Roku and Me, Initial Reactions

Earlier this week we ordered a Roku device from Amazon. We purchased the complete bells and whistles XS model. The main reason for this was I wanted a wired connection for the device instead of a wireless one. I knew a couple of people that owned the devices and loved them. I thought I would give it a try.

Let’s go over some background.

For some comparison until the Roku arrived we have used an Apple TV2. This has been jailbroken and has XBMC installed on it. The reason we purchased the Roku is that our device started getting the infamous time bug. The ATV2 could not longer update it’s time. This meant that Netflix stopped working on the device. I am reluctant to reflash the device because I don’t want to spend the 2-3 hours it takes to set up XBMC again to my liking. Xie was miffed because she used Netflix all the time so this put a large damper on her media consumption, especially the kids shows that my son watches.

We do have a lifetime subscription to PlayOn basic so I could use that to view Netflix and Hulu Basic through XBMC.   The problem with that route is that you can only really watch what is in your Netflix queue.  It also does not mark once you have already seen something.   We also tried using Netflix through the PS3, but compared to the ATV2 interface it was clunky, slow, and just didn’t work well.

So the goal was to get a device in which we could watch Netflix without reflashing the ATV2.   I would love to say I researched different models for days, but truthfully from what we had seen in the past Roku was really the model we wanted.   It could do Netflix, Hulu (albeit Plus only), and Amazon (so we could use our Prime free streaming on the TV for once).  I did think briefly about getting a Boxee, but it didn’t have the Amazon Prime streaming and was twice the cost.   I also had played with the desktop version of Boxee and I didn’t like the user interface compared to XBMC or the ATV2.   Boxee was also twice the price.

So you can see that we didn’t need something to watch Netflix.   I just wanted to be lazy and not reflash the device.   The other methods though were not as easy to use, so I will concede to that point.   The rule is I can do whatever I want to the home network until it makes something more difficult to do.   The stupid ATV2 bug broke that rule on me.  It was only my fault in so far that I didn’t want to fix it.  I purchased a Roku instead.

Onto the Roku

The first issue with the Roku (I knew when I ordered it) is that I was out of HDMI ports on the TV.   I bought a HDMI switch box which allow us to switch between the Roku and ATV2 with the touch of a button.   Currently the PS3 is without a picture.

When first setting up the device we had to register it.   This requires a computer to go online to the website and enter a code.   This is kind of a hassle.  I sit down in front of the TV to start configuring the device, and it tells me to get up and use another device.

Dear Roku,

The first rule of TV watching is that you want to keep the eyeballs on the TV set.   Maybe in the digital era sans commercials this is no longer relevant.  Unfortunately for the TV viewing public this is still the golden rule.   When I configured the Apple TV2 I did not have to use any other devices than the remote the came with the unit.   Please work on this.



This of course has the ease of use of not typing in anything on the Roku and being able to use the keyboard to set everything up.    You would think that wouldn’t you.   We’ll get back to that thought in a minute.

During the initial setup on the website you enter a code from the device to link it to your account.  You select your channels and options you want from the website.   Third parties can offer more channels through a private channel method.   I selected the defaults – Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Flickr, Crackle, Angry Birds and some others.  I then had to wait about 15 minutes while all the channels were downloaded to the device.   Seriously?  I understand the ability to update the software later, but the default programs advertised on the box should have already been on the device.

I then managed to get into Netflix. It is similar to the PS3 interface, but slightly better.   Xie was not happy.   We will make it work until I have time to reflash the ATV2.   We then tried Amazon Prime, which even though we added the channel we had to link the device.   This requires us to once again get up off the couch and go over to the computer.   The choices are pretty much the same as Netflix with a few exceptions.

Then we tried Hulu.  Hulu required Hulu Plus which I clicked to sign up for the one week trial.   You can’t sign up for the trial from the device.  You have to go to your computer and fill in the information.   You then had to use the remote on the Roku to type in your username and password. Why can’t all this account info be handled on the Roku site?  We then get into Hulu and can get a few more things than basic – but of course lose access to other shows because of weird Hulu licensing (thank god for PlayOn).   The Hulu picture though was sharper than going through the PlayOn / XBMC combination we normally use.

I tried the Angry Birds and I didn’t like the motion control remote that pretends to be a Wii controller.  At first it wasn’t responsive and then it was too responsive.   For a game like Angry where the gimmick is to pull a sling shot it is workable, but for anything with more precise controls I would hate it.

Since you setup everything on the website, if Roku ever goes out of business you are stuck with a hunk of plastic.   The ATV2 could still be usable or hacked into something else if Apple ever went out of business.   For some this may be a real concern.   It is unlikely since Roku seems to be in the lead as the Internet streaming to your TV provider.

Finally I can not play any local media with Roku.  I can’t listen to a local MP3.  I can not view a local picture on my computer.   I can not play one of my DVDs I have ripped (99% of my media collection is ripped to a file server).  With the ATV2 I use XBMC to consume these things.   You can also import them in iTunes and play from within the standard ATV2 interface.  You can also use AirPlay from your iOS devices and stream directly.  I can set up a Plex channel on Roku, but I’m scared how that is going to look and act compared to XBMC.  I would have to set up a second database for media since I already use a MySQL server with XBMC.  Duplication to do the same task is a pain in the ass.  I love XBMC.

The interface is slow and clunky in all the channels.   Xie referred to this as beta software.  I explained this was the third revision – her response was that it was still beta.   Compared to the ATV2 I will concede that it is slower, less elegant, and the user experience for getting up off the couch to configure items is horrendous.  It does offer the Hulu Plus and Amazon Streaming which is its advantage at the same price.






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