A Rokurious Review
I’m starting to wonder if my Roku is going to spawn a trilogy of posts. Perhaps. Since we’ve owned one for a while now, I wish to offer a mini-review and some additional thoughts regarding our impressions so far. The first post was called Roku – A New Hope. To keep things in order, I guess this post would have to unofficially be called The Roku Strikes Back. It remains unclear at this time if the third and final installment will feature the word “return” or “revenge.” I’m still not quite sure how this story ends.
Meet the Roku. A little device that is one inch tall and less than five inches wide. It sits next to your television and home stereo and streams video and music from an internet connection to your home theater.
The Roku doesn’t have its own internal storage. Its function is to “stream” content from an internet connection. It can make use of your home’s Wi-Fi or can be connected with a standard Ethernet cable.
The Roku is currently offered in three flavors. All can provide video in standard and high definition (up to 720p), the ability to use Wi-Fi and Ethernet, remote control, and support HDMI video output.
The Roku HD is the base model at $59.99.
The Roku XD is $79.99 and adds an “enhanced” remote control, high definition video up to 1080p, and extended range wireless.
The Roku XD|S is $99.99 and adds a USB port, additional video and optical outputs, and “dual-band wireless technology,” whatever that is.
You can view a chart comparing the various models on the official Roku web site.
The three models of Roku listed above can all be purchased directly from the Roku web site.
A version of the Roku can also be purchased in select stores like Best Buy. Be advised, however, that the Roku found at Best Buy is just a little bit different. It is branded as a “NETGEAR Roku XD Player” and costs $99.99. This is the equivalent of the Roku XD player listed above which can be purchased online for only $79.99 and without the crappy NETGEAR branding. My advice: Save yourself the $20 for the same unit by shopping online. Or, if you want to spend $99.99, then you might as well upgrade to the Roku XD|S for the same price. I think it’s a rip off to buy the NETGEAR version in stores. And, in my opinion, NETGEAR is not anything I want near my electronics. I’ve had horrible experiences with their products.
We don’t have an HD television since our Panasonic 42″ plasma died just out of warranty and we were told it would cost $600 to fix. So from the back of the Roku to our television we used a yellow RCA cable for the “composite” connection. This isn’t quite as good as HD but it still provides a signal that looks just as good as standard cable. For the audio a set of red/white RCA cables went to an input on our home stereo receiver.
The thing that worried me the most about buying a Roku was the setup. I’m not very technical. When you power up the Roku the first thing you see is a boot screen, just like your home PC. Then a welcome page which promises that your Roku will be up and running in only three minutes. This turns out to be a little bit of a falsehood since your Roku will perform an update and reboot. After the reboot the welcome screen has changed its mind and now says it will take five minutes. That’s a little more accurate.
After the update, if using Wi-Fi, the Roku displays the wireless connections it has found. I’m still not sure I picked the right one, since there were two listed that had the same name as my Wi-Fi router. I picked the first one listed and it all seems to have worked out.
To use your Roku you’ll have to go to Roku.com and create a free account that is used to connect your Roku to various channels like Pandora, Netflix, Hulu Plus, and others. After you’ve created this account, you enter a code displayed on your TV screen. That’s it. You’re done with setup.
If you want to add additional paid services, you’ll repeat this process with a code that you’ll enter on that service’s web site. If you want Pandora the Roku will give you a code that you enter on the Pandora web site.
We were listening to Pandora in just about five minutes from the initial boot. Netflix was also added right away and worked like a charm.
There are lots of free channels to choose from and we’ve had fun exploring them. No doubt that much of this content is most likely already on the internet and available on your PC, but this was on our TV while sitting on our asses on the sofa. That made it seem like more fun.
On the “My Damn Channel” we found Cookin’ with Coolio, a “ghetto witchdoctor superstar chef.” It was pretty funny but he doesn’t seem to make caprise salad that looks quite the same as my wife makes.
We also found something called The Kevin Pollack Chat Show. There were a bunch of episodes (most almost two hours long) featuring the comic interviewing big name celebrities. The one with Andy Richter starts with Pollack doing a Dr. Seuss poem as Christopher Walken. It was pretty hilarious.
I’ve also found other content like lectures from professors at Harvard and Yale. Those are pretty neat. I’ve been attending Introduction to Ancient Greek History and hope to award myself an unofficial Ph.D. very soon. After that you’ll all be required to call me Doctor Shouts.
Stuff That Is Good
- Easy setup
- Good value
- Pandora has never skipped
- Netflix works great
- Free channels are fun to explore
Stuff That Isn’t So Good
Overall I really like the Roku and think it is a good value. Everything has pros and cons and here’s a few impressions regarding what might not be so good.
- Freezes – If you’ve ever owned or worked with a router, you are likely already aware of this type of thing. We’ve had our Roku about three weeks and it has frozen about five times. That’s an average of more than once a week, and I personally don’t think that’s a very good record. Even worse, one of the most annoying things a piece of electronics can ever do, is that you are forced to get off your lazy ass, walk over to the unit, pull it off the shelf, and physically remove the power cord. There is no button for restart or even an on/off switch – just like most routers I’ve ever seen. I’m glad the Roku programmers have the hubris to think their software is so perfect and too good for such menial things like switches, but the reality is, their shit can crash. It is annoying as a motherfucker. These seem to happen most when exploring free channels, so maybe flaky servers are the problem. Maybe they should have better error handling? I don’t know how the stuff inside a Roku works. I just know I absolutely friggin’ hate having to unplug the power cord to get a frozen device to restart. Period. This is unconscionable and unacceptable.
- Reboots – So there we are, watching an episode of Heroes on Hulu Plus, when the screen freezes for no reason at all. We try the remote control and get no response. We decide to give it a minute and then the screen goes blank and a moment later the Roku boot screen is displayed. Our Roku just rebooted right in the middle of a show. Not quite as annoying as a total freeze, but come on! What the hell? And after the restart the Roku did not remember our position in the show.
- Wi-Fi – For us, the wireless has worked very well with our Roku. I’d rate it far superior to something like Charter Communication’s “On Demand” service which has always been glitchy for us. But it seems like that always isn’t the case. We liked the Roku so much we bought one for our aunt as a Christmas present. She also has Wi-Fi which is provided by her landlord. Her distance to the Wi-Fi is greater than ours. She called last night and the Roku simply can’t handle it. Her computer works with the Wi-Fi internet connection but the Roku won’t even complete the setup process. For us, we’ve also experienced maybe two pauses during streaming, but I’m not sure if I can blame the Roku for those. They might have been caused by garden variety internet lag.
- Best Buy – Again, unless you like paying $20 for nothing, I recommend you don’t buy the unit at Best Buy. Get the equivalent unit online for $20 less. They say a Best Buy customer is born every minute. Don’t be that person.
- Remote Control – The response from the remote doesn’t feel very tactile. There is a bit of lag like it’s thinking about what to do about you just pushed. Not the end of the world but it is a bit annoying and disconcerting.
So, after three weeks of use, I give the Roku 4.5 out of 5 stars*. The only deduction coming from those damn freezes and the lack of button and/or power switch. That’s good enough for us to return our “On Demand” box to Charter. Yeah!
This morning the Roku froze up – again! I wanted to listen to some Pandora while I made breakfast and did the dishes. The unit appeared to be working fine but no music would play. (I could still hear the beeps when using the remote control.) Thinking the problem might be Pandora I tried a different channel. The channel never loaded and I was forced to power off the damn thing with the power cord. Argh!
Perhaps the Roku isn’t quite ready for primetime. Depending on the severity of this sort of problem I think my initial rating was a skosh too high. I’m now giving it 4 out of 5 stars. Still pretty good but not perfect. It basically plays, most of the time, Pandora and Netflix, which is all I really wanted. I’m not so sure if it is reliable enough the rest of the time.