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What Is Roku – Review of Streaming Digital Media Player

By Jason Steele

roku logoIn the 40’s and 50’s, Americans began receiving their television signals over the air. In the 70’s and 80’s, cable and satellite companies largely supplanted the broadcast signal.

One day, we will look back at this decade as the period in time when over the air digital television and content from the Internet replaced cable and satellite television. While the explosion of Internet programming is exciting, watching television on your computer may not feel like progress.

Fortunately, innovative companies have stepped forward to extend your Internet media from your computer’s monitor to your television. Roku offers several models of its Internet video streaming device.

How Roku Works

roku xsThe Roku digital video player is a small box that sits near your television. It receives a digital transmission from your broadband Internet service via an Ethernet cable, or a Wi-Fi signal. That signal is then outputted to your television. A remote control is used to select your programming, and to control the signal.

To set it up, you first plug the device into an electrical socket. Next, you connect the device to your home data network, either with a wired connection or using the built-in Wi-Fi receiver. Finally, you connect it to your television using one of several different cable types. You have your choice of HDMI, composite, or in the top of the line model, component video. You can also send audio to your receiver using standard RCA stereo cords in all models, or using an optical digital cable with their top of the line unit.

Once you set up the digital video player, you can use the remote control to select a “channel,” play programming, and of course, pause or stop a show.

What You Can Watch with Roku

Roku offers access to dozens of Internet site feeds, called channels. Many sites are free, but others require a subscription. Roku does not charge a monthly fee. The most popular channels include:

  • Netflix. Subscriptions to the streaming service from Netflix begin at $7.99 and include over 20,000 movies and television episodes.
  • Amazon Video on Demand. This service works either as a pay-per-download site, or as a streaming subscription. Streaming video is included with a paid Amazon Prime membership. This service is not available to users with a free account.
  • HuluPlus. This popular video streaming service offers subscriptions to premium content, including television episodes and movies.
  • Sports. Sports channels include Gamecenter, Major League Baseball, NBA Gametime, and NHL.
  • Music Streaming. Use Roku for audio streaming from Internet radio sources such as Pandora and RadioTime.
  • Photo and Video Sharing. You can view user-uploaded content from sites including Facebook Photos, Flickr, and Vimeo on your television using Roku.
roku channels

Types of Roku Digital Video Players

Roku offers three different models:

  1. Roku HD. This base model costs $59.99, and streams content to your television at 720p, the lower of the two high-definition television standards.
  2. Roku XD. This version falls in the middle of the line. It sells for $79.99 and includes free shipping. It has a better remote, enhanced Wi-Fi capability, and 1080p output. This model includes instant replay.
  3. Roku XDS. The top of the line model costs $99.99 including free shipping, and supports component video and optical digital audio outputs. With this model, you can also use a USB port to play back media from memory sticks and other devices.

roku products

Advantages of Roku

  1. Cost. For under $100, anyone can start to enjoy online content on their television. Even if you end up subscribing to a few paid online channels, you can recoup the costs if you cancel your cable TV or satellite television service.
  2. Simplicity. Prior to the introduction of devices like Roku, you had to run some sort of video cable from your computer to your television. You then had to use a keyboard and a mouse to browse programming. The television and the computer could not be used at the same time. However, just about anyone can quickly install Roku, and your computer is unaffected by its use.
  3. Flexibility. Each model supports both wired and wireless Internet connections, and most television connection cables. As a result, compatibility should never be an issue.
  4. Remote Control. Roku offers many advantages over using your computer, including the remote control. The remote control makes it easy to control your programming without ever leaving the couch.
  5. Future-Proof. Roku continues to update its software with support for new channels and new features.

Disadvantages of Roku

  1. No Program Storage. Many people enjoy the convenience of recording television shows and movies using a Tivo, a DVR-enhanced cable or satellite box, a media server, or a home media center and network. The Roku devices have a token instant replay feature, but users don’t have a library of their favorite shows.
  2. No Inter-connectivity. Most households have more than one television. Modern media networks allow viewers to stop and start programs from different locations, but Roku has yet to add such a feature.
  3. High Definition Internet Is Not There. Roku supports high-definition at 1080p, but few Internet sites actually support high-definition Internet. Even when a signal is sent at 1080p, few users have an Internet connection that can handle such a signal. Many high-speed Internet service providers limit customers’ monthly usage, hoping to mitigate the loss of cable television subscriptions caused by the use of digital video players.
  4. Another Box. You may already have a DVD player and a cable box or satellite tuner. This is just one more component sitting near your television and one more remote control on your coffee table.

Final Word

You may remember television changing from offering a handful of broadcast channels to receiving dozens of channels using the first primitive cable boxes. Today, we have moved from dozens of channels to a near infinite amount of on-demand content available over the Internet.

Roku is the equivalent of the first generation of cable boxes, and this simple device heralds a new era. If you want to get on board with Internet video on your television, Roku is a good first step.

Do you use a Roku digital video player in your home? How has the experience been?

Jason Steele
Jason has been writing about personal finance, travel, and other topics on blogs across the Internet. When he is not writing, he has a career in information technology and is also a commercially rated pilot. Jason lives in Colorado with his wife and young daughter where he enjoys parenting, cycling, and other extreme sports.

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  • Robert Harper

    Jason a few things have changed recently with the release of Roku 3. They have added a USB connection that allows you to directly attach drive space so you can use a Roku (with a hard drive) as a DVR. Roku has also added on the Roku 3 1080p viewing. They are slowly working their way to where we all want them to be,

  • NolaM

    I have Amazon Prime..currently watch their streaming videos on my laptop,but I would like to watch them on my big tv …so this would work for that??

    • Zanthine Girllest

      This is super late, and no doubt you’ve already figured it out. But yes, you can watch Amazon Prime on your big TV with a Roku. It’s the main reason I bought one!

  • Kendra

    Great article Jason. For those who live outside US like me, you can access Netflix, Hulu and similar media stations on your Roku by using UnoTelly or similar tools.

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