Pros: Offers lots of Netflix content, works well with Ethernet connection.
Cons: Works less well over a wireless network, limited content available.
I've been trying for a long time to convince my wife we need to get rid of cable. Or, at the very least, to cut down on the number of channels we get. It's just far too expensive these days, especially when you have to pay for a ton of channels you just never use. So what are the alternatives, you say? Some six months ago, Netflix with the Roku Digital Player seemed like a good one to me.
What the Heck is a Roku?
The Roku box is a wireless digital player that taps into your home wireless network and allows you to stream movies from a few select websites for display on your television. For some time, Netflix has touted the availability of thousands of movies and TV shows over the internet, which you receive in addition to the mailed DVDs that come with your membership. But who wants to watch TV on a tiny computer monitor? Not me. The Roku box solved that problem for Netflix and its customers by making content available on a more spacious platform.
What Content is Offered?
Initially, Netflix content was the only source of streaming entertainment available. When we bought our player, Amazon had just added it's library of content as well. Unlike Netflix, Amazon allows you to rent the latest releases (much like the on-demand pay-per-view your cable offers), and also buy videos that you can stream to your Roku.
The latest programming available over your Roku is MLB.com. Here, you can watch live baseball games streamed to your Roku. The games are not free, and packages run from $9.95 to $129.95 a year based on what you want to view. If you're an out-of-town fan of a particular ball club, then the latter might be your best option, since it entitles you to view every Major League Baseball game live or on demand.
How Do You Hook It Up?
Connecting you Roku is a snap. The box itself is lightweight and small, about 6 inches square and two tall, so it will fit just about anywhere. Most major output formats are supported; for my purposes I connect to my HDTV through an HDMI cable. Component, composite, S-Video, and optical audio are also supported.
That takes care of your video and audio output, but you also need to connect the box to the internet. You can do this via Ethernet cable (best picture quality), though that is not always practical if your TV is not in the same room as your router. So, most people will use the wireless connection. The box is always on and powered via AC cord. Once you connect to your TV and the internet, you'll get a "Home" screen where you can change device settings.
The box will automatically identify available wireless networks. Just select the one you want to connect to, enter your security code, and you're almost ready to go. The device will tell you how strong your signal is, which is important as we'll later see. The last step is to select your display settings, which in my case were for an HDTV. Now you're ready to go!
How Do I Use It?
The Roku box is operated by an included remote control that is about the size of the palm of your hand. To activate Netflix, Amazon, or MLB, you simply follow the on-screen prompts which will direct you to enter a code on your PC. Netflix is obviously what most people will use the Roku for, and to do so you'll need to add titles to your "instant queue". These titles will then appear on the Roku screen on your TV.
Amazon allows you to browse directly from the Roku without an instant queue. You can search for titles, view purchases you've made and added to your digital library, or scroll through the latest releases if you prefer. Once you select a title from any source, you can start, stop, pause, fast forward, and rewind all from the remote.
How Well Does it Work?
For the most part, the Roku works fairly well. My biggest complaint is that the built-in wireless card seems not to be able to do too good a job picking up a signal. We use our Roku in our bedroom, which is about two rooms length away from our wireless router, and on the same floor. Our reception has been spotty at best since we bought the device, and my wife (who uses this far more than I do), complains consistently that movies simply will not load, hang up, or drop in the middle.
This always puzzled me because no other wireless device we have has the same issues. The signal strength always displays as "fair", and the picture has been less than satisfactory. Just in case, we recently bought a new, more powerful wireless router. In the room directly across from the bedroom where we play our Roku, I have a PC with a wireless card installed that always shows signal strength as "Excellent". One room further down the hall, my daughter connects with her laptop and gets a "Very Good" signal, which is also what I get in my bedroom with my own laptop.
Still, the Roku only gets a "Good" signal, and it shows. Roku says the box will output in 720P HD, but it's rare that we ever get that. Certainly, it will output in 16 by 9 widescreen. Your actual picture quality will vary by signal strength. There are 5 levels of quality, ranging from 1 to 4 stars plus 4 star HD. Until we bought our new router, picture quality was usually at the three star level. Not all that great. The good news, though, is that movies seem to load much faster now and don't drop like before.
Now we get four stars, and very rarely, four star HD. When watching TV shows like Heroes I'm able to get four star HD, and the picture is good, with decent color and detail. Curiously, however, we can't get movies in 4 Star HD. Lakeview Terrace on Netflix and Gran Torino from Amazon, though in widescreen, looked dull, flat, and with little of the detail I demand from HD. Though watchable, I am usually disappointed.
In fact, we get consistently better results when streaming over our X-Box than we do with our Roku.
What Else is Wrong?
By this time, I had expected lots more streaming content to be available. Why can't I watch Hulu over my Roku? Or Fancast? It seems deplorable that there are so few options for streaming with the Roku.
Admittedly, the wife enjoys the Roku, and has watched countless Netflix-offered streaming BBC mini-series over it. From time to time, I too will watch a black and white movie or episode of Heroes. But for the most part, I'm less than satisfied with the Roku. If you have an X-Box (which also supports Netflix streaming), you'll likely get better reception by spending your hundred bucks on a wireless adapter for that, instead.