(Click here for Parts 1: Why?, 2: Device Options, 3: OTA Channels, 4: Wife's Thoughts, and 5: Sports and News of our OTT adventure)
In my family’s ongoing saga in “cutting the cord” on our cable TV service, we continue looking at our hardware options. This week we review Roku’s $99 Internet video set-top box device (supplied to us by the company). The angle of our review is less a comparison to other over-the-top (OTT) video set-top boxes, and more from the perspective of how it might replace our traditional television services (TV and VoD).
Overall I really like this little box. I have been using it for three weeks now (I do not like to make snap judgments on new devices) and from the beginning the experience has been simple and easy with unexpected surprises.
A Sandwich in the Man Cave
The Roku box is little bigger than a stacked ham and cheese sandwich (with the lettuce and tomatoes added). It took about 3 minutes to take it out of the box and connect it to the HDTV in my “man cave” in the basement (you know, the one with the comfy couch, flat panel TV on the wall, pool table, dart board, fridge, etc.).
It only took another 5 minutes or so to set it up. The directions were simple too. Put the batteries in the remote. Connect the device. Let it boot up. Connect to your home network. Though this last part should only take a few seconds, for me it took over an hour because for the life of me I could not remember the SSID and password for my wifi. I finally gave up and re-installed the Linksys router and re-set everything. This would have been much easier if I had written down my network password, so this is no fault of Roku. After that, I had to reboot once to allow Roku to reconfigure for my HDTV (the default is SD). It is worth mentioning as well that, while Roku comes with composite video cables, I used an HDMI cable I had lying around, which is a great option if you want to get the best video quality.
Right now, Roku comes with three services—Netflix, Amazon, and MLB.tv. Each of them has to be set up individually using the same process, which involves going to those websites plus “/roku” (e.g. www.netflix.com/roku) and putting in your box’s code to link it to the site. It may sound complex but it is really straightforward. From there, you need to set up accounts with each service, which is the normal faire of putting in your name, address, and credit card information (if you already have Netflix, Amazon, or MLB accounts you would be all set already).
After that, the Roku interface is really very simple. If you are using Netflix, you need to use your computer to set up your queue of “watch instantly” shows. You want to do this anyhow because the Netflix site is quite superlative, with a great recommendation engine and background information on shows and movie. Also the Netflix streaming service is integrated with one of the DVDs-by-mail packages. We signed up for the $8.99 one at a time DVD-by-mail package, knowing that we are more likely to use the streaming service. So far that has been the case. If you are using Amazon Video on Demand, there is a slight pause as you navigate the different menus, but you don’t need to go to the website via your computer first. I did not try MLB.tv since you have to sign up for a subscription and it is subject to local blackouts for home games (see my earlier post about sports sites).
Similar to the box, the Roku remote control is quite minimalist. It has home, select, directional arrows, and pause/play and forward/rewind buttons. That’s it. Each of the three different content stores uses the keys in a slightly different way. It took a little getting used to but it was all very intuitive and we never had to go to a manual or support site for help.
Content Is the Spice of Life
Back to the content. For those looking to “cut the cord” from a Pay TV service but don’t want to lose out on their favorite movie channels (e.g., HBO, Starz) or VoD shows, you will be quite pleased. We found TONS of content options for our family. Our first pleasant surprise is that we did not miss the Comcast VoD menu for children’s programming. The little kids were able to get a healthy dose of “Kipper” and “Blue’s Clues” from Netflix streaming. The older kids enjoyed old-time classic movies “Lassie”, “National Velvet”, and some newer coming of age movies such as “Second Chances” (why is it every girl movie has to have a horse in it?) and the award winning animated short “Peter and the Wolf”. Mom and Dad get whole seasons of “The Office” and “Lost”. We never checked them out on regular TV, but we will likely try out some new shows such as “Heroes”, “30Rock”, and “Battlestar Galactica”. In addition, we decided that the better quality DVDs-by-mail would be reserved for Mom and Dad’s movie night, so we have “Quantum of Solace”, “Doubt”, and “Ironman” queued up. All this for 9 bucks?
We found ourselves gravitating towards the Netflix content. While Amazon also has shows for free (and in HD) much of it is fee for download content. Most SD shows sell for about $2 on Amazon, with HD shows $3. You can buy whole seasons from around $20 (SD) to about $50 (HD), depending on the show and number of episodes in the season. Based on my quick math it looks like buying the whole season saves you about 20% versus buying each show individually. But I think we will exhaust the free content before we decide to start adding costs to our cord-cutting adventure. So far there doesn’t seem to be any programs that we just HAVE to watch that are not free.
ALMOST the Same as Pay TV
Overall, the quality of the video was better than expected for Internet video but it still had its glitches. The quality will depend on many things, from the source content, to the site’s streaming engine, to the broadband Internet connection, through the home’s wireless (in our case) or wired network. In our experience of watching a half dozen movies on Netflix, we got about 3 or 4 short buffering interruptions per show. Not a huge bother, but still not the same as Pay TV (actually, it reminded us a bit of the “rain fade” interruptions we used to get with DirecTV). Also, while some shows advertise “HD” quality, when watching “In Gayle We Trust” on Amazon it reverted to “SD” and we received a pop-up notice that something was keeping it from HD resolution (probably our wireless network). We also noticed some buffering interruptions when watching “Mercy” on Amazon so this was not limited to Netflix’s site. Buffering also seems to be baked into the rewind/forward features of the box, which is a bit of a trade-off from regular TV. While you get video snapshot of scenes as you decide where to rewind/forward to, you also have to wait about 10 seconds each time you do this.
Like most Internet video, if you observe closely you might also see some other artifacts that make the video just a little bit choppy or stuttered. Again, it is difficult to pinpoint frame-rate or the broadband connection or other problem sources without being able to monitor the flow-through of the entire stream. In general though, we usually got caught up into the show rather than noticing every small video quality flaw. For most of what we watched, we forgot we were watching online video. Perhaps over time these little flaws will build into major annoyances, but right now we are more giddy than annoyed.
The other drawback we noticed is that the sound quality was highly variable depending on the show. Old time shows like “Lassie” and “National Velvet” never got loud enough despite turning it up all the way, while others sounded great. Amazon’s site even specifies which shows are available in 5.1 sound, and this designation proved pretty reliable.
But there are also many upsides, especially as it relates to a more streamlined way to find and play desired content. For example, one nice little feature that is better than regular TV is that when you select a series like "The Office", it automatically moves you to the next episode after you watch a show so it is much easier to keep track of. One of the tricky things with regular TV is that, even with DVR, we sometimes had a difficult time finding missed episodes or playing the latest one. This is a much simplified process with Internet TV sites like Netflix.
Conclusion: Roku + OTA = :-)
It is also worth mentioning that, compared to Pay TV services (or RF modulators like ZvBox) which leverage the coax in your house to reach all TVs, the Roku device is a single TV solution. For some people this will be a big turn-off. But for families that are happy just getting antenna-based over-the-air (OTA) local channels and DVD/VCR movies at some TVs, and the full Roku experience at their main TV, this might just be the device that lets you cut the cord with confidence.
At the end of the day, there are still many hurdles to OTT video that will keep most mainstream consumers from abandoning their Pay TV subscriptions. But with Roku, price, simplicity of setup and use, and availability of lots of good content will not be among those obstacles. For $99 it’s worth a try, even if you only use it to cut back on your premium Pay TV movie packages and VoD bills.