Roku 1, a Good Deal at Half the Price of Apple TV

After years with DirecTV, we’ve decided to cut back as much as possible on the cost of watching TV. We’ve cut back to the lowest cost DirecTV package until we can put up a good antenna, and we’re using Netflix and Hulu Plus for the bulk of our viewing.

We’ve had Netflix since it was a DVD-only service, and we’ve been using Netflix streaming on our Wii for years. Netflix has a great selection of movies and TV shows – except for the current season. Hulu Plus, which we added a few months ago, takes care of most of that, although CBS is a notable exception.

One issue is that we have a 1080i HD TV, but Wii only puts out a 480p standard resolution signal. That works, but even with component video cables, it isn’t very sharp. (For that matter, neither does DirecTV’s lowest cost, standard resolution service. If anything, it looks worse than the Wii output.)

300px-Chromecast_dongleWe looked at our options: Apple TV was the obvious choice, but also the most expensive at $90 – about the best break you’ll get off Apple’s $99 retail price. Chromecast was the low-end choice at $30-35, but it doesn’t work with a regular remote control. Having to use your smartphone as a remote control isn’t always ideal, and a simple remote with buttons is nice.

Roku 1 remote controlBetween the two extremes is the $50 Roku 1. Like the other devices, it supports 1080i high definition video and has 802.11n WiFi. It comes with a decent remote, which is more than you can say for the skimpy Apple TV remote control. The Roku remote even has a dedicated Netflix button, which is nice, since we use Netflix a lot.

Roku 1

If you use M-GO, Amazon, or Blockbuster, you’ll be happy to know they have dedicated buttons as well. Unfortunately, there is no button for Hulu Plus, which is the only other service we use regularly.

The Roku device itself is tiny – just 3.7″ square and 1.2″ tall. It has composite video output and cables for use with older standard definition TVs, and it has HDMI output for modern high-def TVs. You just have to add your own HDMI cable (about $6-7 from Amazon.com, under $10 at your local Home Depot, and I recently saw one for $3 at Menard’s).

The Good

We upgraded from 3 Mbps U-verse service to 6 Mbps in anticipation of getting our Roku. 3 Mbps was adequate for our home network and watching TV content using the Wii, but it’s not really sufficient for HD TV content plus iPhones and home computers. 6 Mbps is plenty of speed for HD content, and video quality is at least as good as we had with HD from DirecTV.

Streaming content from Netflix and Hulu Plus looks great, far better than from the Wii. The Roku Netflix app has a much cleaner layout and is a bit more streamlined. Very impressive.

We use Hulu Plus almost exclusively to watch the TV shows we used to DVR with DirecTV, and while some people complain about getting commercials in their TV shows on Hulu Plus, in reality most one-hour shows are finished in 42-43 minutes even with those ads. That’s about the same amount of time it took to watch them via DVR – and no need to zip through commercials. I’d call it a break even there. The only drawback is that you usually have to wait until 24 hours after a program was first broadcast to stream it. That said, there are also live sports channels.

There’s an excellent Roku iOS app that we have on our iPhones. Most of the time the remote control is the best option, but for adding channels to the Roku or doing a search, the iOS app is the way to go. Also, for some reason the Roku responds more quickly to the iPhone app.

Roku has Pandora, and if you’re already a Pandora user, it can link to your existing account and playlists. I’m a big fan of Pandora, and I was also happy to find that I can play music from my iPhone’s iTunes library on Roku. You can also do a slideshow from photos on your iOS device and stream video from it to Roku.

The Bad

Roku makes a big deal about having thousands of channels of content available, but odds are that over 90% won’t interest you.

Want to watch YouTube? Sorry, not on the Roku 1 or the $80 Roku 2. If you have the $100 Roku 3 or the $50 Roku Streaming Stick (controlled from your smartphone, like Google Chromecast), you can do YouTube. This is a disappointing omission.

Throughput using AT&T U-verse and the DNS built into its 2-wire hardware is poor. Fortunately we have an AirPort Extreme WiFi router set up to us OpenDNS, and that works much better – even though it has to go through the 2-wire router to connect to the Internet.

The Ugly

I don’t know what’s up with CBS, but none of their current content is available via Hulu Plus. There is a CBS channel, but all you get to see are clips and trailers. There are a lot of ways that Roku doesn’t live up to its promise. CBS is just the tip of the iceberg. ABC, NBC, and Fox give us everything they broadcast using Hulu Plus, but most of the other “cable” channels give you nothing but trailers and clips unless you have signed up for them through your cable or satellite provider.

That’s the expense we’re trying to avoid here, and there doesn’t seem to be a way to sign up for Lifetime, TNT, and the rest without using a cable or satellite provider. I think there’s a real opportunity here for someone to launch a virtual provider!

That’s more of a matter for a different article, as the problem is with what the networks will allow. It is not a Roku or Chromecast issue.

Our Roku 1 runs very hot, especially when the weather is hot. We’ve added little rubber feet to improve air flow, but it doesn’t help much. When it gets hot, it can lose signal or even reset itself. The compact plastic box is more of a heat trap than a heat conductor, something Roku needs to fix. Best we can do is keep a fan running when it get warm and turn on air conditioning when it gets too hot.

All in all, I consider the Roku 1 a bargain at $50.

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11 thoughts on “Roku 1, a Good Deal at Half the Price of Apple TV

  1. the wife and I have one of the higher priced DISH Sat TV packages.Originally had only 3 choices for TV as we live in the “country” – over the air antennae, DirecTV or DISH. But 2yrs ago I bought the Roku Hd box. And now over 75% of our time spent in front of the TV now is using our Roku HD with either Netflix streaming or Acorn (best of British TV). the Roku HD i believe was $50 when new over a few years ago. It does 720p and streams pretty decently over our WiFi-N router. It does get bogged down at times with the Roku software interface. Sometimes it reboots itself for reasons unknown to me. There hundreds of channels you can watch but most of the time we use the Acorn, Netflix, and sometimes HBO Go. Best part we found, someone can watch a show on Netflix on the Roku up front on the HDTV, and at the same time another person can watch a show on Netflix on one of our Mac’s.

  2. Last year I replaced our aging and monsterous bluray player with a much smaller Sony model that doubled as a streaming device. It was $59, but since it played discs and streamed it was worth a little more to have less boxes.

    • Thanks for the suggestions, Jim. I’m going to try a whisker antenna without amplification. In our location, we probably won’t even need a rotor for the majority of stations.

  3. Uhhhh….anyone else here XBMC with 1Channel and Navi-X much? Pretty totally incredible, when its up. And, updates of XBMC break everything, so update with caution.

    Wife watches Hulu. We gave up Dish Network in 2008 and never looked back. I have also given up on American TV, over the air, under the sea, its all crap to paraphrase Mike Myers. Also, I have come to hate commercials with a passion. I watch the BBC iplayer in Chrome using the Hola extension. Doesn’t always work, but better than paying 70 bucks a year for a VPN that also didn’t work all the time, which is what I was doing.

    I also make extensive use of Youtube. Pretty much if I want something from across the pond and its not on the iPlayer someone has posted it to Youtube within a week. Sometimes, when I’ve found an obscure BBC documentary from the seventies that I remember watching as a kid, I sit back and say, wow, the future is pretty bad ass, even without flying cars.

    Totally yearly “entertainment” expense: Internet connection. And a Library card. Life is simple.

  4. Good luck to you. and over the air digital antennae does not cut the cheese in my neighborhood. So much interference in the air, can barely get a decent WiFi or 3G or 4G signal let alone a VHF/UHF signal.

  5. just a comment. Today HSN offered the Roku3 with an HDMI cable and several trial subscriptions – 2 months of Hulu Plus, 2 months of Acorn TV, for $99. its the normal price of a Roku3. Not sure the quality of the HDMI cable but I know Hulu Plus costs about $8/mo and Acorn TV is about $5/mo.

  6. Great article . For those who live outside US like me, you can access Netflix, Hulu and similar media stations on your Roku by using UnoTelly or similar tools.