Roku offers smart TV features without needing a smart TV
By Jim Bray
That's how Roku's Canadian website describes their service, a hardware and software-based solution that competes head to head with such other systems as Google's Chromecast. And they're right about the "endless" part, at least to a point: there's so much stuff you can access with your Roku it might make your head spin.
The downside to all of this, if you can call it a downside, is that some of the content isn't free and a lot of the stuff that is free adheres strictly to Sturgeon's Law, which I paraphrase as saying "90 per cent of anything is crap."
Yet as Roku says, there are "2000 channels and counting" with their service - though I must admit I haven't (and won't!) counted to see if there are in fact 2000 channels. Suffice it to say there's an abundance of entertainment choices available, and from a wide variety of streaming services.
You can get the ones you've heard of, and maybe subscribed to elsewhere, such as Netflix and YouTube, and they also offer the Cineplex Store, VEVO, Crackle, NHL GameCentre, etc. etc. etc. The Roku also comes with a media player-compatible app and you can access stuff like Plex if you want to stream your own stuff to the little HDMI dongle that's the heart of the Roku system.
The other half - the "non-dongle" part of the system - is really welcome and helps differentiate the Roku from the Chromecast: it comes with an honest to goodness remote control. This means that, while you can operate the Roku device from an app on your smart device, you don't have to! This opens up the wonderful world of Roku to anyone with an available HDMI port regardless of whether or not they have a tablet or smart phone. I can see that being a huge advantage and a wonderful incentive.
Of course, you still need Internet access; otherwise your fancy little Roku will be as useful as a knife in a gun fight. This is no different from the Chromecast and smart TV's, though. And while you can get quite a bit of the content Roku offers on the Chromecast or smart TV, I'm not sure there's as much free stuff that's as easy to find and exploit as with the Roku.
The basic functionality is like the Chromecast's, which I reviewed a few weeks ago: you stick the HDMI dongle thingy part into an open HDMI slot on your TV, power it up via USB (or an AC adapter), then jump through the usual hooking-into-the-network hoops to get it up and running. It's quite straightforward and once you've done that you don't need to do it again unless you move to a different network or something screws up on your network and you have to reinitialize your stuff. But you can't blame Roku for that!
Here's something I do blame Roku for, however, and it really rubbed me the wrong way right off the bat: unlike with the Chromecast, you have to open an online Roku account - and give them your credit card or Paypal information - before you can use the system! This is wrong and obtrusive and though I have no reason not to trust the folk behind Roku, who needs yet another chance to have your financial info and/or identity stolen, especially if you have no intention of using the premium services?
To be fair, that hasn't happened to me - yet - nor have I been charged for anything since I signed up - and I suppose it could be argued that having Roku in possession of your credit info means you won't be prompted for it every time you want to buy a service offered - but I'd rather be bothered, thanks.
Anyway, once you're up and running, you may be amazed by all the free stuff that's out there. There are old TV and movie channels, music-only channels, and nearly whatever you can imagine. Heck, I even stumbled across some soft core! I love classic movies and TV and there's an abundance of that stuff available - though you may find that most of the titles are very obscure.
I discovered the old George Pal/Robert A. Heinlein flick "Destination Moon" online - a film I love (and own) but hadn't seen for ages. So I fired it up and sat back to enjoy it - and I did (and it streamed fine). I was a tad ambivalent about the video quality, but it was no worse than my DVD's. Audio and video quality of the other free programming on offer is all over the map, too, though I noticed that my Netflix account looked and sounded just as good once it spooled up as on my other devices - and it seemed to load programs more quickly than some of my other devices do, which is nice.
Roku offers a couple of different devices from which to choose: little standalone boxes or the streaming HDMI dongle stick - and in early April the company announced a new version of the Stick that ups its technological ante.
If your TV is wall-mounted you might be served better with the standalone type of Roku device, especially if portability is an issue for you: you plug its HDMI cable into the TV once, then just unplug the end at the box when you want to take it with you, rather than having to mess around with the back of a TV that's so close to the wall it could be difficult to do. If your TV is mounted on a stand it probably doesn't make much difference which one you choose, though, unless shelf space is at a premium (in which case the dongle will be better).
The interface is laid out well, and you can scroll through the available channels easily, adding ones you want in the same basic way you bookmark a favourite website in your browser. You can also delete them from your favourites easily, which I've done a few times when channels I thought would be interesting turned out to be let-downs.
Some channels merely offer promotional stuff, others want you to buy stuff, and even some of the free ones are littered with commercials. I have nothing against commercials, and don't mind sitting through some of them if it means the programming is "free" but some of the channels made the commercials even more annoying than they are by nature. The Shout Factory, for example, has a lot of nifty programming, but it breaks it up with ads that seem added arbitrarily (they don't occur at logical points in the programming, just whenever the service deems to put them) and it's the same couple of ads over and over again so they wear thin quickly. To be fair, the Shout Factory isn't the only one to do this, but that doesn't make it less irritating.
The new Roku Stick, which sells for $60 CAD, features a quad-core processor; Roku says it has eight times more processing power than its predecessor "to get consumers to their favorite entertainment fast, with smooth and responsive navigation." It also offers a "Hotel and Dorm Connect" feature that's supposed to make it easier to connect in locations where you often have to log into a password-protected network via a web browser.
I've been enjoying catching up on TV shows and movies I haven't seen for a looooong time, thanks to the free services, and yesterday I discovered the Accuradio app, which is a free audio streaming service that offers such a wide variety of stuff it might make your head spin. I love musicals, and Accuradio has several such channels, as well as just about any other genre you can imagine. And it's hardly the only audio-only service you can stream via the Roku - it's merely my new favourite.
Then there's old TV: I found the first episode of the old Beverly Hillbillies show a couple of weeks back, and it made for a fascinating trip down memory lane. I watched the show when I was a kid but never saw that first episode - and it was interesting to find it because it put the lie to the "was shooting at some food when up from the ground came some bubbling crude" line in the theme song. What actually happened was that ol' Jed Clampett had what sounds like an oil sands deposit on his property and a petro company came around to negotiate a deal with him to exploit it - there was no shooting at food involved at all!
There are undoubtedly innumerable gems like that spread among the streaming channels, but it might take you years to search out and watch them all. And new channels are being added all the time, so maybe it really is "endless entertainment."
While both the Chromecast and the Roku have their charms, and advantages, I prefer the Roku because of the remote control and the abundance of free apps that are easy to find.
Roku is available at Best Buy, London Drugs, Staples, Walmart, Amazon.ca, Shop.ca and others.
Copyright 2016 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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