Readers Digest condensed Cliff’s Notes executive summary version: Do you have a Netflix account and a reasonable (1.5 MB/s or better) broadband connection? Then you should have a Roku player. That’s it.
So a couple months ago, I had a birthday, and with that birthday came some a little bit of spending money (courtesy of Prairie’s mom) that I wasn’t sure what to do with. As I’m in school, not making money, and existing solely on financial aid and Prairie’s good graces, I’ve gotten very used to spending money only on what’s necessary, and not on toys or frivolities. Because of this, I didn’t have much of a “wish list,” and the things I’m generally likely to spend money on — used books and vinyl — I currently have stacks of, waiting for me to find time to either read or import into the computer, so adding to the stacks (as enjoyable as that is) didn’t seem like the best way to go.
I let the money sit for a while as I played with various ideas, and eventually decided to go for something I’d been eyeballing for a while, but which had always fallen into the realm of “neat toy that could be fun, but isn’t really necessary right now”: a Roku digital video player.
Roughly two months in, I can easily say that this was one of the best impulse buys I’ve made in a long, long time.
First off, the basics, in case you haven’t heard of the Roku before. Originally developed at and for Netflix, and later spun off into its own company and opened to more content providers, the Roku is a tiny little set-top box that plugs into your TV, giving you access to the Netflix library of streaming “Watch Instantly” titles. Prairie and I had just recently started discovering the joys of Netflix’s streaming library (with the addition of my new iMac, as before that, none of our computers were new enough to support Netflix’s streaming service), but camping out in my office to watch shows on my computer wasn’t nearly as comfortable as our living room, so the Roku sounded like a nice addition to the house.
Setup is dead simple. The box is small, and if you have a WiFi network at home, requires the bare minimum of cables: power, and the connection to the television (if you don’t have WiFi, you’ll need to run an ethernet cable to the box). It has the three primary video connection methods (composite video, for old-school TVs like ours; component video, for higher-quality video on TVs that support progressive scan input; and HDMI for High Definition TVs) and both standard stereo and optical audio output.
Getting started took just a couple minutes: I plugged it in, told it which WiFi network to use and put in the password, and after a brief moment to let the box download and install new firmware and reboot, it was up and running. I popped into the Netflix channel, chose something in my Instant Watch queue, and was watching a show no more (and probably much less than) ten minutes after opening the box. Impressive!
The Netflix interface is slick and simple, and — thanks to a recent software update that actually came out just before I got the Roku — allows for searching and browsing the Netflix streaming library, and shows off all the recommendations of things that Netflix thinks we’ll enjoy watching.
There’s a lot more than just Netflix available, though. Roku’s channel store has an ever-growing library of options, with lots of internet-based shows and podcasts, sports channels, Pandora radio, and — our personal favorite after Netflix — Amazon Video on Demand. Last weekend after seeing Inception, Prairie and I were still in the movie mood, decided to see what new releases Amazon had available, and ended up renting, watching, and thoroughly enjoying Whip It!.
Our feelings at this point: Blockbuster is doomed. Outside of needing something rare enough that it’s not available to stream from Amazon or Netflix and soon enough that we can’t put in our physical Netflix queue, we have absolutely no reason to physically rent a video anymore. Movie theaters aren’t in much better shape, either — the entire experience of watching something at home is so much nicer, more comfortable, more convenient, and cheaper than going to the movies that we’ll be doing that far less than we already do (and we haven’t been going terribly often as it is).
The video quality of the Roku is great, as well. Admittedly, ours is helped somewhat by my television (geekery: though it’s an older, standard-ratio TV, this model Sony Wega offers an “anamorphic compression” mode that squeezes the picture down to a 16:9 ratio from the standard 4:3 ratio, increasing the resolution as it does so; this allows me to tell the Roku that it’s connected to a widescreen TV, at which point it outputs an anamorphic signal that results in a higher resolution and better quality image than if it were outputting the standard 4:3 640×480 TV signal), but the image quality easily matches (or at least comes very, very close to) what we see out of our DVD player. One of the very few disappointments I’ve had with the Roku (and a very minor one at that) is that while my TV can accept component video, the Roku apparently will only output component video as progressive scan output, which my TV doesn’t support, so I’ve had to resort to the lowest-quality composite video connection. Still, the quality we get is good enough that I can’t really complain — and when we finally get around to upgrading to an HDMI-capable HDTV, the quality will only get better!
There are a few relatively minor caveats to the Roku. Most importantly, you do need a reasonable (1.5 MB/s) broadband connection, and for HD video (not an issue for me at the moment), it requires at least a 5 MB/s connection (which, even if I had the hardware to display HD video, isn’t available from Qwest at my address yet). A WiFi network, while not necessary, as the box does have ethernet input, is highly recommended, as it keeps you from having to string more cabling around your house. And, of course, with any online-based service, there is the potential for network or server issues to occasionally get in the way, though we’ve had very few times where this was an issue (and when it was, Roku and Netflix were both good about communicating with their customers, and we even got a bit of a refund from Netflix to make up for the service interruption).
In short, we love this box. We’ve been using it nightly, bouncing among a number of shows that catch our eye (recently: Bones, Futurama, Law and Order, Red Dwarf, and 30 Rock), and saving movies for when we have the time and interest to invest in a movie. This has increased our usage of the streaming service to the point where we’re considering dropping our Netflix subscription from our current 3-at-a-time down to the basic 1-at-a-time service, as Netflix (so far, and I hope this continues) is kind enough to offer their streaming service without limitation at all subscription levels. Good deal!
Once again: if you have Netflix and broadband, you really should have a Roku.