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Saturday, April 13, 2024

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Roku: My First Day Review & Impressions

Until recently, I’d never heard of Roku, a little box that makes it easy to download TV shows and movies through the internet, for viewing on your TV. But as part of my Life With Google TV series, I’m looking at other internet-to-TV devices. Roku is pretty cool, and a no brainer for anyone who often uses Netflix or Amazon rentals, I’d say. It’s forthcoming Hulu support makes it even more attractive.

Roku and Google TV are similar in that they bring video content from the internet to your television. But that’s where the similarities end. Google TV an ambitious attempt to let you search for video content anywhere. Roku is much more about letting you “tune in” to select internet distribution channels.

Such simplicity isn’t bad. In fact, that’s one of the attractive things about Roku. But it’s a fundamental difference to understand, for those weighing the two devices against each other.

The Hardware Setup

Roku is available in three versions. The basic Roku HD cost $60 and outputs 720p HD video. For $80, you can get the Roku XD, which gives you 1080p HD video, plus a “rewind” feature and extended range wireless capability. For $100, there’s the Roku XD|S, which adds dual-band wireless, component video and audio plus a USB port that eventually will allow for playing photos, music and videos off an external USB device.

I purchased mine through Amazon, though you can buy direct from Roku (and soon, Roku-powered devices from other makers will be coming). I went for the high-end model, because I want to test out the USB functionality, when that comes through a promised upgrade in November. For many people, the lower end models will be perfectly fine and downright cheap for the heavy users of Netflix or Amazon.

The box itself is tiny, easily held in one hand:

I love that it’s so small. Yes, Apple TV is even smaller. Yes, a review of Apple TV is also coming.

Connections are straight-forward. There’s an HDMI out plug, which runs to your TV:

Unlike Google TV, this means you’ll need a spare HDMI input on your TV. There’s no “pass-through” capability. You can plug in an ethernet cable, but the Roku has built-in wireless. Plug in the power adapter, and you’re running.

The Software Setup

Roku’s start-up screen says setup “should take less than 3 minutes.” In reality, it took about 15, but it was still pretty painless. You select your wireless network and enter your security details, if you’re not using a wired connection. Once connected, you might be asked to do a software update. That happened to me. The download went quickly, and then I went back to the beginning of start-up, having to pick my wireless network all over again. But, at least the info I’d entered before was remembered.

Where Roku’s setup went wrong for me was with this screen:

Link my Roku player to my Roku account? I need a Roku account? And I’ve got to use my computer to make my Roku box start working?

OK, minor irritants. But still, I want a box to free me from depending on my computer to access internet video. Roku promises that, but only if I went back to my computer to link my player.

You can create an account from with Roku, but ultimately, you still need to use a web browser on a computer or other mobile device, to link your player. I used my iPad to do this, and it worked fine. Keep your computer or iPad handy, by the way. You’ll need them again later. To enable your Netflix and Amazon channels, you’ll also need to enter codes generated by Roku into your accounts at each place, using a regular browser.

Once linked, you pick the type of TV screen you have (4:3, 16:9, HD 720p or 1080p), and then your done. Time to start watching TV! Sort of…

Roku’s Channels

From the Roku home screen, you have access to the “channels” that you’ve selected. There are a variety of them available in the Roku “Channel Store,” which I’ll get back to at the end of this review. But first, notice the three default channels that have already been selected for you, listed next to the Channel Store:

The default channels are:

  • Netflix
  • Amazon Video
  • Hulu Plus

Pretty much, in my view, this is all Roku does — makes it possible to “tune in” to these three and important internet video channels easily. Everything else in the Channel Store is likely a waste of time, for most people. As I said, I’ll get back to that. But just these three channels alone (and really right now, only two), make this box worthwhile for many.

Netflix & Streaming

If you’re not familiar with Netflix, it’s a service that started out as a way to rent DVDs via mail. You’re allowed to check out a certain number of DVDs at one time, depending on the plan you buy. The plans also offers unlimited streaming of “Watch Instantly” content. If you know all about Netflix, skip the next few paragraphs. If not….

Cost varies. I pay $9 per month to check out one DVD at a time plus have access to unlimited streaming of titles. But Netflix is pitching $8 (OK, $7.99) streaming-only accounts now. I saw one of these myself, when I created a fresh account today:

If you have an existing account, you probably won’t see this option (there is a Starz Play Only choice, but that seems more limited). If you try to create a new account using an already registered credit card or address, you might also see the offer withdrawn. I sure did.

If you’re logged out, you might also see a $1 higher price point pitched, depending on which browser you use. Below, you can see Netflix pitching me a plan for $1 less on the left, when I visited the site using Firefox, versus hitting it in Chrome on the right:

That opposite of what Engadget reported, where the “Firefox” price was higher. My assumption is that the prices are given out randomly. If you use a different browser, you’re seen as a different person and may get a different offer. Or, if you clear out your cookies, that will also likely work.

Netflix Streaming On Google TV & Other Devices

Earlier this year, I purchased a Samsung Blu-ray player that had Netflix streaming built in. This transformed my viewing in a big way. Suddenly, I didn’t need to wait for DVDs to arrive. If I wanted to watch something on the spur of the moment, I could press a button on my Samsung player, and then I was connected to Netflix– which streamed what I wanted right to my TV, pretty efficiently. I caught up on an entire season of 30 Rock that way.

What’s not to love about that? And how could Roku improve upon it?

The improvement part is easy. With my Samsung player, I have to go to my computer and pick a title to add to my “Instant Queue.” I can have several titles selected all at once, but I need to go to my computer to add these. That’s a pain.

Google TV’s implementation of Netflix is the same way. If it’s in my Instant Queue, which I added to using my computer, I’m good:

If it’s not added, I’ve got to get off the couch, go to a computer and search to add what I want.

Roku’s Netflix Channel

With Roku, there’s none of that. Unlike Google TV — and ironically given that Google is all about search — you can search for content available for streaming on the service. The on-screen keyboard works very well, and suggestions are offered that can save you typing:

You can also easily browse many of the titles. The browse interface is very well designed:

Playback quality is doing to depend on your internet connection, but even with my terrible home wireless, I was pretty impressed. You can also easily fast forward or rewind:

So again, what’s not to love? The selection. You want to watch 30 Rock on demand? You’re good except for the current season, as the screenshot above showed. Flight Of The Conchords? Yeah, sorry about that:

Roku’s Amazon Channel

Amazon Video is one of Roku’s other major default channels. I’ve used Amazon Video several times in the past to catch-up on missed TV shows or to watch movies on demand. The service is pretty cool. Roku makes it even better.

About a month ago, I rented a movie through Amazon that I wanted to watch on TV. Unfortunately, it wasn’t downloading correctly to my main laptop. I dug out an older laptop, but then it was a hassle of getting that one wired to the TV. Once I’d plugged everything in, it wouldn’t support the TV’s full resolution.

Roku eliminates all that hassle. Your Amazon purchases flow right from Roku and into your TV.

Yes, you can search for titles:

Or you can browse:

I was intrigued by the “Free TV” category when browsing and went to check it out:

Wow — a free Running Wilde episode? No. As it turns out, it was just a two minute clip of Will Arnett and Keri Russell joking about Will’s hair. I get the impression most of the “free” TV stuff is like that, rather than the free full-length episodes available from many TV networks.

Roku’s Hulu Plus Channel — Stay Tuned!

Speaking of those free full-length TV episodes on the web, doesn’t Hulu offer a lot of them? And wasn’t there something I’d mentioned earlier about Hulu being part of Roku?

Correct on both counts. Hulu offers a huge amount of content from the major TV networks of ABC, Fox and NBC (CBS isn’t an investor in Hulu and has stayed out of the club there in other ways, so far). And Hulu is a channel on Roku. There’s just nothing there, yet:

Coming soon. Like when? According to Roku’s support site, Fall 2010. I know, it’s Fall now. Stay tuned, I guess.

Notice also that it’s Hulu Plus that’s supported, not Hulu. What’s Hulu Plus? A $10 per month subscription service that lets you watch the full current season of many shows (rather than the unpredictable number that Hulu seems to provide), as well as past seasons of many other shows. With Hulu Plus, those “unavailable” episodes of FlashForward become available for viewing. You have to request a “preview invite” for it, but using the same form as anyone might, I found my invite came through within two days.

Hulu Plus also lets you watch Hulu on an array of devices that the service belatedly decided should be blocked. Watching Hulu on your laptop is OK. But watching it on your iPad? We’d like to charge for that. Or for your iPhone. And you want Hulu streaming from a box that’s not a computer, in to your TV? As with Google TV, Hulu will only allow that with a subscription. Also as with Google TV, even if you do have a subscription, Hulu’s not yet enabled support.

It’ll come, of course. And when it does, Roku — which I already find pretty kick-ass — will be even better. Buy this box plus a $10 per month Hulu Plus subscription (which might even drop to $5 per month), and you’ve got tons of prime time content for cheaper than most basic cable packages. Add in Netflix, and there’s your movie channel. Amazon gives you pay-per-view, and now you really might be thinking twice about that cable or satellite subscription.

Postscript: Hulu Plus is now on Roku. See our further review, Roku + Hulu Plus = Pretty Awesome.

Unlike Google TV, No Easy Way To See What’s On

Of course, when you have cable or satellite, there’s going to be a “what’s on” view. A channel guide. A way to see everything that’s available at the current time or in the near future. You’ll generally have some rudimentary search tool, also.

Roku has nothing like this. You can search within Netflix. You can search with Amazon. You’ll almost certainly be able to search within Hulu. But you can’t search across those channels. Roku lets you tune into these new stations, as they were, but it lacks a unified guide to what’s on them.

As I said earlier, that’s the gap Google TV hopes to fill. Searches on Google TV already point to Amazon rentals, as well as free network TV content. When the expected Hulu Plus support comes into being, I’d expect those listings to be updated to include that (and which will be a huge help if the networks themselves keep blocking Google TV).

Google TV’s search doesn’t cover Netflix, however. The cheapest Google TV device, the $300 Logitech Revue, is 5 times more expensive than the cheapest Roku device at $60.

Other Channels: Think Community Access (& No Official YouTube)

How about that Channel Store that I mentioned way at the beginning. Do they contain all types of awesomeness? If you’re big on Revision3, perhaps:

Or there’s Drive-In Classics for $3 per year:

And the always exciting NASA channel:

If Roku is like a replacement for your cable box, and the default channels are like your major networks, then think of the Channel Store more like community-access cable. This is where you’ll find Wayne & Garth, for the most part — or at least it seems that way to me.

I don’t mean that to be as harsh as it sounds. There are some great shows to be found in there, but they’ll be shows for more niche audiences. There are also apps for viewing Flickr and Facebook photos, too.

You won’t find YouTube, which really ought to be one of Roku’s default channels, I’d say — especially given how much content there is on YouTube. I’m not up on the reasons why it’s not there (I’m sure I’ll learn soon and will update, as I do). However, Roku says it supports YouTube through a third party app.

The Remote’s Missing Two Controls

While I love much of Roku, I was sad the remote doesn’t have a volume control. I have kids. They make noise (I never do). I have to pause, rewind and turn the volume up or down depending on various child-influenced environmental factors. I don’t want to juggle two remotes to do this. Yes, I know — I can buy a $400 programmable remote and have one to rule them all. Or yeah, my iPhone can do it all. Look, I want life simple. Just add a volume control to the remote.

There’s also no power on/off button. Crazy. I had to search the help pages to confirm that I wasn’t insane. That’s right. If you want to turn off your Roku, you have to unplug it. Roku says the unit draws little power, so I guess they figured why bother with the power button. I suppose it saves some costs on the unit, as does the lack of volume buttons. I still want them both.

No Brainer For Big Netflix, Amazon Or Hulu Users

Should you get it? If you use either Netflix or Amazon a lot now via your computer, and you also own a TV, absolutely. Enjoy that bigger picture. Heck, I’m surprised that either of those companies don’t sell the devices themselves or give them away as incentives to subscribe or buy.

If you watch Hulu a lot, this is probably well worth purchasing when that support comes. Until it does, if you’re not using one of the other services, I’d probably wait.

It might not make as much sense if you already have another device that supports one or more of these channels. For example, Netflix seems built into everything now (Wii, Xbox, PlayStation, TVs, Blue-ray players, to name a few).

It makes even less sense if you’re a big Apple fan, I’d say. While I’ve not yet tested Apple TV, it has support for iTunes rentals. If you prefer that over Amazon, well, you probably haven’t tried Amazon. You should. But if you still prefer it, Roku doesn’t tune into iTunes. Apple does. Apple also does Netflix. Maybe Roku’s Hulu support will be a deciding factor for you.

Are you a Boxee fan? Maybe you want to wait for the Boxee Box, launching next month. At $200, perhaps it will bridge the gap between Roku’s simplicity and Google TV’s search-for-shows promise.

As for Google TV versus Roku, as I said in the beginning, they’re very different in many ways. Google TV offers a more ambitious future of TV viewing but at a higher price. If you’re tempted by that ambition, it probably makes little sense to also buy a Roku. Google TV can tune into all the same channels, even if the edges are rougher, at the moment.

For more, see some of our related stories:

Also see our Internet-To-TV page for further stories that will come.

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