on November 3, 2013
Roku 3 is an audio/video streaming device for your TV and A/V system. It lets you (a) play online audio/video streaming content, (b) play your local media content from USB storage or home network, and (c) play a few casual games. All Roku-brand devices are market leaders at the moment as they support most of the major content providers, such as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Vudu, Redbox, Blockbuster, Pandora, etc.
Roku requires a broadband Internet connection of at least 3 Mbps if you want to watch high definition video, or 1.5 Mbps for standard definition video. If you are unsure about your speed, go to Youtube or any online video site and watch some HD videos. If the quality is good, Roku's streaming quality should be too. Note that video quality still depends on individual content providers.
Roku 3 is a little black box that is small and light. Roku 3 actually weighs more than older models, so it doesn't fall off your furniture so easily. With an optional ten-dollar mount, you can mount the Roku box to the back of your TV.
Roku 3 only has one audio/video output available: HDMI. There are no composite (as in older Roku devices), component, Toslink, S/PDIF, nor RCA outputs at all, so those with legacy TV and A/V systems can't use it. Roku 3 also has an ethernet port for wired network connection, and supports dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n for wireless network access.
Roku 3's default video and audio settings are 720p and stereo. Be sure to change them to 1080p and surround if that's what you need.
Roku 3 is remote-controllable via both Wi-fi and infrared. With Wi-fi, you can control it with the included Wi-fi remote or an iOS device. With infrared, you can control it with a universal remote such as Logitech Harmony One.
Roku 3 also has a microSD card slot and a USB port, which let you use additional storage for content and system settings.
Note that Roku is not exactly a substitute of cable TV because a lot of content can still only be seen on cable, notably live TV: live major sports programs and live broadcast of TV series.
Roku does have streaming of Time Warner live TV (for 300 channels), but you need a Time Warner cable subscription and a Time Warner Internet plan. Stream quality is pretty good. I'm able to watch live sports program in smooth video. But unfortunately there is no surround sound in any programs.
Roku also has limited streaming of live local TV. Without cable, the only way to get live local TV would be to use an antenna.
Most of what Roku offers is archived content, or "on-demand" content. There are hundreds of providers, which Roku calls "channels", that stream select archived programs that you can watch at any time. A wide variety of content is available: movies, TV shows, news magazines, webcasts, food, religion, fitness, technology, etc. A nice selection of international content from around the world is also available. Go to Roku's website and browse its channel store to see all it offers. New channels are added frequently.
There are channels for browsing your cloud media content as well. If you have photo albums on Picasa, Flickr, Dropbox, Shutterfly, etc., you can browse your photos with the Roku.
There are free channels as well as ones that require monthly subscriptions. Wikipedia has a list of free channels offered by Roku. Some channels require payment simply for GETTING that channel. E.g. the Dropbox channel costs 10 bucks.
Roku does not support iTunes or iCloud content because Apple doesn't allow Roku to compete with its own Apple TV device. But Roku does offer a free iOS app that lets you send video, music, and photos from your iOS device to your TV.
One of the big complaints from Roku users was that there was no Youtube channel. In December 2013, a Youtube channel was finally added, but only for the Roku 3 player. You can search, like, dislike, subscribe, turn on subtitles, and flag. You can also sign in to your account, but you cannot comment, nor can you create playlists. You can also send Youtube videos wirelessly from your iOS and Android devices to your Roku.
One of the headaches of viewing on-demand content is that content COULD EXPIRE (no longer be available) without much notice. When and how often content expires are often controlled by copyright holders of the content, who are not obliged to disclose much details to the public. From my observations, for instance, movies on Netflix are available for 2-3 years, or more. Extremely unfortunate circumstances could cause massive expirations. Netflix recently made headlines when it had to expire 1800 shows due to the requests from major studios like Warner Bros and others. Warner later started its own streaming service, the subscription-based Warner Archive Instant, which was recently added as a Roku channel. The losers are the consumers, who have to pay for yet another service to get content.
One important note about expired content is that, if you purchase and own an item, you are able to play it FOREVER, even if it expires later on.
Another headache is the design of individual channels. Functionality, user-friendliness, bugginess, and even streaming quality can vary widely among the channels.
For instance, some channels let you turn on closed captioning, but some don't. Some offer surround sound, and some don't. Some have great video quality, while some have long load times. Some have slick user interface, and some have primitive UI. In short, you are at the mercy of the channel providers (not Roku) as to how good a viewing experience you will get. This is akin to the Apple app store where the quality of every app is different. Roku's Channel Store shows star ratings from viewers, but no detailed info on their quality. There are websites such as RokuGuide dot com that review Roku channels, so look them up. At the end of this review, I will review some of the Roku channels I've used and their qualities.
For those who are not technically inclined, Roku may cause additional headache for requiring you to sign up for many of the channels, which leads to a whole lot of user ID and passwords you need to keep track of.
Viewing UltraViolet content is especially cumbersome: you need an UV account; you need an account from a content provider like Vudu or Flixster; and you need to link both accounts together. It may involve entering a redeem code on UV's website as well.
Besides streaming online content, the Roku device is also a media player for playing your personal local content from an external USB storage or home network. But it supports only a few media formats: MKV (H.264), MP4 (H.264), AAC, MP3, JPG, PNG. For that reason, I have rarely used Roku to play local content.
As I mentioned earlier, you can, however, use the Roku iOS app to send video, music, or photos from your iOS device to your TV. It interrupts whatever is on the screen and replaces it with your content. This is similar to the Airplay feature of Apple TV. The downside is that iOS devices also have limited media support, just like Roku. So if you have media that your iOS device can't play, neither can Roku.
Roku 3 is also a gaming console. Its remote has a motion sensor that works like a Wii controller and allows you to control on-screen movements. Roku 3 comes with "Angry Birds in Space" that showcases nicely the remote's ability. 63 other games are available in the channel store currently. Some are free, most are paid, and some can be trialed for free. All are in the casual game variety. Nowadays, it seems that all gadgets have to do two things at the minimum: stream video, and play games. Will your refrigerator and washing machine be doing the same soon?
And now, my reviews of a few Roku channels:
One of the big complaints from Roku users was that there was no YOUTUBE channel. In December 2013, a Youtube channel was finally added, but only for the Roku 3 player. You can search, like, dislike, subscribe, turn on subtitles for, and flag videos. You can also sign in to your account, but you cannot comment. You can also send Youtube videos wirelessly from your iOS and Android devices to your Roku.
NETFLIX INSTANT costs $8 a month and offers what many believe to be the largest selection of programs. It offers 1080p picture in "Super HD" (fancy way of saying higher bit rate) and also 3D streaming for select titles. If your Internet speed is high enough (at least 5-10 Mbps as required by Netflix), then you will get the best picture and sound quality currently offered by any streaming service. For surround audio, Netflix uses Dolby Digital Plus, a higher bit-rate and better-sounding version of old-fashioned Dolby Digital. Note that older TV sets and audio systems may not be able to process Dolby Digital Plus so check your manuals. As I mentioned earlier, content could expire without warning. The only place to see expiration dates is the Netflix website; Roku's Netflix channel does not show it. Regarding 3D streaming, only compatible TVs are supported. But I'm able to view it on a PC with Nvidia 3D Vision setup.
VUDU is an a-la-carte instant video service. There is no monthly fee, but you pay two to five dollar to rent a video for 24 hours, or pay ten dollar or more to own it. TV series episodes are for purchase only at about 3 dollar each. So VUDU is not for those who watch a lot of TV. It also offers 1080p picture and Dolby Digital Plus audio in "HDX" format (VUDU's version of high bit rate), which requires 5 Mbps, so it is similar to Netflix's quality. VUDU also offers a lot of 1080p movies that are not yet on Blu-ray. Other services offer them too, but VUDU seems to have more of them, including older, less mainstream films that are less likely to come out on Blu-ray, such as "Baby Doll", "Blow-up", "Wait until Dark", Alfred Hitchcock's silent films "The Ring" and "Manxman", and many others. Go to VUDU dot com to see what is offered.
AMAZON INSTANT has an unattractive pricing. Not only you have to pay upfront 79 dollar for one year of "prime membership", but you also have to pay ADDITIONAL 2-5 dollar to rent certain content. Some content can't even be rented and has to be bought. A lot of content can be rent for free with prime membership, however. My experience has been that half of the time I run into something that costs extra rental fee. Without prime membership, Amazon does offer a-la-carte pricing for certain content. Also, Amazon does not yet offer 1080p streaming - only 720p and 480p for now.
HULU offers a lot of free content, but sadly, Roku only includes the subscription-based Hulu Plus, which costs 8 dollar a month. Hulu has a lot of content not found on Netflix or VUDU, such as movies from the Criterion Collection. Like Amazon, Hulu also doesn't offer 1080p picture, only 720p and 480p.
TIME WARNER CABLE TV (TWC TV) lets you view live cable TV from Time Warner on Roku, but you need at least Standard TV subscription plan and Internet plan from Time Warner. Disappointingly, there is no program guide, no surround sound, no Time Warner On-Demand, and no closed captioning. The live TV stream has an almost ONE-MINUTE DELAY from live broadcast. There are also a web version and iOS app version of TWC TV, and they do have program guide, TW On-Demand, and closed captioning. TWC TV offers 300 channels, but only if you view it on your home network. Out of home, you can only view TEN channels. Those "anywhere, anytime" commercials from Time Warner are slightly misleading, since you cannot watch ANY CHANNEL anywhere anytime.
PLEX provides additional streaming channels that are not offered by Roku, such as channels for viewing TV episodes of ABC, NBC, CBS, and A&E programs. There is a hassle factor: you need to install the Plex server software on a PC or Mac in the same network as your Roku device. Plex can stream content from your PC or Mac (such as iTunes video and music) to your TV as well. It also lets you "queue" Youtube clips so you can watch them on Roku, but the queuing has to be done on a PC or Mac.
POPCORNFLIX represents the low end of what Roku can offer. It shows hundreds of free but lesser known movies with blurry, and often choppy picture. You also have to view commercials. Go to Popcornflix dot com to sample their offerings.
PICASA lets you use Roku to view your photo albums on Picasa (online photo service from Google). Opening the channel always give me a "API" error message. Picture quality is blurry. This channel is not developed by Google or Roku, but by someone named Chris Hoffman. I've tried to contact him but to no avail.
The FLICKR channel lets you view your Flickr photo albums on Roku. Sadly, if a photo is wider than 16:9, the aspect ratio of the TV screen, the photo is cropped on the left and right to fill the screen. This channel is not made by Yahoo (which owns Flickr), but by Chris Hoffman, also.
The COUCHY TV channel is also developed by Mr. Hoffman, and sadly, it has a problem too. This channel lets you view Dropbox photo and stream Dropbox video on your Roku. But for some reason, photos are shown at a much reduced size, and there is no way to enlarge. Video streaming is quite good, however. Mr. Hoffman, where are you?
REVISION3 is a free online video website and Roku channel that offers many independent web programs on technology and entertainment, such as "Tekzilla" and "HD Nation". The program content is excellent, but unfortunately, the Roku channel is poorly designed. It doesn't remember the show you have watched, and you always have to scroll through a long list of shows to see what you want.
So, in short, to use the Roku:
(1) It helps that you are technologically inclined.
(2) Expect mostly on-demand content and not a lot of live TV content, and thus Roku doesn't necessarily replace cable TV or antenna TV.
(3) Expect to sign up for a lot of services, and pay for some.
(4) Expect some Roku channels to be better designed and/or more functional than others.