I started out to review the new Roku 3 — which I will do in just a minute — but as I started writing, I realized that Roku is evolving into what could become a serious competitor to cable and satellite.
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When I got my first Roku in 2008, I saw it mainly as a way to stream Netflix to my TV set. I still mostly use Roku to stream movies and TV shows but over the years Roku has grown way beyond Netflix. It now supports 750 channels including 94 TV and movie channels along with music channels and channels for streaming games. In addition to Netflix, TV and movie fans can access Amazon Instant video (including free programs on Amazon prime), Vudu, Hulu Plus, HBO Go (you need a cable or satellite subscription to sign in) and even news and information channels ranging from Al Jazeera English live programming to Fox News, HuffPost Live and plenty more.
You can’t yet watch the Super Bowl or March Madness live via Roku but that could change now that the service is featuring at least some live programming, including MLB TV. The major networks, including CBS, NBC, Fox and Disney/ABC already have some programming available for Roku. It’s only a matter of time before they realize that it could also be a platform for the rest of their lineup.
Once you buy a Roku (prices range from $49.99 to $99.99), there are no monthly fees for the basic service and lots of channels are free, including some that show movies and TV shows. My favorite channels, including Netflix, Amazon, HuluPlus and Vudu either charge by the month or per view, but you’d have to subscribe to a lot of channels or watch a lot of pay-per-view shows to pay anywhere near a typical cable bill.
The best thing about the Roku 3 ($99) is that it already has the new Roku interface but all Rokus are being upgraded with new software so even if you have an older model, you’re soon going to get the search feature that allows you to find programs on any Roku channels.
When you locate a show, actor or director it displays all the channels where you can stream it. If you click on a listing it shows if it’s free or how much it costs. One improvement I’d like to see if to display the price along with the list of shows you so don’t have to click to know what it costs. It’s not uncommon to find shows that are available for free on some channels — typically ones where you pay by the month — but that cost money on others.
When it comes to hardware changes, the big innovation of Roku 3 is the headphone jack that automatically silences the TV and routes the sound to earbuds or headphones. It’s a great feature for those of us who sometimes watch TV while our partners are sleeping or when my wife wants to listen to music or read while I want to watch video. It’s one of those “isn’t that obvious” innovations that should be built into all remote controls.
Another advantage to the built-in headphone jack is that you can listen to streaming audio while the TV is turned off. You would still have to turn on the TV for a moment to tune in Pandora, Spotify or one of the other music channels but you could then turn it off and save energy while you listen through the earphone jack.
The remote has an accelerometer for use with games that you can stream via the Roku network.
Remote connects via Wi-Fi Direct
The audio and the remote communicate via Wi-Fi Direct so you don’t need a line of site view of the device to use it. In fact, the Roku can be inside a cabinet and still communicate. The Roku does, however, also accept standard IR so it stil works with universal remote controls.
The new Roku 3 has a faster processor which streamlines selecting channels to watch. The actual performance and quality of the program still, however, depends largely on your broadband connection but most DSL or cable broadband systems should be just fine, even for HD programming. Still, there may be times when the quality of the signal drops a bit if your broadband connection starts to slow down.
To answer the question posed by the title of this article, Roku — by itself — definitely won’t kill cable and satellite. But, along with other streaming options, it will further put a dent in the oligopoly of home video providers that has been continually raising its prices over the years. What I like about Roku is that it gives users a choice. You can subscribe to just the channels you want or just pay for just the shows you want to watch. And, because almost all of these channels are also available to watch on the web and/or on mobile devices, you also get a choice as to where to watch your shows. Sometimes I’ll start a show on the Roku and finish it on my laptop or tablet, so I get to chose not only what want to watch but where and when I want to watch it