New Rokus update the product's line with better performance and prices
By Jim Bray
If you're looking to turn your dumb TV into a "smart" one, without having to throw out a perfectly good TV that's serving you well, maybe you should take a gander at what Roku is offering this Christmas season.
Roku isn't the only such device out there, of course – Apple has offered such things for years, as has Google and others, but the Rokus are my favourites because they're so flexible, affordable, and cool.
You can get into a Roku for as little as 40 Canadian dollars! Now, for that price you're not going to get 4K performance, but you will get 1080p and that's probably all an older TV is capable of showing anyway. But if you do want 4K, you only have to spend 50 bucks for a Roku Premiere with HDR or $70 for the Streaming Stick+, which also offers 4K HDR performance.
It's a cheap way to not only open up a world of high def (or Ultra high def) free streaming, it's also a kind of "one stop shopping" place to get other premium streaming services such as Amazon Prime, CBS All Access or the recently-added Disney +. It also comes with stuff like Netflix and YouTube built in.
And get this: I received notice yesterday from the folks at Roku that they're offering an extra sweet deal this Christmas season. Here's what they said: "With Christmas and Boxing Day fast approaching, Roku is lowering the price on a couple of their best players for a limited time. …until January 4, shoppers can save $5 on the new Roku Premiere and it will be available to consumers for $44.99. In addition to that, the Roku Streaming Stick+ will have $10 discount and retail for $59.99."
Not only that, but "as a bonus, when consumers purchase a Roku player, they will receive a three-month complimentary subscription to CBS All Access where they can stream classic shows like the original and rebooted Twilight Zone along with other original shows like Star Trek Discovery, The Good Fight and coming soon Picard."
I've been using Rokus for a few years now and love the things. And, depending where I travel, I like being able to take the Streaming Stick with me so I can stick it in a hotel (or wherever) TV and use their Wi-Fi to avoid the typically crappy TV such places offer.
I'm not a cord cutter yet, but once I do make the move, I won't miss much other than Jeopardy! (which is also on Netflix), Canadian Football and IndyCar racing (both of which I expect to partake of online sooner or later, as long as it isn't a rip-off like the current Rogers Sportsnet's IndyCar coverage is). And when that happens, I'll be relying a lot more on the Rokus. Heck, I like using them more than I like using the apps built into my smart TV's – it's cleaner and easier and offers a lot more free content.
There are no monthly fees or contracts, either, as long as you don't add a paid app. You do have to put in a credit card or other payment method (I use PayPal because I keep no money in it, trusting fellow that I am), but in the years I've been using Rokus I've never had a charge.
The entry level Express is really all you need if you don't care about 4K; regardless of which Roku unit you use, the same programming is available, though of course if you access 4K stuff (YouTube, for instance) on a Roku or TV that isn't 4K compliant, you'll get the content "dumbed down" to whatever your TV can handle.
Roku says the current Express is five times quicker than the model it replaces and I did notice the difference when I fired it up, and when scrolling through the offerings on apps.
It's hard to argue the value. In the box, you not only get the Express (which is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand), but you get a straightforward remote control, an HDMI cable and power cable.
The Premiere takes that and adds 4K HDR (HDR10) performance, in a package that's still small enough to pack around with you (though, like the Express, it isn't really meant as a portable unit like the Stick is). I have one plugged into my living room 4K TV, using its USB port to power it (which beats taking up a wall plug, as well as shutting the thing down when I turn off the TV).
And as any self-respecting 4K device should, it upconverts content to 4K, and does a nice job, too. It, and the Streaming Stick+, aren't as good at that as my Oppo UHD-205, but that's not a fair comparison: the Oppo retailed for $1299USD, so one should expect it would be better.
Stick your streaming…
The Streaming Stick not only ups the portability ante (it's really just like it says, a little stick you can "stick" into a TV's HDMI port and power via USB), it also gives you voice control via the remote and is designed to work at longer ranges from your Wi-Fi source (they claim four times the distance).
It'll also control your TV with its remote, to help clear the clutter from your coffee table. I like a cluttered coffee table (much to my dear wife's chagrin), because I'm always poking around menus and sub menus of the various components, but if you only operate basic functions a smart remote like this can be a real boon.
Since the Stick takes its portability seriously, it's designed so you can take it on vacation, business trips, or to a friend's place (after which you might want to demand commission from the Roku folks when your friend wants a Roku of his/her/its own). Just remember to bring the remote and power cable.
Case in point: my Dad lives thousands of miles away and only has a basic, dumb 720p TV with basic cable. I could easily take a Streaming Stick+ with me when we visit and open up a whole world of old stuff he'd be sure to love; alas, he doesn't have Internet so that makes it moot. That isn't Roku's fault, though.
If you forget to take the remote with you, you can access the Roku's features via its free app for your smart phone or other such device. This applies to all the Rokus, not just the Streaming Stick+.
Once you've set up your account, you'll undoubtedly want to take a trip through the inventory of "channel/apps" to see what there is that might turn your crank. And I'm willing to bet you'll find something. Heck, there are channels for car nuts, aviation enthusiasts, kids, fans of classic TV, stand up comedy, sports, you name it.
Christmas is one of the best times to have a Roku because the inventory it has online includes several channels dedicated to the season – whether it be music only or a wide variety of videos. We've been watching classic Christmas specials from entertainers such as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, the Carpenters, etc. etc etc.
Not only that, but there's an abundance of other stuff available, from Mormon Tabernacle Choir concerts to Christmas Do It yourself stuff. And YouTube has an abundance of classic Christmas TV specials.
Apps come and go, and apps I've loaded and gone back to after a long pause may or may not still work, but for every one that disappears it seems there's another new one that comes online.
It works the other way, too. I've added apps and given them a quick look and then, when going back later, discovered that it's basically the same stuff I have on another app, or it's just lame (er, physically challenged) crap that isn't worth sitting through. In cases like that, you can just delete the app and it goes away.
If you use multiple Rokus, you may be delighted to notice that when you add a new one to your account, all the apps you've loaded onto your other Roku(s) are there automatically. This is great, but what's even nicer is that you can move apps around on individual Rokus, putting the ones you use most on a particular TV up top, where they're quicker to find.
For example, I put Accuradio (one of my favourite apps for its exquisite music library and many, many "channels") up top on my bedroom TV, because we like going to sleep to music and putting the app first makes it easier to access. But in the living room and home theatre, we have Netflix up front. It works well.
The Roku Channel is kind of a "channel broker" that brings together lots of content from various apps. We've found interesting stuff on there, such as tours of old British castles and gardens that my wife loves to watch and I love to read through. And you can search for content you don't find right off the bat. My wife wanted to watch a particular Christmas movie and we couldn't find it easily, so I did a search and it came right up. Alas, it was a Google rental so we passed it by and will revisit when it shows up on a free app.
That's the beauty of Roku: there's something for everyone and for everyone's budget. If you want a premium pay service, chances are it's there already. If you only want free content, there are thousands of choices.
Regardless of which Roku you use, the interface is identical, and it's simple to use. Heck, even my technologically-challenged Dad would be able to figure it out and I'd get him an Express as a Christmas gift, if he'd get Wi-Fi in the house.
Another thing I love doing is watching 4K and 4K HDR content on the Roku's YouTube app, where you can travel vicariously to a wide variety of exotic locations around the world. My wife and I watched some guy's drone footage of some spectacular Norwegian locations and the combination of the 4K HDR and 75-inch screen was like a window onto that world – even to feeling vertigo on some of the shots!
I also love revisiting my childhood, via old British Supermarionation shows (Thunderbirds, Fireball XL5, etc.), or Bonanza or any number of old TV shows you can watch for free.
Naturally, Sturgeon's Law applies (90 per cent of everything is crap), but that still leaves literally thousands of other programming choices for you. In fact, Roku claims there are over 150,000 movies and TV show available, including the stuff for which you have to pay.
Roku also provides its interface to a number of TV's from companies such as TCL and RCA. I reviewed a TCL Roku TV a while back and loved how its simple interface worked there.
Roku obviously can't control the quality of the content it streams, but I'm willing to bet that if you love video and/or audio entertainment, you'll find something interesting with a Roku.
Copyright 2019 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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