Roku: So simple and yet so useful

I am a techie and love buying new gadgets.  However, every once in a while, a device comes out that makes you think, “how could something so simple be so useful,” and this describes Roku perfectly.  It is a single purpose device designed to stream audio and video from the web.  There are no fancy LED displays or LCD remotes or flashing lights; it is a small black box that just sits there and does its job consistently and effectively.

Background

My interest in the Roku stemmed from a desire to watch movies on TV.  My cable company, Comast, offers video-on-demand, but I had been frustrated with the lack of choice and particularly in the area of children’s content.  At the same time, I had also recently become entranced with Pandora.  It is an amazing service that does a great job streaming a customized mix of music over the Internet.  The combination of these two requirements originally drove my search for an appropriate device.

My first thought was to put a computer in the entertainment center which could meet both of the above requirements and more, but the thought of having to boot something and then manage a keyboard, mouse and potentially a complex remote control was too much.  Another option I considered was a videogame system.  Most of today’s consoles serve as portals to the Internet and can stream audio and video, but the problem was cost and functionality.  These systems can be expensive and bring a whole range of videogame features which I would love , but currently have no time for.  It rapidly became clear that I needed a dedicated device, and I wanted something that would pass the wife test meaning that it was unobtrusive and easy to use.

After extensively searching the Internet, I eventually found the Roku.  I liked that it supported Pandora and Amazon Unboxed.  (Note: It also supports Netflix, but I am not currently a subscriber.)  Even better, the price was (and still is) compelling, and the table below summarizes the available options.

Product Roku SD Roku HD Roku HD-XDR
Price $59.99 $69.99 $99.99
Video Quality SD only HD HD
Wireless B/G B/G B/G/N
Wired Yes Yes Yes

I decided on the Roku HD, but the acquisition process was delayed due to family obligations.  As luck would have it, I was discussing Roku on Twitter one day with Geoff Hughes and who had just received a PS3 to replace his Roku.  Geoff offered to send me his Roku and thanks to his generosity, I was able to acquire a Roku HD at no cost.  Let me just say right now, Geoff is the man!  (You can check out Geoff’s blog here.)

Initial Use

When the Roku arrived, it came with the requisite manual and power supply, and I was surprised with the simple packaging.  The device included a full complement of connecters including HDMI, digital audio, component video, composite video and, of course, Ethernet.  The setup was very simple.  I plugged the Roku into my TV and home network and was off and running.  (Note that the process would have been easier had I used wireless, but I chose a wired configuration due to the superior bandwidth.)  The first thing I noticed was that the simple interface.  There were no fancy 3D graphics or semi-transparent windows; it was about as basic as it gets, but highly functional.

I immediately began to configure the Roku with my various accounts including Pandora and Amazon.  The process was easy.  The Roku device provided a code that I had to enter into my account at Amazon or Pandora and everything worked from there.  It is important to note that the Roku will not let you set up a Pandora station.  It automatically retrieves your station list and assumes that you create your Pandora stations elsewhere.  Personally, I do not see this as a serious limitation since it is just as easy to create your stations on a PC.  The Amazon application, on the other hand, does provide full searchability and so you can search, select and buy movies from the Roku remote control.  The process is reasonably simple, but typing long names using an onscreen keyboard can be annoying.  However, I believe that it is worthwhile trade-off for simplicity.

Thoughts after a few months

The device continues to grow on me.  As mentioned in the intro, it just works.  While GUI lacks fancy graphics, it is quite basic and functional and does not excessively complicate the experience.  In this case, the GUI’s job is to provide rapid access to the desired content and Roku achieves this objective.  Amazon’s Unboxed service has also exceeded expectations with many more selections than Comcast at lower prices.

Obviously image and audio quality are big questions.  I have no complaints about audio quality, it is fine.  On the video site, I have it connected to an SDTV and the image is perfect.  A neighbor was so impressed with my Roku that he bought an HD-XDR which he connected to his HDTV.  We recently watched an HD movie streamed from Amazon on his TV.  The quality was very good and I was amazed that the video was coming across the Internet.  (On a side note, my neighbor loves MLB.tv and the image quality on that service is equally good.)

The one negative is that the Roku does not natively support YouTube.  It is not clear why Roku does not offer a YouTube channel.  I found a workaround, but it struck me as odd that this outlet was excluded.  However, I do not see this as a major limitation because I am not an avid YouTube viewer.  If you are, you may want to look at this carefully.  (Feel free to drop a comment or contact me if you would like a more thorough review of the Roku/YouTube experience.)

Summary

The Roku is a great device.  It is designed to serve one purpose and does it admirably.  It is priced fairly and is small enough to be unobtrusive.  The best endorsement I can provide is from the Mrs.  She is a technology laggard and generally dislikes all my techno toys. After running Pandora and Amazon on the Roku for a few weeks, she said to me “This thing is cool!  Can you teach me how to use it?”  That is the ultimate endorsement and says it all.

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