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.)
We 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.
Between 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Keywords: #roku1 #lowendtv
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