Today I Like My Roku

“I don’t get it,” Helaine said as I carried the little Roku box, a power cube and HDMI cable to the TV.

I’ve written before about Roku the Internet powered box that’s connected to my TV. I have had mixed emotions about it. Tonight, however, I’m thrilled. We’re watching the Phillies play the Braves on the big set in the family room. The picture is pretty good.

“I don’t get it,” Helaine said as I carried the little Roku box, a power cube and HDMI cable to the TV.

Roku and its brethren Boxee, Apple TV, Google TV and a few others bring programs to your TV over the Internet. Though it can be a wired connection I’m hooked up via WiFi. Unlike a broadcast tuner most of what’s available on Roku is streamed on demand.

Along with Netflix and Hulu Plus there are a few dozen “networks” making mainly niche programming available. More important are the sports: basketball, hockey, baseball and a few others. They’re subscription services, but if you’e into baseball (or sports not normally seen in America) Roku brings you every game.

Over-the-air TV or even standard cable or satellite TV is broadcast one-to-many. Internet TV is one-to-one. There’s just not as much bandwidth available. Most of the time that difference isn’t very noticeable, but when there’s fast motion or action the screen becomes pixelated and a little muddy.

Because this video is being delivered over the Internet bottlenecks along the way may slow or stop some packets. We’ve already seen that manifested a few times tonight as our screen went to a solid color and a caching progress bar briefly appeared.

The bottom line is we’re watching the game in the comfort of the family room on the biggest set in the house. Pretty cool.

Roku: The Thing For My TV I Wanted To Love, But Don’t

At this point I use it, but can’t recommend it.

I was a cable TV subscriber 40 years ago. I owned a computer in the late 70s. I am an early adopter. I like to be on the bleeding edge with technology. That’s why I own a Roku.

Never heard of Roku? You’re not alone. Roku is an IPTV device, like Boxee, Apple TV and Google TV.

Roku is a small device that streams movies, TV shows, music, and other entertainment to your TV via the Internet. Since Roku streams (rather than downloads) video, it provides instant access to a huge library of entertainment without having to use a computer or store files locally on a hard drive.

Once you set up Roku, you do not need a PC to make it work. Roku connects directly to your TV and to your wireless (or wired) home network, then lets you access the streaming entertainment channels that you sign up for (like Netflix) right from your TV, using a handy remote.

This definition is two clicks deep on the Roku site. If you don’t already know what it is just going to and reading the home page might not help!

The “small device” is actually a low power computer. With no disk drive or any moving parts it’s quiet. Plug it in and a few seconds later it springs to life.

Technology aside I bought my Roku with the thought of spending more time in my upstairs office. It was Roku or a DVR. Roku is supposed to help me adapt TV’s schedule to my schedule and let me get what’s on cable without cable.

First what works well. The Roku is capable of providing good looking HDTV. Some shows look every bit as good as what you see on ‘regular’ TV.

The list of what’s not good is a lot longer!

Let’s start with the other side of the picture quality coin. Lots of the video looks a whole lot worse than what’s on TV! That’s not Roku’s fault. Some suppliers are just streaming out poor quality bandwidth starved programs. It’s still a problem on Roku that’s not a problem on cable.

I expected a much larger selection of shows than what’s available. No–let me restate that. I expected a much larger selection of quality shows than what’s available!

There’s plenty of niche material. I can watch Twit and Revision3 shows. PhotoshopuserTV is available through Roku. There are hundreds of seldom watched, undesirable, low budget ‘dreck’ shows that slow down any search for something to watch!

When it comes to the more familiar TV fare The Simpsons are a no show. Until last week The Daily Show was also a no show. Sixty Minutes is there, but only as audio–no video. Don’t try guessing. It’s nearly random–very hit-and-miss.

Often the quality programs you can see are only available behind a paywall. Hulu and Netflix have subscription services for Roku and its brethern.

I was surprised programs Hulu streams for free on my computer are paid services with Roku. Paying for Hulu Plus does not stop the commercials!

The weakest part of Roku is the user interface. Since you’re using a remote control versus a keyboard moving from show-to-show is frustratingly slow and cumbersome. Shows you watch on a regular basis are hidden behind click-after-click-after-click from the main menu. There is no ‘channel grazing’ as you might do on your TV.

Even worse there’s no universal program guide. There might be great stuff hidden where it will never be discovered. Very frustrating!

You would think after all these negatives I’d be packing up the Roku and shipping it back to the factory. I’ve considered it. I’m not going to do it.

Roku is a product with promise, but it’s still immature. There’s a lot of work still to be done.

At this point I use it, but can’t recommend it.

Need Your Advice On Roku/Boxee/Apple TV/Google TV

Do you have one of these Roku, Boxee, AppleTV, GoogleTV kind of devices? Do you like it? Do you recommend it? What else will I need?

It’s been a while since I had a TV in my office. Without it I’m usually driven to the family room where I play on my laptop, watch TV and snack incessantly.

That snacking’s got to stop!

With that in mind I went out and bought a new TV to bring me back upstairs at night. It’s a 32″ LCD HD model and it was under $300. From a historical perspective that’s a crazy price for what you get. Next year it will probably be less!

I don’t have a DVR or HD service for the set so I went online and checked Comcast’s prices. Then I checked with my friend Peter.

“What about Roku?” he asked.

I tried to sound savvy, but it was obvious I’m not. There’s a whole class of little computers like Roku that bring shows on the Internet directly to a TV. Though they claim to provide access to thousands of programs it’s obvious you’ll need to subscribe to a service to make the box worthwhile.

I don’t know what to do and so, again, I turn to you dear readers for some advice. Do you have one of these Roku, Boxee, AppleTV, GoogleTV kind of devices? Do you like it? Do you recommend it? What else will I need?

I am like a babe in the woods right now. Help set me straight.