Roku debuted its next-generation streaming set-top box, the $99.99 Roku 3, on Tuesday night, complete with a faster processor, an updated interface, plus an innovative remote control that hides a headphone jack.

But Roku’s secret sauce lies deep inside its box, under a heading marked “Search.”

For many, Roku is synonymous with video streaming, combining virtually every online streaming service available – Amazon Instant Video, Crackle, Hulu Plus, Netflix, Vudu, and many more – under one umbrella. Although Roku has dabbled with games – it added a motion controller with the Roku 2, allowing users to play popular games like Angry Birds – the company’s success has been based on simply providing the most movies and TV shows for the lowest price. In January, Roku announced that Time Warner Cable would bring up to 300 additional “live” channels to its customers who own a Roku, allowing them to tune into live TV without the need for a dedicated cable box.

(See also Roku Meets Time Warner: Baby Steps Towards A New Kind Of TV.)

In fact, the most distinguishing feature of the Roku 3 is its new remote control, which hides a headphone jack that turns off the volume of the TV and routes it through the jack, allowing a viewer to watch television without disturbing her partner. (In-ear earphones are included.) Aside from that, the Roku 3 features an updated processor for faster scrolling, Ethernet, 1080p support, a microSD slot… and that’s about it. The one thing that users will immediately notice, the new UI, is also being rolled out to most of Roku’s other devices in April, including the Roku LT, Roku HD (model 2500R), Roku 2 HD, Roku 2 XD, Roku 2 XS and the Roku Streaming Stick.

Search Becomes A Focus

All of that variety – Roku says it hosts up to 750 streaming channels – inevitably led to some form of consumer confusion. Last October, Roku unveiled its cross-service search application, allowing users to search for movies, TV shows, actors and directors across Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Crackle, VUDU and HBO GO. Within the Roku 3, search has been made part of the core functionality, meaning that users don’t have to load an app to discover which video service hosts “Cheers.”

“It’s what we call one-stop search,” said Lloyd Klarke, director of product management at Roku. “Instead of having to go into Netflix’s catalog and search there, come back out, go to Amazon, come back out – here, the objective is focus on what you want, we’ll help you find it, and then you can find out where to go, and watch it.”

After searching for an actor, like Daniel Craig, a list of his movies appear. Click a movie, and you can see which services offer the movie. Search results are divided into two groups: those services you subscribe to, and those you don’t. Within each group, the results are ordered by price, automatically guiding you to the cheapest option. (Some results include the caveat “From…” indicating that a more expensive option might be available.) HD availability is also called out.

A Growing Problem

Several other companies have made a stab at cross-service search, but none seem to have done it quite as well as Roku.

Last year, Verizon launched its Viewdini app for LTE phones and tablets that are subscribed to its services, but customers have complained of crashing and limited search offerings. (now lets users search for a show and then find a particular episode; hovering over it brings up as list of services that offer the episode for purchase, but with no indication of the price. also doesn’t seem to offer any way to narrows the search according to which services you subscribe to, let alone launch them. Flixster may be the best of the bunch: Searching for a movie brings up a list of services that offer it for rent, purchase and subscription streaming, as well as the struggling UltraViolet digital locker format. But the service indexes only movies.

Update: A couple of commenters have noted below that both Google TV and the Microsoft Xbox 360 both search across services, too. That’s true, although Roku’s implementation appears to be as efficient. Another, important consideration is price: while some Google TV “buddy boxes” are priced at the $99.99 price point of the Roku 3, several implementations are directly integrated into more expensive TVs. However, Google TV’s PrimeTime feature taps into Google search, giving it a leg up in search complexity. The point, however, is that to my knowledge, no independent Web service offers the same search functionality as the Roku 3, which is one of the most cost-effective hardware streamers available.

Roku’s search service isn’t perfect – with so many channels to choose from, and thousands of titles to index, it may never be. It’s also doubtful that Roku will ever be able to adequately index live content from TWC and any other providers with which it strikes deals. 

Apps like Peel, Thuuz and Netflix itself point the way toward recommending what you might want to watch, based on your historical preferences. But for me, recommendations are often guided by threads at forums I frequent, by people I know recommending movies they’ve discovered and I might want to watch. Being able to quickly find those movies and TV shows, as cheaply as possible, makes Roku’s cheap streaming set-tops even more valuable.