1993 was the last time I had cable television. I was moving into a new apartment and couldn’t come up with a compelling reason why I wanted another bill to pay. Taking a day off from work to play cable installer roulette held no particular appeal for me either. I’m not anti-TV, but I couldn’t see continuing my ties to a huge, sloppy behemoth that had no competition, deplorable customer service and was only going to charge more and more for less and less. In the intervening years, I’ve danced arcane dances with rabbit ears; I’ve dealt with the anemic an overpriced selections of the now-vanishing video rental shops, and I’ve subscribed to DVD by mail services.
Almost one year ago I bought a Roku. It’s been about the best $60 I have ever spent!
So, what’s a Roku?
It’s sort of a TV tuner box that gets its content from the internet via a WIFI signal or an ethernet connection from your router/modem. It’s similar to its newer, probably more famous competitor – the AppleTV. Like the AppleTV, there are a number of video and audio “channels” available that play content on demand. Find a program that you want to watch; click on it with a remote, and watch whatever it is you want to watch whenever you want to watch it. I know PAY-PER-VIEW and Video On Demand services have been around for a while, but this is no where near as expensive as those services. You pay for what you want. It’s the closest thing I can think of to Ã la carte cable television only it’s here right now rather than being a powerless consumer lobby’s pipe dream.
Why would I go with a gadget that most people have never heard of rather than the one from the most successful company in the world with the fruity name? Why not go with the brand that just works?
Because AppleTV does not work with standard definition television sets. It only works with high definition sets.
Roku’s whole line works with both standard and high definition televisions. It will take RCA jacks a.k.a. composite cables like those pictured above, and it has an HDMI port. The low-end Roku does 720p. The other two will do 1080p. Of course, that depends on whether the program is rendered in high definition and how fast your internet hookup is. I have a 27″ JVC tube television that I bought in 1999. I bought it when I bought my first DVD player. Both are working fine, and I have no intention of banishing them to the kid’s bedroom. I’ve seen newer flat panel TVs sitting on the curb, waiting for the trash truck to come while my tube set is still working beautifully. When that terrible day comes, and the TV finally wears out, I’ll replace it. For now, everything looks perfect to me in SD.
As much as I love Apple’s products, their insistence that we all embrace the new paradigm gets old particularly when it costs money and the old paradigm still has that new, showroom smell. Is backwards compatibility aesthetically displeasing? Not all of us have spare billions in the bank .
Initially, I bought the Roku just to watch movies on Netflix, but it has so much more. I knew there were other channels, but I didn’t know there were over 200 (almost 300 now) with more being added all of the time. There’s a number of premium channels like Netflix, Hulu and some of the professional sports channels that involve a paid subscription, but there are a lot of free channels with terrific content. Movies, politics, religions of every stripe, foreign news services, cooking, technical, documentary, podcasts, Nigerian hip-hop, several Indian channels and new ones being added all of the time. And that’s just their officially sanctioned channels. There’s also a number of what are termed Private Channels. These are either channels still in development and being given a test run or are set up by private organizations for their members or are adult sites. These won’t be found in the Roku Channel Store and can only be accessed by logging in and adding a code at Roku.com. The best list of available channels I found is HERE:
There’s all sorts of stuff in there good, bad and indifferent, but the MUST-HAVE item is the Archive.org channel. Archive.org is the internet archive containing thousands of hours of audio and video all in the public domain. Before I had a Roku, I would peruse The Internet Archive’s site and hunt down Old Time Radio shows and old film noir and horror films. The stuff is available for free to download on their site which is great but time consuming. It’s easier just to stream the material on the Roku. There’s a lot of fantastic stuff there!
SOME THOUGHTS AND OBSERVANCES
- When I first got the Roku, it took about 10 minutes to set up and it ran like a dream. I was deliriously happy. After a while, I noticed that programs were stopping midstream to re-buffer and the picture quality was somewhat degraded. I figured it was either my internet provider providing less-than-stellar service or I was getting interference from cell phones or other wireless devices operating in the immediate neighborhood. I also feared that one of the Roku’s updates may have broken the box. I was considering buying a 50 foot roll of Ethernet cable to hook the Roku directly to the modem when a cheap cordless phone I had in the same room died. I replaced it with a corded phone, and noticed the signal to the Roku improved. The picture improved and the stream is constant and consistent with rarely any re-buffering. The cordless phone’s signal was the source of interference!
- I told you that I hooked up my Roku to an 11 year old tube television, but I’ve also been able to connect it to an even older 19″ set. The old set used to belong to my Dad, and it’s at least 20 years old. I had to use an RF Modulator in order to hook the RCA Connectors to the old coaxial plug. RF Modulators may sound familiar if you bought a DVD player back when they first hit the market. It was the doo-dad you needed to make your old set cooperate with your new gear
- Pandora runs with no commercials on the Roku. Of course, I may have let the cat out of the bag, and Pandora will change that immediately.
- One of the great things about the Roku was that I was able to completely avoid last season’s election cycle ads. I completely missed out on all of those terribly expensive but ham-fisted 30 and 60 second spots where a candidate is filmed chatting with a crowd of carefully selected, perfectly cast, ordinary Americans. as well as the negative campaign ads that claimed that the opposition regularly dines on the tender flesh of infants. No, I was happily basking in the wonderful world of internet enabled, commercial free television and completely side stepping the urgent messages from the Blue and Red duopoly.
- One of the bad things about the Roku is that there is no Emergency Alert System. Apparently, during Hurricane Irene while I was blissfully riding out the rain and watching Big Trouble in Little China, there was a tornado warning. I found out the next day that people in the area were cowering in their basements waiting for the end of the world while I was chuckling at Kurt Russel. Oh, well. There are weather stations on Roku, and it’s probably a good idea to check them during extreme weather events. That said, the local all-news radio station had no problems cashing in on the extreme weather.
- Times are bad, and if you are looking to economize, I would suggest that the first thing that gets the heave-ho is the cable TV. They have had it good for a long time. Time they tasted the democracy of the purse. Get a Roku! Of course, it’s not free. You have to pay for internet service, but you probably are anyway. For about $8 a month, you can subscribe to Netflix’s streaming service which has thousands of movies and shows available for immediate viewing or you can rent programs one at a time via Amazon. It’s still cheaper than the mortgage-sized bill from the cable company, and you watch what you want on your schedule rather than the experience of having hundreds of channels with nothing to watch. My experience of cable when I’ve been traveling or staying with relatives is a lame choice between yet another rerun of Law and Order, a pan-and-scan print of one of the lesser Roger Moore 007 films or some jackass at an out-of-the-way eatery attempting to gorge himself on something that comes on a plate the size of a manhole cover. Guys I know are paying $80 to $120 a month for this alleged entertainment!
- It’s possible to go even cheaper and not subscribe to any of the pay channels at all. Between Archive.org, Crackle, Pub-D-Hub and the other free channels available on the Roku, you would get more uncut entertainment than you would ever get on broadcast television! It’s wilder than my wildest childhood dream of televised entertainment back when my family’s black-and-white set could pick up four VHF stations and maybe three UHF stations!
- The Roku 2 has come out since I bought my Roku last summer. They are basically the same with a number of interesting improvements under the hood and are slightly smaller. It also seems that the low-end model has gotten rid of the Ethernet port and added Blue Tooth. The mid range and high end models have hung onto the Ethernet port so keep that in mind in case you decide to pull the trigger on this purchase and want a hardwired internet connection on this baby. Take a LOOK. I’m thinking of buying an XS. It has a USB port and would play music and movies from a hard-drive. My current ROKU would get hooked to the old 19″ set in my studio.