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Roku review: Watch streaming Netflix on your TV

February 26, 2009

in All Articles,Photo and Video

Post image for Roku review: Watch streaming Netflix on your TV

[Thanks to Howard Paul for his contributions to this review of the Roku.]

If you’re a Netflix subscriber, you may have used the “Instant Queue”: instead of waiting for a movie to be shipped to your house, you can instead watch it streaming on your PC. No waiting. You can get videos, television and movies on demand.

Now enter the Roku, which puts Netflix’s streaming media library on your TV. I don’t have cable TV, and with the Roku I really don’t have any desire for it. With some limitations that will lessen over time, I can still watch what I want, when I want. Use the Roku to stream Netflix and other content to your TV.

Take a look at this picture:

Examine the details, and you’ll see we’re looking at my Nexflix account’s “Instant Queue”.

Now, let’s pull back a few feet:

That’s right. It’s Netflix. On my TV.

The Roku is a small black box. One part of it talks to your TV. Another part of it talks to your home Internet connection – wireless or wired. Setup is amazingly easy – plugging it in and turning it on was the hardest part. The Roku will then walk you through a short setup process, where you get to connect to your Internet connection and download any updates for the Roku (giving you continual access to new features). Then you log on to your Netflix account from a PC and type in an activation code. When you do so, the Roku will activate and be linked to your Netflix account. From there, use your PC to build up your Netflix “Instant Queue” – this is what the Roku will make available on your TV. When you add something to your Instant Queue, you’ll see it appear for playback on your TV within seconds.

Apart from the purchase price of the Roku, you need a Netflix subscription with a “watch instantly” streaming capability. At the time of this writing, such plans are available starting at $9 per month.

The Roku is friendly with many types of TV and video connections. Here’s the back view of the unit:

The Roku has connectors for Composite video, S-Video, Component video and HDMI. It ships standard with Composite cables.

A note about the Roku’s price tag: it’s amazingly low. For $100, you get the functionality described above. You need to have a Netflix plan, and if you do, most people will already be using it to ship movies to their home and perhaps stream video to their PCs. The streaming video functionality is icing on the cake: it’s included for what I think is already a very low cost. Since I know marketing and sales reps stumble across my reviews, I probably shouldn’t say this here, but I will anyway: I’d be willing to pay twice what I paid for my Roku. In our world of expensive technology, the Roku is a standout in great value for not much money.

The Roku HD capability and business model

As you can tell from my ancient TV in the picture above, I do not have HD capability. However, Netflix does stream a lot of HD media. I asked my friend Howard (a HD-enabled Roku user) for his thoughts on the Roku’s HD performance and selection quality [bolded emphasis added]:

Netflix needs to improve the amount of available streaming titles. Currently, they have ~12,000 titles where maybe a few hundred are HD, and there are not many titles less than a few years old.  I would like to see more titles and newer ones. I can foresee additional new titles including HBO shows being offered for additional fees. I am okay with this since my goal is to completely get rid of cable and rely on services like Hulu and Netflix. The total cost would be much less than cable. The key business will be subscription-based instead of rental-based (like Pay-Per-View). This business will ultimately cause people to leave cable behind.

I feel the HD quality is on par with broadcast network HD but inferior to Blu-Ray. The HD experience however is totally watchable and will be the inevitable Blu-Ray killer since it is apparent that people don’t care about supreme quality but just “good enough”. Using MP3 and iPods as a comparison, MP3s at 128 kbps is fine for 90% of listeners, therefore high quality audio like SACD and DVD-Audio has disappeared. This same thing will happen to optical discs like Blu-Ray. The writing is on the wall and subscription-based services like the Netflix Roku are the way of the future. When cheap high speed Internet is available, you will stop seeing DVDs like we do today. Streaming is too convenient.

The interface

Everything about the Roku is intentionally simple. The interface has the learning curve of a stick of gum. Look at the Roku’s remote control in the photo above, and you’ll see no more than the buttons required for basic navigation and playback, pause, rewind, and fast-forward.

This simplicity is reflected in the on-screen presentation: Your queue is presented as just that, a single queue. If you have 200 selections in your Netflix’s instant queue, then your Roku screen allows you to cycle through those 200 titles in one big group. Navigation is simple and intuitive, but if you’re viewing selection “1” and want to watch selection “100”, you’ve got a bit of scrolling to do. Overall, this isn’t a big deal to me – I find my Instant Queue size stays under 150 (though this will certainly increase as Netflix adds more streaming selections to their roster).

You can tell the Roku is designed to be as simple as possible. I appreciate this. But that simplicity is a double-edged sword, as the more technically-comfortable may want to trade that simplicity for efficiency. Howard says it well:

Roku needs to improve their user interface to allow sorting the selections.  It would be nice to have categories like “Action”, “Drama”, “Documentary” on the Roku so it isn’t just everything all at once but rather folders.

I see why they left the movie selection process to the computer only, since the computer and associated full-sized keyboard are more suited for this task, but a movie selection capability on the Roku would still be nice.


I’m happy with the Roku’s performance. I say “happy” instead of “very happy” because I did experience a couple of issues. Admittedly, they are easily fixed by the user or the eventual hardware update, but they should still be documented:

1) When I paused and later resumed a video, the Roku’s sound lost sync with the video – when someone spoke, their lips mismatched the audio track by about a second. The fix was to exit playback by pressing the Home button, reselect the video I’d just been watching, and select “Resume playing”. The playback continued from where I left off, and the problem was fixed. This problem happened twice on two different videos, but I haven’t since been able to recreate it.

2) I would pause a video and turn off the Roku. When I later came back to continue viewing, I chose “Resume playing”, which should continue playback exactly where I’d left off. Instead, the Roku resumed playback about five minutes earlier than it should have. I simply fast-forwarded till I got to the part I wanted. Like the first issue: this problem happened twice on two different videos, but I haven’t since been able to recreate it.

My fellow tester Howard and I have Internet connections ranging from 5 Mbps to 20 Mbps. As far as streaming performance, I’d guess that if you have high-end DSL or midrange cable Internet, the Roku will work fine.

Right now, the Roku integrates with Netflix only. But a visit to Roku’s website has information about future plans. The Roku will integrate with other services likeAmazon Video On Demand (for cheap purchasing of more media). I wouldn’t be surprised if they eventually integrated with Hulu or YouTube. This would, however, bring the question of advertising into the Roku, since that’s a major income stream for Hulu and YouTube. Right now, the Roku has zero advertising. Videos start instantly with no commercials or previews. This is a great thing. I’d like to keep it that way, and it seems it will stay that way with the planned Amazon relationship. With Hulu or YouTube? I’m not so sure.

Roku review conclusion

I mention my small problems and issues above because, well, they happened. But they’re frankly not a big deal. I love the Roku and I think it’s a revolutionary business model that can now be supported by current technology. Speaking for the United States, we couldn’t support such a thing even a couple years ago because most people didn’t have the Internet bandwidth to continually stream at TV quality, let alone HD. The Internet is now fast enough. The only limiting factors to the Roku’s success are the availability of titles. I’m sure Netflix is doing everything they can to bring more and more of their gigantic selection into the Roku’s streaming domain.

Roku pros:

Excellent value for your money
Simple to use
Compatible with many video and audio formats
Integrated wireless capability
Playback is problem-free with moderate Internet bandwidth
No advertising, previews or commercials on any video

Roku cons:

Small, rare, and easily-fixed playback issues
Media selection needs to be larger

Waiting for a showtime or popping a disk in a player is passe. The future of mass media is streaming. Devices like the Roku have brought the future here.

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