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Sunday, January 8, 2012

What Can You Do With a Roku?

Several people have asked me recently about streaming media set top boxes. Having a HTPC media computer connected to my LCD TV, I never used one of them. After asking several people their opinions, I decided I would try a ROKU box. In fact, I tried 2 of them: The top of the line Roku 2 XS, and the bargain priced Roku LT. Roku first introduced the streaming set top box to the market, and continues to be the industry leader. Of course, there are plenty of other ways to connect your TV to the internet nowadays, ranging from Apple TV,  Boxee, and Roku, Internet connected TV sets and Blu-ray players. I chose the Roku because of its reputation, access to lots of content, and price. If you're wondering what product you should choose, check out this review of network streaming devices.

If you've decided that a Roku player is for you, you'll need to choose the model that works for your needs and budget.

Compare Roku Models

Roku LT
Roku HD
Roku XD
Roku XS
350+ entertainment channels available, including hundreds of free movies
Works with virtually any TV
Built-in wireless (Wi-Fi b/g/n)
Plays high-definition video (720p)*
Expandable memory slot plus Bluetooth**
Plays the best HD video (1080p)*

Enhanced RF remote with motion control for games

USB port for playback of  your own media ***

Ethernet port for wired Internet connection

* Availability of 720p or 1080p HD video varies by entertainment channel.
**All Roku 2 models feature a MicroSD memory slot for adding additional storage capacity, plus Bluetooth for adding an RF remote control.
The Roku LT does NOT. The microSD card is for game and channel storage only. You will not be able to read files, such as videos and photos, from it. If you are interested in personal media playback, you can do that via USB on the Roku 2 XS model.
***See specs for list of file formats supported via USB

Please  note that Roku is no longer available with output for component (RGB) cables, or S/PDIF digital sound output. If you need these features, I suggest you search the used market for one of the previous generation of Roku players.

Having looked at both the Roku XS and the LT, I strongly recommend the Roku XS due to the fact that for less than $50 more, you get a motion sensing Bluetooth remote, SD card slot to store an almost unlimited amount of channels and games, wired Ethernet port, and a USB port so you can store and play back music, pictures, and video on a USB drive.

Roku 2 XS Pros:
  • Easy setup
  • Nice user interface
  • Nice free channels (CNET TV, Anime, etc)
  • Compact size
  • Angry Birds
  • Plays MP4 + .MKV movie files
  • Pandora, Amazon Prime
  • Fast Forwarding on movie files
  • Plays movies from USB memory sticks
  • Plays movies from external 2TB hard drive (2TB max, can't do 3TB)
  • Doesn't play AVI movies files
  • Can't play Windows Media Player movie files
  • Only 1 USB slot
  • Media folders from external USB are not in A-Z order
  • Menu customization is limited
  • Doesn't have YouTube*
* Yes it does, but you have to use  PlayOn. See below.

A shortcoming of the Roku XS is the very short battery life on the motion sensitive controller. Since the back of the remote is rounded, every time it is touched, it wakes up from sleep mode, thus draining the batteries. My suggestions to alleviate the problem are: 
  1. Place the remote face down when not in use to minimize motion.
  2. Get 2 sets of good rechargeable batteries.
  3. Or, buy an extra Instant Replay Remote, and only use the motion sensing remote for game-play.

What can you do with a ROKU

First, I suppose I should cover what you can't do with a Roku. Some people get the impression that a streaming media player is a direct replacement for your pay TV. It is not. It can only deliver content that is on the internet, that the content provider allows access to. And keep in mind that most of what is available is NOT LIVE STREAMING. It is mostly a collection of content that is available ala carte online. And if you're looking to watch live sports, you will be extremely disappointed. It's not that live streaming is difficult, but that content providers for the most part refuse to put it online. There are some live news channels - Al Jazeera, RT, and if your internet provider has an agreement with ESPN, you can watch ESPN3. There also are pay channels for some sports like hockey, soccer, and baseball. And in the ultimate irony, some content providers (like HBO) will only allow you to view their content if you are already paying for it through a pay TV provider. In the case of HBO, your provider will likely require you to pay for a $60 package before allowing you to pay an additional $14 for HBO, just so you can play it on your Roku. HUH?

Now, let's see what you CAN do with your new "toy"

The Basics: Setup
Setup of the Roku is so incredibly easy, I will just refer you to the Roku quick start guide. You will need to use a computer to complete the activation process, and you'll also need to enter a credit card number for channel purchases. Make sure you use a PIN to prevent unwanted channel purchases. (Protip: if you want to activate your Roku without providing a credit card number for channel purchases, call Roku Phone Support: 888-600-7658.)

Public Channels:
The first thing you'll want to do after activating your Roku is to head to the Roku Channel Store.
Here, you can select the "public" channels for your Roku.

Featured Public Channels:

Netflix hulu PLUS Amazon instant video Crackle hbogo pandora NHL ON ROKU, National Hockey League angry_birds disney UFC, Ultimate Fighting Championship wsj facebook mls Pac-Man CNBC NBA GAME TIME Epix gbtv gbtv Cnet aol nbcnews jeopardy

 Adding a channel is as easy as going to the channel store and clicking for most channels, for other channels you will also need to go to that channel's web site and sign up, then link your accounts. That's all there is to it!

If you have a Roku player with a USB port you need to install the free Roku USB Media Player channel.
To install the Roku USB Media player channel:
  • From the Roku home screen, select the Roku Channel Store.
  • Navigate down to the “Music” or “Photos & Video” category.
  • Select “Roku USB Media Player.”
  • Select “add channel.”
Click here to see supported video, audio and photo file types.
Click here to see how to convert videos for playback on the Roku USB channel.
NOTE:  Only the Roku 2 XS, Roku XDS, and Roku HD-XR models have a USB port.

And now,
The Roku Hacks!
Okay, I'm not going to tell you how to open the Roku box and rewire it, or upload custom firmware - Because you can't. But here's a few tricks I've learned to improve and add to your Roku experience.

Private Channels:
There is an additional category of Roku channels known as "Private Channels". These are either channels that are under development, or channels that content providers have chosen to keep private.

How to add private Roku channels

Log into your Roku account and click “add a private channel". Enter the channel code for the channel you want to add.

Or use this link if you are already logged in or log yourself in:
For the most complete list of private Roku channels I've found, click here:
The Super Double Secret Roku Hack: PlayOn

Roku's "official" forums don't talk about it. In fact, if you ask a question about PlayOn in the official Roku forums, your post will be be moderated, and you may be banned. No, it's not illegal, they just don't support it, and they don't want to talk about it. PlayOn is a program and a service that downloads streams on your computer and transfers the stream via your home network to your Roku, Wii, Xbox, Boxee, etc.   
Why do you want PlayOn you ask? Well, some video services on the internet are only available to computer users. Hulu, for example, is free on a computer, or paid. But on your Roku, only the paid service is available. Yea, I know - pretty stupid, right?  PlayOn acts as a "bridge" from an actual computer to your streaming device, serving as sort of a "back door". It comes with over 30 channels, including YouTube, with dozens more available as 3rd party plugins:

PlayOn does require a fairly good computer to be running on your network when you're using it. But I've run it on a Windows 7 Celeron 2.2 laptop with 3 GB ram with only minimal glitches. It runs great on my dual core P 2.3 desktop. Also, be aware that PlayOn content delivered to Roku will be SD.

Media Mall Technologies (the creator of PlayOn) also has developed PlayLater, a way to record internet video for later consumption on your computer, Roku, or portable device. Now, you can take content with you wherever you go, even when you have no network or internet access. (Think driving down the highway with kids watching shows on your tablet in the back seat.)
Download PlayLater Here

A new "official" channel similar to PlayOn has been added to the channel store, it's called PLEX. It has a lot of nice features but I don't think it's ready for prime time yet. It's still a bit rough around the edges - it definitely has a "beta" feel to it. It has great promise, especially for streaming your movie files to your TV. I will be comparing Plex and PlayOn in a future post.
Check out Plex for free in the Roku Channel Store.

Roku Network Remotes
One shortcoming of the Roku interface is the single-line channel menu and the clunky text entry method. To get around this, you can add the "My Channel" organizer via this link: This will let you organize your channels a bit. Or better yet, there are several remote applications that will allow you to use you phone, tablet, laptop, etc as a network remote to control your Roku. Here's a list of all the remotes I know of:

Remote apps:

What About The Children?
Won't Someone Think Of The CHILDREN?
One shortcoming of Roku - for families - is the complete lack of parental controls. It would be pretty easy for Roku to implement a pass-code for restricting access to some channels, and it has been requested in the Roku forums. Maybe such a function will be included in future updates. But for now, there is little you can do to prevent a child with the remote from accessing whatever content is available on any installed channels.

So, what's a good parent to do?

My first suggestion may sound like heresy to some: You may want to, you know, take your parental responsibilities a bit more seriously and actually WATCH your children! This IS the internet we're talking about here, after all.. There are even adult channels available on Roku - for free! Other than that, here's some things you can do to...

Make Your Roku More Child-Safe:
  • Setting up a password in your Roku account can prevent anyone from adding ANY channel, even free ones, without the password.
  • Netflix presents its own problem: it's wide open, anyone can watch anything. You can either remove the Netflix channel from your Roku, and add it back in when it's time for "grown-up" TV time, or...
  • Try MultiQs: It's $4.99 a year and allows multiple Netflix queues, with access controls, for Netflix. I haven't tried it yet, but it has a free one-month trial, and I plan on giving it a test drive and I will post a review after my trial is done. It could even be useful for families without children! If you use it, don't forget to uninstall the default Netflix channel.
  • Buy the kids their own Roku, (The $50 Roku LT would be ideal for this!) and set up a separate account for it. Add only channels you approve of. You could either connect it to a "kids only" TV, or connect it to your main TV through another HDMI or composite port. - most modern TVs have a lot of inputs available - then disconnect the input for the "big people Roku" when you are there to watch them.

Final Words
One more hack: controlling bandwidth. Many ISPs limit your bandwidth with caps and throttling.Straight out of the box, your Roku will take every bit of bandwidth it can. To reduce bandwidth, select the lowest resolution for your Roku: 480i, in the settings menu. you need to select 16:9 if you're watching on a wide screen, and 4:3 if you're using your old analog CRT TV.

To limit your bandwidth, you can also:
  1.  click 5x on the home button,
  2.  click 3x on the rewind button,
  3.  and click 2x on the fast forward button.
This will bring up a menu that will allow limit your max bandwidth. Try some different settings and see if it helps reduce buffering and interference with other internet devices (VOIP, etc)

If your family is a heavy user of Netflix like mine is, you can also restrict your bandwidth by going to your Netflix account settings, and adjust the maximum bandwidth in Manage Video Quality . Having kids, we stream a lot of kids shows - and what do 2 and 5 year old kids know about video quality? (up to 0.3 GB per hour) is good enough for kids cartoons. Finally, if your ISP throttles you (DIGIS, I'm looking at YOU!) make sure you're not using a screensaver that leeches content from the internet, like Facebook and Picassa screensavers. I like the digital clock with weather info screensaver myself, it does get some data from the internet, but it's a small amount compared to picture and video screensavers.
Overall, a Roku box is a bargain. $50-$100 for a one time expense is not a lot to spend, and along with an antenna on your roof, Roku can make life without pay TV even better than it was when you had "The Cable." (sounds like an affliction, doesn't it?)

catastrophegirlJan 13, 2012 04:56 PM
thanks for the link! glad you are enjoying your roku[s]
you can also change your netflix streaming settings in the menu
and don't forget that DirecTV and Comcast HBO users still can't use HBOGo on Roku [TWC as of this comment but that's rumored to be officially changing soon]
and playon has youtube if you haven't tried it yet

Yes, I had to disable comments on this page because it did crazy stuff to the page formatting! Thanks for the comment, and yes, I just updated the page here. I didn't realize that Comcast HBO users were unable to use HBO Go! Here's the Link to your page, again: