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Roku 3's Voice Search Trumps Amazon Fire TV With More Choice

Roku's speedy voice search and content-agnostic approach helps make it the better streaming media player.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Whether you’re a cord-cutter or a cable lover, it’s hard to ignore how appealing some streaming media boxes are.

Take Roku’s new players, for example. The company recently updated its Roku 3 ($99) and Roku 2 ($69) set-top boxes with new features — the most notable being voice search. So now when you’re looking for “The Walking Dead” on Netflix or Amazon, you don’t have to use the arrows and “OK” buttons on the Roku remote to type out the title.

Of course, Roku isn’t the first to offer voice search. Amazon’s Fire TV ($99) and Google’s Nexus Player ($99) both had it when they launched last year. Comcast has also introduced voice search with its latest Xfinity X1 system.

I didn’t test Comcast’s or Google’s solution for this column, but I did compare the Roku 3 against Fire TV. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but in the end, I would recommend Roku. Not because it’s voice-recognition system is better than the Fire TV’s, but because it offers better search results. (This recommendation is assuming that you don’t have all of your content locked to a particular ecosystem like Apple iTunes or Amazon, in which case you might be better off with Apple TV or Fire TV, respectively.)

The Roku 3 player itself is largely the same as the previous model. The squarish puck includes an HDMI port, Ethernet jack and USB port. Setting it up is simple, and I had it working with my Samsung HDTV in a just a couple of minutes.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

The redesigned remote control is where the magic happens. Like the 2013 Roku 3, it offers a headphone jack so you can watch TV without disturbing others, and buttons for playing casual games like Tetris and Pac-Man. You’ll also find a new search button that activates voice search.

Unlike the Fire TV’s remote, you don’t have to hold this button down while giving voice commands to the Roku remote, which is nice. It also worked fine when I had the remote an arm’s length away from my mouth.

I should note that the new remote is only included with the new Roku 3. The Roku 2, Roku 1 and Roku Streaming Stick come with a more basic remote, but you can still get voice search using the updated Roku iOS or Android app. (It also works with any Roku models and Roku TVs that were introduced after 2011.) The mobile app’s interface is a little clunky, but the voice search worked fine in my tests.

You can use voice search to look for either content titles or channels. In general, I thought Roku’s voice search capabilities were on par with Fire TV’s in terms of accuracy and speed.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

I voice-searched for at least a dozen different movies and TV shows like “Interstellar,” “Game of Thrones,” “Orphan Black,” “My Neighbor Totoro” and “La Dolce Vita.” In most cases, both players got it right on the first try, but there were times each stumbled, particularly with names.

Unlike the first time my Re/code colleague Walt Mossberg tried it, Fire TV understood “Benicio Del Toro” right away. But Roku wasn’t able to recognize the name. I tried saying it slowly and pronouncing it different ways, but no luck.

Javier Bardem was another name that tripped up both players. Roku eventually got it after I said it a couple of times. Fire TV did not, though I did get a chuckle out of the results: How Beer Bardem, Heavy Air Bardem, Heavier Beer Bardem.

One thing I like about Fire TV that’s not available on the Roku is that you can also search genres or character names by voice. When I said “Olivia Pope,” it returned with “Scandal” and a search for Mindy Lahiri correctly pulled up “The Mindy Project.” On the Roku, character names yielded no results, and genre searches pulled up channels or other content that had the words “horror” or “drama” in their title.

Even so, I’d pick Roku over the Fire TV because it offers more varied results.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Unlike Amazon, Roku doesn’t sell content through its own store, so it doesn’t favor one service over the other. Instead, Roku searches across 17 different channels, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon and Vudu, and sorts results from lowest price to highest.

For example, when I searched for the movie “Nebraska,” Roku showed that I could view it for free on Netflix or Amazon Instant Video with a subscription, or I could buy it for $13.99 on Mgo or Vudu. Meanwhile, the Fire TV only gave me the option to watch or purchase the movie on Amazon.

In another instance I looked up “Broad City,” and Roku’s results included Vudu, Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video. Fire TV displayed Amazon’s offerings prominently, and only after digging through different options did I find that I could also watch it on Hulu Plus.

I’m an Amazon Prime member, so I often stream and purchase content from the company’s service. But I also subscribe to Netflix, and I’d rather have the option to choose, especially when there’s a price difference.

There were several times that I searched for movies — “Django Unchained,” for example — and found they were only available for rent or purchase on Fire TV. But on Roku, I could watch them for “free” on Netflix.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

In addition to voice search, Roku introduced another feature called My Feed. You can use this section, available from the home screen, to follow new movies that aren’t yet available to stream, such as those that are currently playing in theaters. (Right now, it’s limited to just movies, but Roku plans to add more content.) When they do become available, or if there’s a price change, it’s noted in your feed.

While I like this feature, I find myself wishing there was an easier way to see updates at a glance — maybe by adding an asterisk next to My Feed, or through a push notification on the mobile app. When I first started testing the new Roku 3, I followed “Selma” and “American Sniper,” but then forgot to check the feed for a few days. Only when I was shooting the video for this column did I navigate to the feed and see that both are now available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video.

Overall, the Roku 3 was fast. There wasn’t any lag when navigating between menus or launching applications. And while Fire TV offers more choice in terms of types of games and titles, I never felt like there was a lack of content on Roku, with more than 2,000 streaming channels, which now includes YouTube, and 250,000 TV shows and movies.

For anyone considering buying a streaming media player, the Roku 3 should be at the top of your list. Its voice search makes it easier and faster to find content now. And if you’re okay with using the mobile app instead of the remote, you can still enjoy the new features on the Roku 2 and save some money in the process.

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