Roku, a glimpse into the future of TV

After a few weeks of oogling the Roku Streaming Player at Best Buy like a teenage boy in the adult magazine aisle I finally made the purchase.

It’s everything I envisioned and then some. Much like that boy, I imagine.

In fact, Roku‘s interface and connectivity is how I envision not only the future of Internet TV  but television as a whole. One box, connected to all of our subscriptions and video content including Movies, TV, News, Sports, Weather, Netflix, Hulu Plus, Facebook, NBC News, Wall Street Journal Live, CNBC and more. Including Local News and Live Streaming video. Live video feeds that you can, get this, pause like a DVR.

Disclaimer: I was not paid by Roku or Best Buy for this feature. However, if someone from Roku or Best Buy would like to send my a check, I’m willing to accept payment and/or bribery for future posts.

For someone interested in trying online video and streaming content to a TV, Roku is the fastest, easiest and least expensive way to break into Internet TV. In fact, it might even be the best thing out there. Put simply, Roku kicks some serious ass.

No PC needed here. Roku is as simple as it gets. Roku connects wirelessly to your home network. And Roku HD starts at just $59.99. I went with the Roku XD for $79.99 which features 1080p HD quality streaming. Roku also offers one of the finer collections of Internet apps including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Pandora, Roku Newscaster, CNet, Blip.tv, Break.com, Crackle, Facebook Photos, Flickr, Last.fm, NASA, Picasa, Revision3, NBA, MLB, NHL and, actually, a ton of other applications.

My Roku XD, at $79.99, offering 1080p high-definition streaming of Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, CNet, Roku Newscaster, Pandora and a ton more.

Fits in your pocket (though I wouldn’t sit down)

Roku might be small in stature, but it packs a big punch. “There’s a ton of entertainment in this little box” is slapped on the Roku packaging. Roku offers a number of Internet apps that stream content to your TV through the Roku player subscription free.

The device is 5′ x 5′, which is about the size of a compact disc, and only one-inch high.

  

Roku offers three models: Roku HD, Roku XD and Roku XDS. Pricing starts at $59.99 for the Roku HD, $79.99 for XD and $99.99 for XDS. Note: Since this post, Roku has introduced a new line of Roku players. For the current line of Roku products, click here.

The Roku HD model offers a max of 720p high-definition. The XDS offers 1080p as well with bonus features like extended-range wireless and a USB port for playing pictures, music or videos. For a full breakdown of each model, head over to Rokuhere.

About Roku

Roku was founded in 2003 by ReplayTV* founder Anthony Wood. ReplayTV is credited with being the first-ever digital video recorder (DVR). Wood is also VP of Internet TV at Netflix, a position he’s held since April 16, 2007, after founding Roku but before Netflix moved from computer to living room.

In 2008, Roku introduced the first player to stream Netflix to a traditional TV. Some reports list Roku as a “spin-off” of Netflix, Inc. Netflix was an early supporter of Roku, with a $6 million investment. Per Bloomberg.com, Netflix has since sold its stake of Roku to Menlo Ventures. I called Netflix, Inc at its offices in Los Gatos, California, to confirm these findings but no one was available for comment. An email to Roku was not returned by post time.

Though Netflix was the beginning for Roku, it only grew from there. Roku features an open platform that allows any content provider to create software for the Roku Player. It’s a strategy that seems to have paid off.

“We’re opening up the platform to anyone who wants to put their video service on this box,” Wood was quoted in 2008 by Wired. “We’re going to release the software developer kit, so anyone can publish any channel, and users can access web content on their TVs.”

*ReplayTV is now a subsidiary of DirecTV, as it was acquired in 2007. Roku is a privately held consumer electronics company headquartered in Saratoga, California. Anthony Wood is listed as ReplayTV, Inc President of Products and Director.

Roku features and ease-of-use

Roku works with nearly any television set. From new to old, which makes it the perfect my-first-streaming box.

I tested mine on a 10-year-old Sanyo set with no HDMI inputs. Roku can also connect to newer sets with HDMI, offering 1080p HD video quality. And because of its easy set-up, I can move it around from TV-to-TV with little trouble, whether it’s from an old set to a new one or vice versa.

I said it’s easy. In fact, the Roku doesn’t even have a power button. Zero buttons on this unit, though it comes with a 12-button remote. It’s not your typical streaming device. It acts more like a wireless router than a media player. A hub for streaming content.

All it takes is a power cable and audio/video hookup, whether it’s the supplied AV cables or an HDMI cable (sold separately). By the way, any HDMI cable will do; don’t be misled by advertised ‘high-quality’ HDMI cables. I’d suggest paying no more than $35 for them.

Note: Since this post, Roku has introduced a new line of Roku players. For the current line of Roku products, click here.

How it works

Roku features a Netflix-like interface. You start at the Home screen and have access to all of your Channels. Enter a Channel by clicking it, then you’ll have access to all content within that Channel. 

Inside a Channel: Roku Newscaster

Roku Newscaster is a Channel featuring news from all the major news outlets and more: Fox News, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, PBS, Aljazeera, NASA, CNet, Current TV, ESPN, C-Span, NPR, PRI and BBC.

Clicking a news source within the Newscaster will display up-to-date news content that you can watch instantly on your TV. Let’s take NBC for example. The NBC app within Roku Newscaster gives you access to the following: Hardball with Chris Mathews, The Rachel Maddow Show, Meet the Press, NBC Nightly News, Today, Morning Joe, Mad Money with Jim Cramer, The Suze Orman Show and Your Business.

Most of he content is from the day of the broadcast. On Friday, April 22, content is from that day’s show. Though some series, like Tech Report from CBS, displayed content from the day-of and the past week.

The Roku Newscaster, and all shows within it, is completely subscription free.

This basic structure of the Roku Newscaster is how all Channels work, from News to Music and Podcasts.

The Roku Channel Store

In the Roku Channel Store, you can browse available Channels and add them to your Home Screen. View channels by a number of categories or select All Channels.

Update: Dec. 11, 2011. In the last few weeks, Roku’s been busy adding channels to its already impressive lineup. New channels include NBC News, Wall Street Journal Live and CNBC Real-Time.


Roku’s content is what sets it apart 

News, Movies, TV, Podcasts, Music, Weather, Sports, Social Networking, Photo-Sharing, it’s all here. Roku really has it all. Including popular subscription services like Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video.

 Subscription services

If you’ve got a subscription to Netflix, Hulu Plus or Amazon Instant Video, you can connect your subscription to your Roku player, thus connecting it your TV.

Subscription services include: Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, MLB TV, NBA, NHL Vault, UFC, Movie Vault, Flickstream TV, Sirius XM and more.

How much longer will it be before premium cable services like Showtime and HBO embrace these devices and offer subscriptions without cable plans, directly to consumers? Would parent companies CBS (Showtime) and Time Warner (HBO), a cable company itself, dare to make cable unnecessary? Or could they develop their own streaming boxes/services? For my post on Media Ownership, click here.

Even without Netflix, Hulu Plus or Amazon Instant Video, Roku has a lot of great free content.

 Free Content

In addition to the Roku Newscaster, featured above, other free apps include Break.com, TWIT.TV (This week in Tech), Crackle, CNet, TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), Revision3, Blip.TV, Pandora, Last.fm, Classical TV, Weather Undergound, NASA, a slew of music apps, Weather, Photo-sharing apps, International News, Religion & Spirituality channels, and even more news content — though Roku’s own Newscaster is all you’ll likely need with access to Fox News, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, PBS, Aljazeera, NASA, CNet, Current TV, ESPN, C-Span, NPR, PRI and BBC.

Update: Dec. 11, 2011. In the last few weeks, Roku’s been busy adding channels to its already impressive lineup. New channels include NBC News, Wall Street Journal Live and CNBC Real-Time.

 Live video streaming

Roku can even stream live video. Case-in-point: Al Jazeera (English) broadcasts live every day. And get this: you can pause the live feed. Sound familiar? You didn’t think Roku founder Anthony Wood, who also happened to create the first DVR in ReplayTV, would forget his roots did you? Other Live streaming video from CNN International as well as Ustream.tv.

 Local News

Roku is the first streaming player on the market to offer Local News. On April 16, Roku announced via Twitter that it had added the first local news broadcast, Channel3000, a CBS News affiliate from Madison, Wisconsin. Roku pulls video from Channel3000’s website and makes it playable for free on the Roku player. Channel3000 is currently the only local channel available, but it’s also the only local channel on any streaming player. Watch for more local stations to add their content to Roku in the coming year.

How Roku stacks up

If you’ve been waiting to jump into the Internet TV world, Roku is a perfect place to start. And a great place to finish.

From all of the Internet TV devices I’ve tested, Roku is my favorite. Its Newscaster is just what I’ve been searching for, up-to-date (and in some cases live) video news from a variety of sources.

For current Netflix or Hulu Plus subscribers, Roku is an easy way to stream content to any TV in your home. I actually prefer Netflix on Roku to anything else I’ve tested including Sony Blu-ray players, Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Wii. Starting at only $59.99, Roku offers enough extra content to make it well worth the purchase. Roku is really a no-brainer.

Devices like Roku are bridging the gap between Internet TV and Cable, giving users access to web content, moves and TV shows with Netflix, Hulu Plus and premium sports content from the NHL, NBA, UFC and MLB and now Local News and Live Streaming. Roku is bringing Internet TV just one step closer to the complete TV experience.

One year into my cable-free life, things are beginning to feel, in some ways, a little familiar. I’ve got hundreds of channels, endless content and not enough time to watch it all.

The only difference is, with Internet TV, there’s always something on.

If you enjoyed this post, check out My Predictions for Internet TV and the Future of Cable.

Source: Roku.com, Engadget, Wired, Bloomberg.com, HackingNetflix, Tech Crunch TV Interview with Anthony Wood. Images: Cnet, HackingNetflix, Roku.com, GigaOM, businesswire.com

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10 thoughts on “Roku, a glimpse into the future of TV”

    1. Hi, Katie

      The only sports content on the Newscaster channel is from ESPN.

      It’s all audio content, no video. Podcasts including Hockey Today, Football Today, NBA Today, Baseball Today, ESPN Radio Daily, Gridiron Recap Podcast, Fantasy Focus Baseball Podcast, Fantasy Focus Football Podcast, The BS Report Podcast, The Melrose Line Podcast and The Scott Van Pelt Podcast. Plus PTI Audio from the last three weeks or so. Other audio-only content includes The Best of Mike and Mike in the Morning, SportsBeat with Mike Tirico, The Thundering Herd with Colin Cowherd, Around the Horn, ESPN U College Basketball and ESPN U College Football.

      As of now, no video content from ESPN. Though since Roku’s open to third-party developers, one could pop up any day. Actually I think that’s how the Newscaster came about. If you google “Roku private channels,” you’ll find links to a bunch of third-party channels, many of which are free (you just need the code to add to your available Roku channels).

      Better than the ESPN channel with Newscaster is what Roku has done with some official sports channels.

      Roku offers content through a number of official, subscription-based channels, including MLB.tv, NBA Game Time Lite, NBA Game Time Premium, UFC and NHL GameCenter.

      Each channel is different, so I’ll run through them for you:

      Per the channel descriptions, MLB.tv gets you access to over 2,430 MLB regular season games Live or on-demand in HD quality. Subscription rates are $90/year for regular plan or $110/year for premium MLB.tv. Here’s the link for info and pricing: http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/subscriptions/index.jsp?product=roku&vbID=RokuDevice

      NBA Game Time Lite, through Roku, doesn’t offer live games but gets you highlights and live score updates. This channel is subscription free. For Live games, you’ll need NBA Game Time Premium. That’ll cost you $4.99 (for the channel). You’ll also need a subscription NBA League Pass. With the subscription, you can watch up to 40 games per week via live streaming. The link: http://www.nba.com/roku/

      UFC Channel offers live fights, if that’s your thing. Plus archived fights. Looks like this is pay-per-fight after you’ve added the channel.

      NHL GameCenter Live/Premium gets you live out-of-market games plus full-length and condensed replays. Looks like this is $5 per month. NHL Vault is also $5 per month and gets you access to condensed replays from already-aired games, full-length replays from games since 2007, and access to what it calls “Classic Games.”

      That’s what I uncovered anyway. Hope that helps.

      Thanks for the comment –

      Eric

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