NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- You don't hear much about Roku, but the private Saratoga, Calif., company has quietly sold around 5 million streaming media players. In a January 2013 blog post, Roku claims it unloaded one Roku player every second on Black Friday 2012 with Q4 same-store sales up 40% year-over-year.Over at Business Insider, Steve Kovach writes a glowing review of the new Roku 3, arguing that it "blows away the Apple ( AAPL) TV." Couldn't agree more. In fact, both my old Roku (the basic model LT) and the Roku 3 I received last week make Apple TV look like a half-assed attempt at a streaming player. Here's an example of where Apple runs into trouble by putting out hardware that's a clear attempt to lock users into its ecosystem. It ends up with a subpar streaming player that, as Kovach indicates, you should only buy if you have tons of iTunes video content. I say video because with the Roku iPhone app, you can actually play your iTunes music library and view photos through your Roku. I haven't quite figured out how to make it work yet, but I think you can also stream video from devices such as laptops and tablets via a USB connection.
As Intel ( INTC) prepares its set-top box, it's clearly looking to include some features in its device that will overlap with what Roku already does. For instance, Intel Media VP/GM Erik Huggers claims he wants to address personalization by user across one household Netflix ( NFLX) account. Worthy task. Roku hasn't done that yet -- it might be more a developer issue at Netflix than anything else -- but it did take care of one of my biggest annoyances. On the Roku 3, you can search for movies and television shows by title, name or by actor or director. The results display the streaming services that license what you're looking for, prices -- in standard and HD quality -- and available seasons/episodes on each.
So, this past weekend when I wondered about the availability of season three of Louie, I searched the Roku 3, got instant results, discovered no Netflix availability and made a choice between Amazon.com ( AMZN) Prime Instant Video and Wal-Mart's ( WMT) Vudu. (I went with Vudu just to try it out. I was pleasantly surprised. Well-done interface that's actually better than both NFLX and AMZN at first look).
First, the onscreen keyboard you use to search programming sucks as bad on Roku 3 as it does on the other models. It's the type where you select each character one-by-one. There's got to be a solution -- motion technology, voice recognition, whatever. That said, it might be tough to keep the Roku at its $99 price point with too many bells and whistles. Second, while Roku imports your downloaded channels when you hook up your new device and log into your existing Roku account, it doesn't preserve links between services such as Netflix, Amazon, Pandora ( P) and Spotify. You have to go online to reestablish those connections. Some of the apps aren't the greatest, particularly when you compare them to mobile versions and desktop experiences. For instance, you can't share music you listen to on Pandora or Spotify to social networks. Small deal. And, ultimately, it comes down to developers at these companies making the platforms they deliver to Roku better. Overall, it's really the best $99 you can spend on a streaming box. And, as somebody who has played with Apple TV quite a bit, there really is no comparison. Roku nails this one across the board, whereas Apple TV merely serves Apple's desire to sell content through iTunes. Follow @rocco_thestreet -- Written by Rocco Pendola in Santa Monica, Calif.