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Roku has big as well as esoteric and interesting channels

by Larry Magid
This post is adapted from one that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

I have a Blu-ray and DVD player, but I almost never use it. For that matter, I rarely watch movies via my cable subscription. That’s because I have a Roku on my family room TV, which I use to watch movies and TV shows on Netflix (Amazon Instant Video, HBO Go and other services.

Amazon Instant Video has movies you can rent or buy, but if you subscribe to Amazon Prime (the $79-a-year service that also gets you free two-day shipping), you can watch thousands of movies and shows for free. It’s like Netflix but with a smaller collection. And like Netflix, Amazon has invested in some original programming such as “Alpha House,” staring John Goodman.

Call me lazy, but I recently watched a movie on Netflix that I also own on Blu-ray. The video and sound quality might have been a little better had I taken the disc out of its holder and inserted it in my Blu-ray player, but it was easier to just stream it.

It’s also nice that most of these services work on a variety of devices. If I’m in a hotel room or want to view a video in bed or in my study, I can watch the same streaming channels on my laptop or my tablet. I’ve even been known to stream Netflix shows on my smartphone. Sure the screen is tiny, but if it’s the only screen I have handy, it’s better than nothing.

Many of these streaming services are based on a monthly fee with no cost per view, but sometimes I’ll pay $3.99 or more to “rent” a movie on Amazon or iTunes and once in a great while I’ll pay a bit more to own one, such as the copy of “It’s a Wonderful Life” that we watch every year around this time. I don’t actually own that movie in any tangible form but — for $9.99 — I have the right to stream it in high-def from Amazon as many times as I want for the rest of my life.

Roku is far from the only choice when it comes to streaming. If you own a game console, chances are that you’ll be able to stream Netflix and a handful of other online channels. Same is true with some models of TiVo and some Internet-connected Blu-ray players. Last year Google entered the fray with its $35 Chromecast streaming device. It’s a tiny plug that goes into your TV’s HDMI port and is controlled through your smartphone, tablet or PC instead of a remote control. With its enormous resources, Google has the potential to transform Chromecast into a powerful platform. But so far it too has only a handful of channels, including Netflix, Hulu Plus and, of course, Google’s own YouTube and Google Play movies.

With about 170 channels, Roku is by far the most versatile streaming player. And with prices starting at $39 ($49 for one that supports 1080p video), it’s a good value even if it is slightly more expensive than Chromecast. The $99 version comes with a motion controller so it can also be used to play games. There are iOS and Android apps that you can use to control the Roku, but unlike the Chromecast, it comes with a remote control. Some people may consider it passé to have a separate remote, but I like that I can watch it even if my phone or tablet isn’t handy or is suffering from a dead battery.

I recently signed up for a Fandor subscription and recommend it for anyone who loves independent movies. It also makes a nice last-minute gift for independent-movie lovers in your life. It’s like Netflix, only focused on “shorts, indies, festival films, forgotten classics, art-house rarities,” as its website explains. For those who have trouble deciding what to watch, it has the “Fandor Channel” which it describes as a “nonstop movie mixtape” of films that their curators have queued up that play all day. The service has an “Explore” feature that lets you browse through various genres, including animated, avant-garde, classic, comedy, crime, cut, silent, suspense and more.

And last week saw the debut of a new channel on Roku called Artkick. The service, according to founder Sheldon Laube, is designed to turn your HDTV into an electronic canvass that can display thousands of paintings and photographs, including collections from many of the world’s leading museums. You can have a single piece of art permanently displayed (unlike older sets you don’t really have to worry about burn-in with most LCD screens) or you can have them rotate. Collections include Ansel Adams photographs and paintings by Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and many more artists. You’ll need a Roku or a Samsung or Sony Internet-connect TV to view images on your TV set, but you can view them for free on the app that you can download from the Apple App Store or Google Play.

And, if you’re feeling cold, you can always use Roku’s fireplace channel to simulate a warm glow. It won’t actually warm you up and it does use a little electricity, but it’s OK to watch on Spare the Air days.