Roku: An inexpensive internet fun box

24 Apr

Last week I wrote about the upcoming arrival of Roku in Canada on Apr. 30. I’ve had a chance to play with the internet streaming device for a few days, so here’s my review.

At first, I was skeptical. With so many devices already connected to my TV, I wasn’t sure the Roku would provide much in the way of new. Indeed it doesn’t. Most of its “channels” are basically apps that can be streamed to your TV in other ways, but it does put a lot of stuff in one place with a nice, simple user interface.

The Roku isn’t like other media devices, such as the Apple TV, PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, as it’s not intended to sell movie or television episodes. Instead, it’s meant to stream much of what the internet has to offer.

One of the first channels I installed and launched was Flickr, so that I could see what my recent wedding photos looked like on a TV. In many cases, the channels require to you first authorize the Roku on your computer through the app’s respective website. So if you load Rdio, for example, the Roku directs you to the music streaming service’s website, where you punch in a code. From there, the Roku automatically launches the service. Simple enough. Flickr and my photos, by the way, worked and looked great.

Roku is launching in Canada with around 100 channels, with promises to quickly grow that closer to the 450 that U.S. users get. Even with fewer channels for now, there’s still plenty on offer.

The real-time news channels from the Wall Street Journal and CNBC host high-definition video, so it’s almost like getting a free CNN replacement. Facebook, Flickr, Weather Underground, recipe channels and various internet radio stations are all there at no cost as well.

Indeed, many of the channels on Roku are free, but it’s also easy to spend a bundle through it. You have to punch in your credit card details when activating the device, in case you want to buy any of the paid apps, most of which are games – more on that in a second. Many of the channels, however, only work if you’re a paid subscriber. Netflix, one of Roku’s most popular channels, is of course a paid subscription service.

The only channel I had problems with was Facebook, where I kept getting error messages. I checked with Roku to see if this was a common issue, but apparently not – it might be an issue with my unit or account. On the plus side, having tried Facebook on my TV through other devices, it’s probably not something I’d want to use the Roku for anyway.

The slightly higher-end Roku 2 XS, the one I tested, comes with a Nintendo Wii-like motion remote control for playing games. Playing Angry Birds on a big screen with a motion controller (which you could already do if you have a Wii) as opposed to a touch screen is pretty cool. I didn’t try any of the other games, mostly because I’m a cheapskate and didn’t want to spend money on downloading them. There are a bunch, though, including game shows such as Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!

The Roku doesn’t technically have the ability to stream media from a computer, which in this day and age seems backward. Fortunately, there’s a free downloadable channel that allows for streaming from a USB key. You can thus copy music, photos and videos from a computer onto a stick and plug it into the device. The only issue I found with this app is that it’s incapable of playing the popular .avi video file format. With any luck, this will be fixed either through updates or by additional channel apps.

The Roku is ultimately a curious device. It has some limitations and doesn’t do much that’s new, but it does do a lot – and it does it well. With a low price – the Roku 2 HD is only $89 while the Roku 2 XS is $109 – it’s a worthwhile pick-up for anyone who does a lot of web surfing, or for people who want to get entertainment on their TV without having to subscribe to cable or satellite. However, if you’ve already got a ton of other streaming devices under your TV, you’re probably already covered.

UPDATE: For anyone who’s wondering, here’s a full list of the Canadian channels available at launch. Movies & TV: Netflix, Crackle, Crunchyroll, Revision 3, Flixster, Chow, Movie Vault, Pub-D-Hub, HouseofHorrors, WealthTV (free and paid), Break, Classic Westerns, EWTN. News & Weather: WSJ, CNBC, Fox, CNET, WeatherUnderground. Music: Classical TV, Rdio, Tunein Radio, MP3Tunes, Radio Paradise, Soma fm. Sports: UFC, MLB.TV, NHL, MLS. Photos & Videos: Facebook, Vimeo, Flickr, Shutterfly, PicassaWeb, USB Media Player. Games: Rovio Angry Birds, Rovio Angry Birds Seasons, Rovio Angry Birds Rio, Jellyvision – YDKJ, Jellyvision – YDKJ lite, CobraMobile Storm in a Tea Cup, Noodlecake SuperStickmanGolf, Sony Jeopardy, Fieldrunners, Wheel of Fortune, CastleWarriors, Frisbee Forever, Downhill Bowling 2, Mouse About. Other: TEDtalks, TWiT TV, iFoodTV.


Posted by on April 24, 2012 in roku


14 responses to “Roku: An inexpensive internet fun box

  1. russellmcormond

    April 24, 2012 at 6:51 am

    I’ve had a DLink Boxee Box for a while now, and it sounds similar. It doesn’t organize things by ‘channels’, but by movies, shows (tv), music, pictures and apps. It connects to various Internet sites via its built in browser, with built-in scraping software for various websites so you can go to a Boxee provided list of TV shows offered by the CBC, CTV, spacecast, and related websites. when you launch an episode from the list it jumps to that specific page on the website, with you having to move the pointer to the ‘full screen’ button for best effect.

    I think there is a Facebook app, but I never looked at that. Have Netflix, with experimenting with Boxee+Netflix+net as a replacement for my Rogers cable being why I got it. It’s not a fully open content delivery platform of course, which is what I would prefer, but it compares favorably to digital cable or satellite. It’s also available for far more competing devices than digital cable/satellite is.

  2. Mike Wise

    April 24, 2012 at 8:25 am

    Does it come with Canadian access to the Amazon Instant On store? Are there options for renting movies or TV shows?

    • petenowak2000

      April 24, 2012 at 11:49 am

      No to the first question. Some channels, such as Crackle, offer free movies while there are others (such as Netflix) that provide paid access to various video. I’m not sure if there are any that offer straight-up rentals – I didn’t try any, but there may well be. I’ve added the channel listing above. Hopefully that should help.

      • russellmcormond

        April 24, 2012 at 12:17 pm

        There has been a few threads on the Amazon forums about how Amazon’s streaming services aren’t available via the Boxee Box which Amazon sells. This is one of the many failings of closed content delivery platforms: reduced potential sales from people who don’t have matching devices and/or software.

        No idea what Amazon Instant is like as I don’t think I have any device that works with it.

  3. Steve Killen

    April 24, 2012 at 11:57 am

    Plex lets you stream from your computer, as does RoksBox.

    • petenowak2000

      April 24, 2012 at 12:02 pm

      I did actually try Plex but found it pretty com-plex (excuse the pun). I couldn’t figure out how to get it to stream and it seemed to hang while looking for servers, which left me wondering if the app isn’t authorized to do that in Canada. RoksBox is also not available in Canada, at least at launch.

      • Steve Killen

        April 24, 2012 at 12:13 pm

        Hooray international copywrong! :-/

      • schuyler

        April 24, 2012 at 12:20 pm

        I don’t know of any reason Plex wouldn’t work in Canada. Feel free to swing by the Plex forums and I’m sure we can figure it out:

      • Ron t

        April 26, 2012 at 1:42 pm

        Plex requires a sever running on your computer. It’s free software developed by enthusiasts. It works well once you know the ins and outs but you have to read the forums to understand the limitations of each device you are running it on. Canadian users of Roku will find it very worthwhile. There is a learning curve but its not real steep. The development team is international and it works around the world.

  4. petenowak2000

    April 24, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    Schuyler: I’m back home on Friday so we’ll try to figure it out then.

  5. Daniel Kligerman (@dmk1)

    April 25, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    Plex works like a charm for me. I love that I can stream locally hosted content to the Roku, iPhone, Android and other PC’s all from one place.

  6. RickRansom

    April 26, 2012 at 6:25 pm

    Have you installed the Plex Media server from your PC yet? Also, try to double-check the requirements for it to make sure your tower met them. Running plex on an i5-2500k with 12gigs of ram doesn’t even dent my tower. I did try it on my core2duo laptop and it still worked fine without any hiccups.

    • petenowak2000

      April 26, 2012 at 8:01 pm

      Yeah, that’s one of my problems – the only PC I’ve got is a crappy little netbook. My main desktop, where most of my media resides, is an aging iMac and I’m hesitant to put it on there as it’s already getting kinda slow. The moral of the story is I need a new desktop computer!

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