For years now those of that are tired of paying exorbitant monthly fees to their cable providers to receive 100s of different channels have been clamoring for a la carte television service. The problem is that most of us typically only watch a tiny fraction of the available channels. In my household we never ever watch the Golf channel or eternal world TV network or ESPN and have no desire to pay for them. The cable companies of course want none of this because they bundle all of these niche channels into packages with more popular channels to pump up their revenues. Allowing customers to pick and choose the channels they want would likely lead to substantially reduced revenues for the likes of Comcast and Time Warner.
When Roku introduced its original Netflix streaming box a couple of years ago it was just the beginning of routing around the cable companies. At first, the Roku could only stream Netflix and the quality and content was limited. However, Roku and Netflix have steadily improved the interface and the streaming quality to the point where the service can now deliver at 720p HD movies and TV shows on demand with quality similar to what we get directly through the cable box.
More importantly Roku made a brilliant move and created a software development kit that allowed programmers to create additional channels that run on the box to provide more content. These “channels” are apps similar to those you can run on most smartphones now. There are now dozens of channels available now for the Roku. Many of these channels are from independent content creators like the TWiT and Revision3 networks, but also include the likes of Pandora, Archive.org and others.
The Roku is now available in several versions that support standard definition and high def output with the top-end XD-S model also including a USB port so that a hard drive can be plugged in to playback local content including photos, music and video. Setup is very easy, just plug in the Roku to power and your TV and then connect to your local network. The Roku has both a wired ethernet port and WiFi. The box has HDMI, optical audio and composite audio/video outputs to support whatever your TV and stereo can handle. If you have an available HDMI port on your TV, the Roku requires a single cable connection. Whatever you do just make sure you order your HDMI cables from Amazon or Monoprice instead of paying the ridiculous prices charged by places like Best Buy.
Netflix is set up by default and the channel store allows you to browse for additional channels to add. If like me, you have an old computer set up with content for the family, you can also add the Roksbox channel that allows you stream content from other machines on your network. Last year I went through all of our old home videos and digitized them and they can now be played back on the TV through the Roku. The only problem with the Roku is limited video format support. Currently it only supports MP4 and H264 so I’ve had to convert a bunch of video content, but once that’s done it works great. Roku offers regular software updates and at some point it will hopefully add more codec support.
Whatever you choose to watch or listen to, the Roku has a clean simple interface that allows you browse through your available content. Netflix now offers a streaming only package for $7.99 and they are constantly adding more content including a lot of TV series. Now if networks like BBC, Discovery and HBO would just create Roku channels, I would happily subscribe and cut Comcast loose from everything but internet access.