point the best option is to do a factory reset on the box, create a new Roku account online and try again. If you need to re-associate your remote control with the box after a factory reset, follow these instructions.

Payment complications

To make life difficult you'll be asked for payment details in case you want to make purchases in the future, which seems a bit cheeky but is probably an extra hurdle to keep out foreigners.

I spent several hours trying to get all this to work but had no luck. In the end I decided the problem was with my payment method – even though I've seen people say they've gotten  away with using Australian credit cards. First I tried using a Load&Go Reloadable Prepaid Visa card (which you can pick up from the post office) and then I tried a US PayPal account. These are sufficient to satisfy most US services but I got no love.

Next I tried Australian Visa and AMEX cards, which do the trick with some supposedly US-only services. I tried different variations using my street address combined with a US state and zip code. I even got a message from my bank asking if my card had been stolen, which is nothing to panic about. They don't care that you're trying to trick your way into Roku, just assure them that the card hasn't been stolen and they'll be satisfied.

Naturally I trawled the web for answers, where I found plenty of Roku 3 owners on forums like Whirlpool and Unblock US having the same issues. I noticed that if I unlinked the Roku 3 from my account and rebooted, it offered me access to Netflix, HuluPlus and Amazon Instant Video, but not the channel store. This told me that Unblock US running on my router was enough to keep the box happy. From what I can tell, if the Roku 3 believes it's in the US it should ask you to set your time zone as part of the set-up.

The problem was obviously with my account. I tried creating it from my computer while sitting behind Unblock US, UnoTelly and a WiTopia VPN, so my best guess is that the payment method is to blame.

"Mileage may vary"

The phrase "your mileage may vary" could well have been coined to refer to geo-dodging, as we're always in a cat and mouse game with service providers. I don't like to admit defeat in such circumstances but, considering many users will only be chasing access to Netflix and/or Hulu, I figured that testing these was better than nothing.

Setting up Netflix, HuluPlus and Amazon Instant Video accounts from Australia isn't that difficult, at least in theory. There isn't time to go into the finer details here but you'll find a few handy guides online.

If you've ever used these services before you'll know what to expect. The Netflix picture is surprisingly good, even on a 5 Mbps connection. Watching on a 55-inch Samsung LED TV it looks on par with a DVD, although eagle eyes will spot the occasional blemish.

The simple remote control and intuitive menus make the Roku 3 easy to use, even for the less-tech-savvy members of the household. It's easy to browse your way through Netflix or search for particular titles. What's particularly interesting is that the Roku 3 has a cross-platform content search system similar to Samsung's "Movies & TV Shows" Smart TV hub.

When your Roku 3 is linked to a Roku account, a Search option appears on the the Home screen. Enter a phrase and it searches according to Movies, TV Shows, Actors, Directors, Channels and Games, not unlike the search features on an Apple TV. The big difference is that the Roku searches across Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, HBO, Blockbuster, Vudu and Crackle – making predictive suggestions as you type. Search for "Despicable Me" and you're offered the option to rent it from Vudu, Blockbuster or Amazon for $US2.99. Search for "The Avengers" and you're shown options to buy it from Vudu or watch it for free via a Netflix or Amazon subscription. This approach is certainly the future of online content.

Roku vs Apple TV

It's worth mentioning the Apple TV again at this point, because it's probably the most practical alternative to the Roku 3 in Australia. If all you want to do is hire movies and watch Netflix or Hulu, you should certainly consider the Apple TV even if you're not an Apple fan. If you're a Mac or iGadget owner then the Apple TV is pretty much a no-brainer once you take into account AirPlay music and video streaming.

The Netflix interface on the Apple TV is a little more slick than on the Roku 3. On the Apple TV it mimics the look of Apple's movie store, with the ability to flick through categories and genres while watching the movies scroll past. Meanwhile, the Roku 3 app is a static copy of the Netflix browser interface. It's certainly easier to browse for content on the Apple TV, but not so much as to be a deal-breaker.

Getting back to the Roku 3, once I linked it to my Roku account in order to view the search options, I could no longer see the Netflix app. Yet strangely I could see Netflix in my search results. Hang on. What if? Yep. If you click on Netflix it launches the app and starts playing a movie. You can even stop the movie and use the full Netflix app to play other movies. So the Netflix app is still there if you link the box to a non-US Roku account, you just can't see it from the home screen.

This workaround only seems to work because I logged into Netflix on the box before I linked the box with my Roku account. Clicking on a Hulu link wouldn't launch the Hulu app and let me login. So I unlinked the Roku 3 from my Roku account, restarted the box and logged into Netflix and Hulu. Then I relinked the box with my Roku account to regain access to the channel store. As expected Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Instant Video disappeared from my home page, but now I could launch both Hulu and Netflix from search results. If you want to tap into other US-only services like Vudu you're out of luck, because the only way you'll launch them is by accessing the US channel store. Lots of people manage to do it, but luck was not on my side.

Unfortunately as soon as I installed a channel from the Australian channel store I lost access to Netflix and Hulu again. Being forced to choose is an incredibly frustrating situation, but most people seem to set up a Roku 3 in Australia without too much hassle. It might not happen to you, but I have to warn you that it's a possibility.

Final verdict 

We've covered a lot of ground, but I think it's important to go back and talk about the local streaming features. You'd assume that a box like this would support at least DLNA streaming, if not Samba networking, but it doesn't offer either. Right now you're probably relying on these if you want to stream video across your home network rather than playing videos from USB storage, but there are other options.

You can install the USB media player "channel" from the store, which lets you browse the content of attached USB storage. Alternatively, you can install the Plex channel which lets you stream content from Plex servers around your home. If you're running a computer-based media server then Plex is certainly worth evaluating, but it might not be an option if you want to stream content from a basic DLNA-enabled network drive.

There are alternative channels to Plex, such as PlayTo, Roksbox and Chaneru, but they also require installing extra software on the computer you want to stream from. The lack of DLNA and AirPlay support also makes life complicated if you want to stream content directly from a smartphone or tablet. You'll find Roku apps for Apple and Android which act as remote controls and stream photos and music, but they won't stream video. Your best bet on an iGadget is the TwonkyBeam app and its corresponding Roku channel. Android users should also try the PlayTo app and channel.

You're in for a rude shock if you expect the Roku 3 to fit seamlessly into your home DLNA ecosystem. It's a shame, because DLNA and perhaps Samba support would make the Roku 3 the dream box. If you're primarily interested in streaming content which you've already downloaded (maybe via BitTorrent) then this probably isn't the box for you unless you're already using something like Plex to server content.

You might have DLNA built into an internet-enabled television, Blu-ray player or games console, but it's still frustrating that the Roku 3 can't be your one box to rule them all. If you're after a device more for its DLNA and Samba support then it's hard to go past the WD TV Live. If you're merely after Netflix and Hulu it's worth considering the Apple TV.

So what's the verdict? After a saga like this it's tempting to declare the Roku 3 is more trouble than it's worth. There are easier ways to watch Netflix and Hulu in Australia. If they're all you're after, you might even be able to change the DNS settings on your internet-enabled television or Blu-ray player and trick it into loading up the Netflix and Hulu apps. You might also find Plex apps on these devices.

If you don't have any other internet-enabled home entertainment gear which supports Netflix and Hulu then the Roku 3's clean interface and ease of use makes it a tempting option, as long as you're prepared to possibly go through the trouble I had getting it to work. It might work first time, it might not. If you're also a keen Plex user then this might be the perfect box for you. For a mere $US99 you might consider it worth a look, but don't expect smooth sailing.

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