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My family and I do not have traditional television in our homes (see My move to free HDTV Part 1 and Part 2).  In our home for “live” TV (which of course we have none) we rely on services like Hulu (which has been working perfectly fine and we haven’t felt we’ve missed anything).  We get Hulu, Netflix and Amazon media through our XBOX.  It works for our needs for things that are mainstream.

This weekend we wanted to watch a conference that wasn’t on any of these outlets and the stream provided wasn’t working on their website.  A friend pointed out to me that they did, however, have a channel on Roku.  I had been wanting to try out a Roku for a while but never really pushed over the edge because the main content I cared about I was already getting through my other devices.  This gave me a good excuse to try it out and the content was convincing enough for the wife to not wince at the purchase.

First impression and setup

Roku 2 XSThe box itself states “Plug it in.  Add to home network.  Enjoy” in a 3-step instruction on the box.  It also states “no PC required.”  Both of these statements actually couldn’t be further from the truth. 

First, I got the Roku XS because I wanted the wired network option (call me silly).  I also have an HDTV so I was pleased to see that it had HDMI.  I thought I read that it came with an HDMI cable, but it doesn’t.  For something that touts a feature for 1080p streaming, they should really own up to that and provide one.  It comes with standard (not even composite) a/v cables only.  No worries there, but just kinda lame in this digital age.  I mean, ship a cheap HDMI cable and make customers happy.

The “plug it in” was just as it sounded.  There is no power button for Roku, it’s like a little smart box…goes in and out of standby mode.  The “add to home network” step was, in fact, easy.  But I had a wired network, so no brainer there.  I tried the wireless just to make sure and if you are going that route be ready to be annoyed to type that long passphrase of yours using a remote with no keyboard (this is one thing that annoys me about XBOX as well).  Easy enough though and I was connected to my network.

The “enjoy” step took longer to get to.  And requires a browser.  You need to activate your box.  You can’t do anything until you do so.  I needed to create a Roku account and provide payment information.  What?! you may be asking is the payment information for?  It is for in-device purchases.  Roku is set up with “channels” and some are premium that you can pay for straight from the box.  Nothing gets charged during payment info setup, they are just trying to provide a seamless experience.  Whatever, I’m not bothered by this but did catch me off guard.

The physical size of the device is appealing but honestly I chuckled that after plugging in my Ethernet cable and a decent quality HDMI cable, the cables tipped the box up.  It’s almost too light and small.  But it definitely doesn’t take up space nor does it have any noise emitting.

Channel setup

The next thing you have to do is set up some channels.  This is offered during your account set up on their website pointing to the free apps like Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, etc.  Notice I didn’t say free “services” – these are just their channel apps.  You don’t get Netflix for free here if that is what you were thinking.  I set up my most popular and figured I’d do the others later.  I was off and started.  The Roku device started downloading some updates and I took the time to figure I’d add my custom channel we got the device for.

Turns out, this is not intuitive IMO.  Since it let me set up the Hulu, Netflix, Amazon during my account creation I thought I’d be able to add other channels via the website and my profile.  Nope.  You can browse all the channels but there is no “add to my device” option.  In fact, I had to search the help FAQ to even find out how to do that.  It would have been at least nice to have that prompt in the areas where you’d expect to add a channel.  I found this to be incredibly lame and my first area where I think Roku can improve.

Nonetheless I searched for the channel on the device and added it no problems afterwards.

For the other channels that required authentication (i.e., Netflix, Hulu) it was a mixed bag.  With Netflix I had to log into my account on the device.  Again, “typing” with a remote is extremely annoying.  The others pointed me to a website with a code.  While I needed a PC, it was much quicker to set up than things like Netflix.  I went to the site, logged in, entered the code on screen, then the screen realized I was linked and proceeded. 

Games

One quick word here.  I think games on these types of devices is quite lame.  But take that from someone who isn’t a gamer.  The Roku XS came with Angry Birds and I just found it lame to play on the remote.  Casual games are for casual use, not my big HD screen…that’s for “real” games.

Bottom line: don’t let the games thing sway you.  In fact if you don’t care about games or don’t care about wired Ethernet access, then you should get the Roku XD for less money.

Content Quality

Impressive.  Of course this depends on the source of the content but my quality was very good HD quality and no buffering experienced.  I have no complaints here.

Content Acquisition

“Acquisition” is the best word I can think of for this experience – that of finding and the start point of your desired content.  The Netflix interface is horrible.  For an avid Netflix user (on XBOX) this needs to be improved, seriously.  Same with Hulu Plus actually.  I don’t have solutions other than “make it more like XBOX” because that is what I’m used to.

The Amazon app is a welcome one to me because, while I can get my Amazon content on XBOX it isn’t the greatest experience I’ve set up…and I can’t get my rentals easily without an extra step.  The Amazon app gives me direct access to my purchased and Instant Video content (for Amazon Prime members) on the device.  I anticipate I will like this feature the most for my Roku usage.

Pandora is a welcome app.  Although admittedly it seems lame to “listen” to music through your TV, it’s nice to have that option.  I think Pandora can step it up as well on their UI for their app…at least make it a bit more engaging to me.

Parental Controls

Stop looking, there isn’t any.  The FAQ points to the fact you can set up a PIN to prevent anyone from purchasing in-device content.  Um, that’s not parental controls at all.  I don’t consider myself a prude but I also don’t think my daughter needs to browse through Netflix and see movie covers with gore or half-dressed folks on them.  She’s 9.  And same for my son browsing his Inspector Gadget videos…he doesn’t need the occasional NC-17 cover passing him by.

Seriously, if Roku wants to be a serious family device, give me *some* throttles.  XBOX does this well and it flows through their apps.  I set permissions on the device and the apps flow.  I can set a limit of PG movies/content and anything above that isn’t showing pictures (it still lists the titles) and requires a PIN to play.  That’s all I’m asking.

Developer story

One of the things that bothered me about TiVo was the lack of an initial (and even later) good developer story.  Roku puts a developer link on their home page and has a whole section complete with SDK, design guidelines, Photoshop templates for screen designs, etc.  I’m just now digging into this to play around, but it is pretty cool to see the company encourage this.  There is a free and premium developer account and I suspect the free allows very basic RSS type feed insertion where the premium allows you to be more of an app.  I’m still checking it out, but while deep it appears not to be entirely intuitive as well.  Some searches showed some Roku/C# forum posts so I’ll be checking those out.

Overall

Good purchase so far.  Annoyances exist for me as does any product but nothing I can’t get over for my specific use case.  I’ll be looking at the developer platform, but I think for now the inexpensive purchase for our immediate need paid off and we’ll see how much I use the little thing over the XBOX for the mainstream content we already get.  I suspect that I’ll be more annoyed by the apps’ user interfaces and revert to XBOX, but we’ll see.

If you’re in the market for a single device to get things like Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, Pandora, etc., etc. and don’t have an XBOX, Playstation or a TV that has those built in, then the Roku might be for you and at $79 or $99 it’s well worth the investigation at least in my opinion.

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