Watching TV is a lot different from this ’50s-era living room! (source: wikimedia commons)
As more and more people cut the cord and get the cable or satellite television monkey off their backs, streaming media players are becoming a must-have in the media room. California-based Roku, with more than a decade of streaming experience under its belt, is an acknowledged leader in the streaming market. The company’s signature purple-trimmed devices connect millions of televisions to their households’ wireless networks. As of this date, Roku offers four different streaming devices across a range of prices. In addition, they’ve just recently introduced Roku TV, smart televisions manufactured with their interface built in. But for now, let’s talk about those streaming media devices: which of the four meets your needs?
Roku Streaming Stick
At a list price of about fifty dollars, the Roku Streaming Stick offers a compact entry into the streaming market. This device is designed to plug directly into an HDMI port on your television; therefore it cannot be used with older, conventional televisions and may require some juggling of inputs on TVs with only one or two HDMI ports. The stick requires a power source, which may be either a USB port on a television so equipped or from a standard outlet using the transformer supplied.
Buy Roku Streaming Stick at Amazon
Like all Roku devices, the Streaming Stick comes with a remote control to give a user on-screen control of the interface. The remote also includes one-button shortcuts for channels such as Netflix, Blockbuster and Amazon Instant Video. Users can also download a free app for a smartphone or tablet, either Android or IOS, to operate the device. The stick also supports “casting” directly from Netflix and YouTube.
This version of Roku’s devices is well-suited for installation on a wall-mounted flat screen television with multiple HDMI ports and a USB port that will provide the necessary power. It cannot be connected to a television without an HDMI port.
The stick’s chief competition is Google’s Chromecast streaming stick. Differences in connectivity and streaming quality are negligible. The chief physical difference is that Chromecast, which lists for $35 as opposed to $50, lacks a remote, and must be controlled either from within one of the Chromecast apps (e.g., Netflix, Hulu, Crackle, YouTube, etc.) on a smart device or from a Chrome browser. Chromecast allows you to cast media from any tab on any Chrome browser, a capability that is unmatched by Roku.
Roku 1 Streaming Media Console
Buy Roku 1 at Amazon
The Roku 1 is a small console about four inches (10 cm) square. Unlike the Streaming Stick, the Roku 1 can be connected to a conventional television through composite connectors – a cable with red, white and yellow RCA plugs. This device cannot be powered from a USB connection, so it requires household current from a wall outlet or power strip.
The unit does not come with an HDMI cable, so users must supply this connector at their own expense, which can raise the total cost of the installation by ten or more dollars. It ships with the same remote control as the stick version, which controls the on-screen interface and includes the shortcut buttons to popular channels.
Roku 2 Streaming Media Console
Buy Roku 2 at Amazon
For an extra twenty bucks – a list price of $70 – you can get a Roku 2 player. This device is functionally identical to the Roku 1 except that the remote control includes a headphone jack and there’s a cute little set of (purple!) earbuds in the box. Using the headphones automatically mutes the audio signal to the television (and any sound bar in use). This feature allows you to watch the media on your television without using the room speakers. It’s said to be convenient for those who want to watch TV in bed without disturbing a partner.
The Roku 2 also connects to conventional televisions via an included component cable, and ships without an HDMI cable.
Roku 3 Streaming Media Console
Buy a Roku 3 at Amazon.com
The latest and greatest console from Roku, the Roku 3, includes everything in the Roku 2 except the component cable capability. To the standard console, the Roku 3 adds ports for USB and microSD input. Unlike the other Roku devices, which operate only on a wireless network, the Roku 3 can be connected to your router via an Ethernet cable. For an extra thirty dollars (list price $100) the Roku 3 is faster and more feature-rich than the Roku 2.
The Roku 3’s remote control is enhanced to use Wi-Fi Direct motion control for games, somewhat similar to a Wii controller. Reviewers note that the controller is neither as sensitive nor as accurate as a Wii controller, but is more than adequate for light use.
Roku 2 remote with its earphones
Roku calls their remotes are “simple and streamlined,” but I prefer to say that they’re “rudimentary.” The remote for my 2 has a four-position rocker (up-down-right-left) for navigating the on-screen menu and “OK,” “Home” and “Back” buttons that are also mainly for navigation. For the actual streaming process, all that is available are fast-forward and fast-reverse buttons, a pause/go button and a “rewind” that steps back about ten seconds in the content. Those used to the speed and dexterity of a DVR may be disappointed in the interface, which is at best simplistic.
Searching with the remote is also crude, as you must step through a keyboard by entering one letter at a time. Luckily, the smartphone and tablet apps incorporate a keyboard for the search function. Unluckily, the keyboard feature of the apps does not always work.
Your remote may on occasion spontaneously unregister from the streaming device. When this happens, you can fix it in a couple of minutes by removing the two AA batteries from the remote (and, of course, reinserting them).
All Roku devices allow users to choose from among more than a thousand “channels.” The channels range from free niche content – all anime all the time, religion, politics, and the like – to pay-only channels such as HBO, Blockbuster and Vudu. There’s a system-wide search capability from the home Roku screen, so if you want to to stream a few reruns of “Gilligan’s Island” or “Witchblade,” you can search across all channels. Maybe it’s just me, but many of the free channels are worth what you pay for them… or less.
Are You Experienced?
I’ve paired my Roku 2 with a FireStick dongle on my main television set, along with a DVD player for occasional trips to Redbox. The Roku box gets used most; typically for Hulu Plus, Netflix and Amazon; as well as occasional trips to Crackle. Since Roku does not have a CBS app and Hulu has very little current CBS content, we use a Google Chromecast to cast from a laptop to watch content from that network. Overall, the cord-cutting experience has been mostly positive – and our Roku 2 has helped a lot.
All Roku devices require high-speed internet (at least 3.0 Mbps to display HD signals, and preferably more); all are compatible with 802.11 a/b/g/n wireless routers, and support WEP, WPA and WPA2 wireless security. Setting up my device was straightforward, requiring only that I register the device with the wireless network and then register it with Roku central. The included remote control must also handshake with the streaming device; all in all setup takes only a few minutes – much of which I spent looking for my wireless password…
One word of advice: don’t try to connect a Roku device through a poor-quality HDMI cable. Ours did not work well at all until we swapped a cheap-o cable for one of better quality. Unfortunately, Roku’s offshored support was of no help with this problem – I had to figure that one out on my own. I did get endless apologies for my tribulations, however – the hallmark of support techs sitting a hemisphere or two away…