You have more streaming TV options than you could hope for, especially now that Amazon has entered the fray. And while Apple TV, Chromecast, and Fire TV all have their strengths, they also share the same crippling weakness: self-interest. That's what makes Roku so important.
It's more clear than ever that when you buy a streaming device from Apple, Google, or Amazon, what you're really buying is the opportunity to buy more stuff from those companies. There are conveniences thrown in, like seamless mirroring and bonus cloud storage, but Apple TV, Chromecast, and Fire TV are at their hearts all just gateways. Or more accurately, they're all drawbridges, each leading to different highly walled, fiercely defended castles. And once you're in, you're not allowed back out.
Take Amazon's Fire TV, the most recent entrant in the set-top box battle. Its voice search and microconsole gaming prowess help it stand out in a crowded field, sure. But its focus on locking you into Amazon's ecosystem, at least for the time being, degrades your experience in ways both subtle and profound.
Let's say you finally want to dive into Scandal. You should! It's great. A voice search on your Fire TV will make it incredibly easy for you to purchase individual episodes or full seasons of the show from Amazon Instant Video. What it won't show you? That Scandal is already included as part of your Netflix subscription. That's because Fire TV only returns search results for Amazon products, because that's how Amazon makes money.
Update (4/17): Amazon has added Hulu Plus, Crackle, and Showtime Anytime to its voice search results. Netflix is still absent.
But what if you wanted to rent a new release that you knew for a fact wasn't on any of your streaming services? There, too, you're stuck; Amazon is the only game in town on Fire TV, having not invited Vudu or M-Go to the party. You may not have heard of those rental services, you may never use them, but they offer something very important that's hard to come by on a set-top box these days: choice.
That's not to pick on Fire TV; the above holds more or less true for Apple TV and Chromecast as well. All of them have varyingly restrictive mirroring abilities; they all let you stream photos as long as you're storing them in the right cloud locker. We can be so good, they say, if you let us be your everything. There's also nothing inherently bad about any of this. As far as business models go, it's proven itself very effective. You just have to remember whom it's effective for.
And then, at last, there's Roku. Little Roku, discreet and surprisingly affordable Roku. Roku's not there to push you into a Roku corner, or to be a minor genus in some larger Roku ecosystem. Roku exists to be Roku. It's there to give you the best viewing experience possible, so that you will enjoy your Roku and perhaps buy another one sometime down the line, or maybe get your parents one come Christmas.
What does that mean in practice? Roku gives you universal search. Just type in "Kevin Costner," and you'll see what he's been in, where you can stream it, where you can rent it, and for how much. Roku lets you push video, photos, or music from either iOS or Android, because Roku doesn't care how you spend your time when you're not Rokuing. Roku has every streaming service under the sun, including a few you'll never use and a few that aren't quite legal but can be handy.
More importantly, Roku promotes competition on multiple levels. Having a choice to rent a movie from three or four different sources helps keep the prices low, whereas in a Roku-less world you're more or less at the mercy of whichever clan you've committed yourself to. Likewise, an agnostic hardware provider can keep pressure on Apple, Google, and Amazon to keep innovating, to find features (like, say, gaming) that make people willing to look past the lack of openness.
It's not a miracle device. It can't truly mirror anything, which is a shame. Roku 3 can play some games, but the less said about those the better. Most of all, because Roku is a standalone product, it's going to be increasingly difficult for the company to survive as its competitors continue to sell hardware at or near a loss. There aren't outward signs of distress, but it's no stretch to say that its future is less certain than Apple's, Google's, and Amazon's.
But today, right now, Roku seems like your only shot at a smart TV experience that's built more for your enjoyment than to push a bigger ecosystem's agenda. And that's worth a whole lot more than a remote you can talk to.