Product Review: Roku
The Roku streaming device is a serviceable way to watch all your favorite streaming services for very little upfront cost. It has a few ups and downs to be aware of, however.
I’ve rarely had the need to consider 3rd party streaming facilitators, such as the Amazon Fire Stick or Roku. I own two gaming consoles, three computers, and one smart TV. As such, I can access all of my streaming needs without help. For people who don’t game or own a smart TV, plugging a computer or phone to your TV might sound like a daunting task.
I’ve recently had access to a Roku streaming device, and it is quite useful if you just want one simple (and small) device to work with when it comes time to cut the cord. It’s simple and fairly intuitive to use, and the output isn’t noticeably different from what I’ve experienced on my consoles or smart TV. Being simple does come with one drawback: power users might find the little black remote lacking in features besides play, pause, and search.
How tech savy you want to be with your streaming options will be one decision when it comes to using a service such as Roku. Another will be how willing you are to tie yourself to hardware rather than software when the inevitable march of progress catches up to you. I will go over those considerations and more below.
(I tested two versions of Roku: The Roku 2, and the 2016 Roku Streaming Stick)
Roku is a device that attaches to your TV via an HDMI dongle. The unit can be a table top version, usually the size of a bar of soap, or a stick that can stay flush to your TV. It comes with a remote, which may or may not come with headset functionality.
In either case, the dongle is what is doing the streaming. Once you plug it in and power it up, it gives you an authentication code to plug in at Roku’s website (a process very similar to authenticating a new device with Amazon’s Video service). The final step is connecting your device to your Wi-Fi (neither unit I tested allowed a hard connection to a modem/router), which is handled in a fairly intuitive prompt on your TV screen.
The remote is modest. Both versions I tested had a directional pad, back, home, play/pause, options and fast forward/reverse buttons. Both had four preset channel buttons which automatically launch a corresponding streaming service. That’s it. Some users will find this streamlined, others might find it limiting. Increased functionality can be acquired by pairing the Roku device with the Roku app on a smartphone. This also allows for voice directed navigation. The sound playback on the remote that allowed it was simple but competent, with clear sound and easy to use volume control.
The menu system is fairly intuitive, and easy on the eyes. Your home tab shows your most recently used apps, and from there you can customize a feed directly to your tastes. There’s a news table with modest features, and purchasing TV and Movies to play directly from Roku (instead of through an app like VUDU or Amazon Video) is handled through a partnership with Fandango.
Roku comes in configurations largely dependent on visual fidelity and TV compatibility. Lower cost models start at $29.99 and allow streaming at 720p and 1080p. The Roku Streaming Stick+ ($69.99) and Roku Ultra ($99.99) allow up to 4K video streaming. Both models I tested had a threshold of 1080p, and the Roku 2 was designed to accommodate older TV’s (it had AV cable output as well as HDMI).
That cost gets you the hardware. There isn’t a subscription fee, and Roku does offer a Roku Channel with some free movie and TV options. The rest is going to cost you in an a la carte fashion.
Other than direct purchases through Fandango, all the actual streaming you can do through Roku comes from their selection of channels/apps. Roku has access to hundreds of streaming services: from the big players (Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, VUDU) to the smaller players (Shudder, Crackle, Sling, Vimeo). It also has access to any apps that network TV providers currently offer: ESPN, ABC, CBS, etc. While you can add any of these apps to your Roku device, getting any actual content from most of them will require a subscription to that service. Roku is just the gatekeeper.
I tested a slew of providers: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, VUDU, Vimeo, YouTube and the Roku Channel. All of the bigger providers had apps that were nearly identical to their apps on Console or smart TV. Those streamed in full 1080p with very little lag or buffering. The smaller apps were problematic. Vimeo had a noticeable delay before the video started, with up to 30 seconds of hearing sound but seeing no picture. YouTube was very laggy; something of a deal breaker considering YouTube’s appeal as a provider of small, diverse nuggets of entertainment.
The Roku Channel had an extremely limited number of free movies/TV shows, and the app lacks basic features like resuming a movie you only partially viewed in a previous sitting. It’s all or nothing with the Roku Channel. The playback was crisp, and the movie (Dirty Harry) had no lag or buffering issues. In terms of the type of movies/shows you can expect to find, I’ve got one word for you: VUDU. The selection was almost 1:1 of what was available on VUDU’s “Movies/TV on us” service both times I checked (once this month, once two months ago). While it was nice to access many of the same movies without commercial interruption, these are older movies and shows, many of which are decidedly B-tier or lower.
An additional consideration was the ability of Roku to withstand binge-watching. During a multiple episode binge of a show on Hulu, the device would get noticeably hot: it would then sometimes have trouble transitioning to the next episode, and remote inputs like pausing would have up to a 15 second delay. Discreet viewings of an hour or two didn’t trigger this, but as I made my way through 40 episodes of My Hero Academia (sometimes in sessions of up to 10 episodes in a row), I noticed this happen on more than one occasion.
Roku has it’s plusses: it’s easy to setup, inexpensive, and has access to a wide variety of streaming options. The negatives are that you get very little other than access for your purchase, and the device might be superfluous if you already use a console, computer, or smart TV to stream entertainment.
If you don’t own a streaming device, Roku is a serviceable option. It’s very portable; if you travel a lot or frequently change where you view it’s a solid choice. It’s also scalable: if you are on the cusp of upgrading your TV, you can rest assured that Roku will have an affordable device that will bring your apps along. That should provide extra options for customers that were worried that their choices for a fancy new 4k TV were going to have to have smart TV tech installed.
In the end, Roku is a fairly inexpensive way to get access to streaming services, but the near ubiquity of streaming service access is making it harder and harder to recommend. If you do find yourself in need of fast and cheap access, however, Roku is definitely worth a look.
Just don’t look too long, or Roku might start getting hot and bothered.