The Roku 3 is our current top pick in the Internet media box category. It's the best overall choice for online streaming, with Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, Amazon Instant, Vudu, and literally hundreds of others -- pretty much everything except iTunes and YouTube. Perfect for students who can't yet afford a pricey cable bill.
The good: The Roku 3's excellent new interface and faster processor makes it feel quicker and more responsive than any other streaming box. More than 750 channels are supported, including Netflix, Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Pandora, MLB.TV, Amazon Cloud Player, and Vudu. It also has cross-platform search that scours several major TV and movie services to find content. And Roku's nifty new remote has a built-in headphone jack that lets you listen without disturbing others.
The bad: There's still no official YouTube channel. Some services have an outdated interface on Roku compared to other streamers. The Apple TV still works better within the Apple ecosystem. And the Roku 3 isn't a great option if you're mostly looking to stream your personal digital media collection.
The bottom line: The Roku 3 is the best streaming-video box yet, with tons of content sources, lightning-fast performance, and an innovative remote with built-in headphone jack.
If the student in question is a full-on Apple person -- iPhone, iPad, iTunes, Mac -- the Apple TV may be a better choice than the Roku. And with the recent additions of Watch ESPN, HBO Go, and Sky News, it's a better deal than ever.
The good: The Apple TV lets you stream all of the movies and TV shows available in the iTunes Store to your HDTV on a rental or purchase basis, with purchases stored in the cloud. Netflix, Hulu Plus, MLB.TV, and a handful of other online media services are available, plus music, videos, and photos can be streamed from iOS devices using AirPlay. AirPlay Mirroring lets you stream any Web video to the Apple TV, including free Hulu, if you have a newer Mac running Mountain Lion. And Apple TV's user interface is one of the best there is.
The bad: The competing Roku 3 offers many more content sources (including Amazon Instant), cross-platform search, and a remote with a headphone jack. The Apple TV is also a much less useful box if you don't own other Apple devices.
The bottom line: The Apple TV is an indispensable living room companion for invested in iTunes content and Apple hardware, but for everyone else it's a step behind the Roku 3.
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