Roku
Posts on the Roku line of products

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One day after Apple TV launched two new apps Roku has rolled out a major firmware update available via the settings menu. The update brings three new features to the set top box across the product line. The features include the a new more visually appealing Netflix interface, integration of the Roku’s new on demand TV and Movie partner “M-Go” in to the set top box’s main menu and the new AOL poweredvideo news section. All of the new features are listed from the top of the selection menu just under “My Channels” There are a few other small changes including the M-Go service being added to the universal search.


How do you get it?

You could just wait for Roku to force the update via cycling but in order to upgrade manually the firmware users can press the home button on the remote and toggle down to the settings. From there click right on the directional pad and toggle down until the choice for system update is highlighted. Select this option and the Roku takes care of the rest. The Roku will download the latest firmware, reset and awaken with a whole new group of options.

Play cast requires a subscription to the PlayOn service.
The PlayCast app may be the first step in a new direction.

Ryan Michael Downey

Roku is taking a step towards full mirroring from computers and other devices on its products via its new integration with PlayOn and its new PlayCast app.  The extension allows users to send videos that can be viewed on a windows computer to a Roku in order to view them on their TVs. In order to use the application a PlayOn media server must be installed and running on a windows based computer and the PlayCast app and the PlayOn app must be installed on the Roku. Once PlayOn is fully installed a PlayOn icon can be added to the users preferred browser. Feature Not Free PlayOn is not a free service but it has many pricing options from a onetime fee to monthly charge.  As a special bonus to Roku users, owners of the set top device can sign up for PlayOn’s lifelong membership for only $29.00 Upon loading the PlayCast app to the Roku and opening it users are provided with a special code that can be redeemed at PlayOn’s site. A full review of the new service’s capabilities will be coming soon. More To Come This development is likely far from the last we will hear concerning Roku and mirroring as there has been persistent reporting concerning Roku and DIAL (Discovery and Launch) the protocol that enables the Google Chromecast as well as Miracast a separate second screen protocol developed to provide a service counter to Apple’s Air Play, primarily working with Android devices and laptop computers. There has even been reporting that indicates development of an extension to allow full mirroring from Mozilla Firefox.  Both Miracast and DIAL are expected to be widely adopted as more people understand and embrace the wireless transfer of video and audio content. Roku stands to be at the forefront of these developments going forward and may well be making more related announcements going forward.

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Roku has added an AOL powered news feed to its home screen in a continuing effort to add value to its line of products. This comes on the heels of the addition live TV apps for Watch ESPN and the Disney Channel. The company is positioning itself well for the holidays. Roku, which adds new channel content regularly has been aggressively adding features since September including the M-Go on demand movie service, soon to be available on all current Roku Models.

Could DIAL Be Next?
There have been multiple indications during the past year that Roku has been working to add more web based video functionality. In September Janko Roettgers reported on Gigaom.com  that Roku would be adding DIAL, the same video and audio protocol used by the popular Google Chromecast. The protocol allows the Chromecast to send video from a smart phone or tablet to a TV. The device also allows users to mirror Google tabs from a laptop or desktop computer. As of yet this feature has yet to surface on the streaming box. Other reports of Mozilla working to develop the ability to mirror the Firefox browser on a Roku as well as multiple reports that the company is going to be integrating Miracast another Air Play like protocol indicate that Roku plans to be a major player for playing local and internet  based content moving forward.

Is There a Game Changer Coming?

Non Apple users have been longing for simple to use alternatives for AirPlay and Roku may find a way to not only offer a solution but multiple ones all in one place. While services like Miracast are available on various single use devices as well as the Matricom MX2 Roku has a chance to put together an offering that is nearly unmatched. If the company teams multiple second screen protocols with its ever growing list of set top based channels which includes HBO-Go, Hulu Plus, Netflix, Amazon Instant and so many others from live news feeds to pro sports apps it will be in position to offer a more than compelling argument to the consumer. Roku has been positioned at a strong second place in the set top market behind the industry leading Apple TV. Will moves like the ones it has made recently and a combination of what may be coming strengthen its position or even push it front and center?

 

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The ESPN family of networks is now available to Roku users.
The ESPN family of networks is now available to Roku users.

Ryan Michael Downey

Roku has added ESPN the biggest name in televised sports to its channel lineup. This gives Roku users another access point to live sports to go along with web based offerings from the NBA, MLB, NHL and others. This is a major development for the company that already offered over 1000 channels/apps. Until now Apple TV, which got the service over the summer,  was the only set top box that offered Watch ESPN. Watch ESPN is also available on the X-Box for Gold members.

The watch ESPN app requires cable service authentication which means that it cannot be accessed unless the user has a password and user name registered with a participating cable provider.

The App features all of the channels that ESPN offers, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN News, ESPN U and ESPN Deportes. What one has access to all depends on what services they receive as part of their television package. The app also features ESPN 3 a broadcasting platform based exclusively on the Internet.  The service began as ESPN 360 and was originally available through ESPN’s official website. Adding ESPN 3 is a real coup for sports fans because the service multiplies the amount of live sports tenfold feturing  major college sports including football and basketball along with other international league sports like soccer, rugby etc.

One small limitation of the app is that contests featured in the same media market but on another channel  both OTA or cable will be blacked out on ESPN3. Out of market contests on the other hand can be streamed with impunity. This will be very advantageous to those who moved from Big Ten country to ACC country or the hard core SEC fan who moved out west.

Best Buy will be selling the older Roku HD for 39 dollars as part of its door buster sale. At a price like that this may just be the best stocking stuffer since the Walkman.

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Company’s release includes upgrades to lower end models as well as new VOD Service

KISR (Keep it Simple Roku)
Roku has re-branded its line of products in an obvious effort to simplify. Many bloggers and tech reporters are lauding the company’s efforts. It has been reported on numerous sites that the Roku 1 has been given a “major” upgrade. This reporting is a bit erroneous because the Roku 1 did not get a face lift. Roku has never had a model called the Roku 1 until now.  What has happened is that Roku upgraded the features on two lower end models, made the look of each Roku more uniform and has chosen to name their products in an easier to understand numerically tiered fashion. Until now the company had used letter designations to differentiate. This started to change with the release of the Roku 3 which was a huge upgrade from its previous top model the XS.
Until the release of the Roku 3 this year the four models of Roku available for sale were the Roku LT, Roku HD, Roku 2XD, and Roku XS.   Do you see how  the previous naming system could be confusing? Based on the letter distinctions which one sounds like the most recent and or powerful? On the other hand apple has released in succession Apple TV, Apple TV 2 and Apple TV 3.

What’s New

At $49.00 the Roku LT or Roku lite” is still the lowest priced model , capable of rendering 720p HD video  and is compatible with non HD TVs. The only change to the product is cosmetic as it now has rounded corners to match the rest of the product line. The Roku 1 is the upgraded version of the Roku 2 HD which had previously sold for $59.00. The Roku 1 will also sell for $59.00 in its place. Aside from the more curved features of the Roku 1 the major change is that the “HD” was only capable of rendering 720p HD and Roku 1 will render 1080p HD. The Roku XD now no longer exists as it has been rechristened simply the Roku 2. Like Roku “1” the Roku 2 will sell at the identical price point of the model it replaces at $79.00 but adds the feature of a speaker jack for private listening on its remote, which previously was only available on the Roku 3. Like the “XD” the Roku 2 can also be attached a standard TV or HD Television.  Meanwhile the Roku 3 remains the same and the best product of the line.

Why Roku did this Rollout

Besides simplifying its line up the new releases have had another affect. This product roll out gives Roku more buzz. The timing could not have been better.   The company has a chance to put out a flashy new release less than a week after Apple took a bit of a black eye for its problems regarding the firmware update on the industry-leading Apple TV.
The buried headline in the Roku Rollout appears to be its new partnership with media distributer M-GO. Roku now has an official partner for the a-la-carte distribution of television shows and movies. Roku will profit directly from the purchases of the content unlike its other on demand providers including Amazon on Demand and VUDU. How much of a revenue stream this provides will remain to be seen but it does allow Roku to tap into the same sort of model that Apple has with its i-Tunes store and Google with the Google Play Movies and TV selections.

The Big Story Could Be Coming Later

Anthony Wood has already stated that DIAL protocol is going to be added to Roku’s capabilities in what will be a major change to its product line. DIAL is the method that Google’s Chromecast utilizes to “Cast” Netflix and YouTube on to a TV. I have to wonder if Roku will also roll out a protocol that also allows users to mirror tabs in a computer browser. If Roku does make those moves it will very much neutralize the aggressive entry from Google. There has also been chatter since February of Roku becoming capable of using Miracast which is a service that mirrors Android devices in a very close approximation of Apple’s popular Air Play feature utilized via Apple products in concert with Apple TV. I have to wonder if the company is holding off on rolling out those features for strategic reasons in preparation for an Amazon streaming product announcement, if the company is still working out the details or if all of the speculation is just wrong.   There is also the matter of a customer survey that Roku sent out to the owners of its products in regards to use of YouTube and its Roku clone Video Buzz. The release of the survey led many to believe that Roku was either finally working out a deal with Google or putting together its own official YouTube substitute. But again that idea is only pure speculation.

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Ryan M Downey

There are a lot of tech bloggers and critics asking the question “Will Chromecast knock Roku out of America’s living rooms?” I don’t think so. The Chromecast gives consumers another product to consider and may start to carve out a niche unrelated to Rokus sollid second place spot behind Apple TV but I think it is far more likely to hurt the sales of lesser known streaming boxes far more and there are a number of reasons why.

Industry Buzz
First of all simply having a new product on the market that is being compared to Roku does not automatically vault it ahead. Roku CEO Anthony Wood said on a recent interview with Bloomberg News that when new products such as Apple TV have come out in the past Roku sales have increased. There has not been a new product rollout with as much hype as the Chromecast up to this point but keep in mind there are very few stories about the Chromecast that fail to mention Roku and a very important axiom in public relations and marketing is you want people to be talking about you. Streaming boxes or DMR’s are rarely if ever advertised on television. Information about them is usually found via a review when the product debuts. And the reviews often compare one product to another. So every time a potential consumer runs across an article about streaming with Chromecast they will learn about Roku. According to Wood this leads the consumer to take a good look at Roku. So far Roku’s sales are up from where they were before Chromecast hit the market.

Services
The Chromecast can seamlessly “cast” Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus and Google Play movies and TV shows to a TV from a smartphone. For those unfamiliar with Google Play it is an on demand service where by the use may purchase TV Shows and movies to view similar to offerings by cable companies, Itunes, Amazon, Vudu, Blockbuster on Demand and others. Google does have a feature being hailed as “airplay like” when using a laptop or desktop computer while also utilizing the Chrome Browser. The feature called “casting” will beam your internet signal to the dongle in order to mirror video from a website such as Hulu.com or HBOGo. This feature is only available for laptop and desktop computers. While our experience with this feature went smoothly there are reports of audio either not sinking and worse not working at all.  Another unfortunate problem is that if a website uses pop out screens for video content the Chromecast can not play the content. This  means no casting from the phones and tablets that serve as the remote for this device. The casting functionality being limited to laptops is bad news for the many casual consumers who have left bulky laptops behind for sleek lightweight tablets.

Roku on the other hand is the only DMR with over 1000 apps in its included channel store specifically designed for use on its product. Apps included are standard bearers like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, Amazon Instant Videos, Blockbuster on Demand, Crackle, and many others along with Tech and game news sites like IGN, CNET News services like NBC, CNN, Fox News, children’s programming, weather apps etc. Roku does not have a YouTube app at this time but through an app called myvideobuzz, users can link a personal YouTube account to the app or search its vast library. There are hundreds of other private and third party channels developed for Roku by independent programmers to meet the needs and wants of its consumer base. A quick search of third party channels will populate page upon page of simple to add channels for a Roku.

The market may already be set
Another factor squarely in Roku’s favor is market penetration. Recent reports show that Roku is the most heavily used DMR on the market. There are close to 6 million currently in homes across the country and while there are over twice as many Apple TV units in homes the numbers indicate that Roku users utilize streaming far more often. The study also shows that Roku users stream more content than users of other streaming devices including Apple TV. That is 6 million people who can recommend the product to friends and relatives.

If Google wanted to make a major statement it would have been very helpful had the company been able to meet the initial demand. The positive press when it launched created an initial tidal wave that could have led to far more sales then it created due to lack of inventory. Will demand for the device dissipate once the buzz dies down? How many people would pay $100 for a Tickle Me Elmo today? As more reviews roll in from people who actually use the product the market will have a chance to see what this item can do.

Overstated Value
Much has been made about the $35.00 price tag. It has been pointed out many times that this price point is 15 dollars less than the cost of the Roku LT, which is the lowest priced Roku model. Is this enough of a difference to cause someone to choose the Chromecast over the Roku LT? I don’t think the price point is as big a deal as it is made out to be. No, these have not been great economic times and something perceived as a cheap streaming option may seem tempting to some but keep in mind that the Chromecast has to be plugged in to an HDTV. So to start with, its consumer base is already willing to spend money on a perceived strong value. In the same Bloomberg interview mentioned earlier Anthony Wood pointed out that the $99.00 Roku 3 is the company’s best seller. It may be something that streaming enthusiast buy to add to an entertainment system but not an end all replacement.

Limited Reach
If Chromecast can only be utilized by HDTV owners then the product is limited in its reach. While there are certainly many people who have moved past the old square television sets there are still plenty of people who have yet to make the move to HD televisions either for purely price driven reasons or because they are just waiting until their current TV’s stop working. Roku has multiple models that can be utilized by users with non HD TV’s. If people adopt Roku as their chosen streaming device than it will be considerably more difficult for Chromecast to win over those customers because they will already be comfortable with the Roku.

BYOC
Something I find curious about the Chromecast is that it doesn’t ship with a controller. Google decided that their consumers should use smartphones and tablets as controllers. Like the earlier statement about HDTV adoption levels it is not a given that the entire American consumer base owns a smart phone or a tablet. And those who don’t are eliminated immediately from the consumer base for this product. By setting their product up as something that can only by utilized by smart phone owners with an HDTV they put a limitation on themselves that Roku has not.

Roku has a free app for Android and IOS that can be used to control the device. Once the device has been set up the physical controller can be put aside in favor of the mobile app. To pretend that using a smart phone as a controller is a new innovation is a step too far. What the lack of a controller does do is lower its shipping weight and packaging, which may even account for its lower price point. In some cases the controller adds other functionality to the device. Roku’s higher end models the XS (now no longer made) and its replacement the Roku 3 utilize the controller to play casual games things like angry birds, puzzle games etc. Roku does not market itself as a gaming console but this is sort of a bonus feature. The Roku 3’s controller also features a headphone jack in order to allow for a popular private listening mode utilizing the included headphones.

Conclusion
The Google Chromecast is a solid entry in to the streaming game for Google, its first product to catch the public imagination after failed attempts to get into the living room including the Logitech Revue, the Nexus Q and the Neo TV. For HDTV owners who also utilize smart phones the Chromecast is a nice way to add three new functions to an HDTV, Its ‘Casting” feature has potential for greatness but could use some tweaking.

Starting at its lowest price point the Roku line of products offers consumers a way to add well over 1000 channels spanning multiple categories with models to fit virtually any TV and be utilized by users with smart phones, dumb phones and no phones.

In the end the market will be the judge.

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Roku has a number of free Spanish language channels.

This review concentrates on the most advanced product by Roku, the popular single use HTPC. It looks at performance improvements against its predecessor. For a full general article on Roku as a product including key

The M-Go on demand movie and TV service is now available.
The M-Go on demand service is now available.

features, services abilities and history please see the Roku article found on our site. Before booting a Roku for the first time I recommend you create a profile at Roku.com.

Faster Stronger and more Stable
The Roku 3 is the finest product this company has released to date. Roku 3 has a duel core processor which added stability to its operating system and increased the start up speeds for all of its functions and apps, called channels in the Roku world. I own the Roku XS and approached the new entry wondering what had been done to improve the user experience. The increase in speed and overall performance was evident from the start.

YouTube And DIAL Support
The Roku 3 is currently the only model that can access the new official YouTube channel. The streaming service has long been coveted by Roku owners and is a welcome addition to those who own the device. The Roku 3 also supports DIAL, a protocol that allows services such as YouTube and Netflix to be launched from a computer, smartphone or tablet and beamed to the Roku for viewing. This is a popular feature on Google’s Chromecast. 

Firmware Update

Roku updated its firmware (across its product line) which added an on demand TV and movie service to its main menu. The movie and TV service is M-Go, a recent entry in to the on demand market. The service offers numerous recent movies and next day viewing of a majority of TV shows. It’s new news option is a helpful AOL based video news feed. While it is not extensive and in depth users can quickly see the headline stories of the day in numerous categories including news, entertainment technology and more. The Roku 3 loads all of these options splendidly. Once one video in the news section is viewed the service will move to the next story in line providing a broadcast TV type of experience. If you are skeptical about trying yet another movie service M-Go is giving two tittle rentals for free. Along with the new services also comes a beautiful new Netflix  interface with many new features including a more interactive search better use of screen space. 

Getting Started
The Roku 3 booted in just over a minute fresh out of the box. The set up questions and basic instructions took another minute or two. Next the Roku quickly imported every single one of my channels which was 73. This took no more than three minutes and just like that it was ready to go. New users will not need to do this step because they will not have a library of channels yet.

The Big Test
In order to gauge its strengths and speeds I tested some of the most system demanding apps that are offered on the platform. Those apps are Netflix, Plex and PlayOn.

Netflix
The first thing I noticed when I loaded a movie from Netflix was that it started quickly and clearly.

The new Netlfix interface uses more of the screen to  to highlight  it features.
The new Netlfix interface utilizes more of the screen

Because of buffering, a problem caused when programs load too slowly due to internet speed issues. Netflix selections on older models could take between 15-18 seconds to load. The video would begin to play but it just looked blurry almost like I was using an old-fashioned antenna before it began to flow smoothly. This problem has been eliminated with the new model. Buffering if any lasted just a few seconds.

Plex
In order to utilize Plex on a Roku Box the device must transcode a signal from a media server on another computer. This app requires a great deal of muscle for it to be fully utilized and it does so wonderfully. Using my laptop based server I was able to load and use both official and unofficial apps. TV programs and movies loaded in full 720P, which is the maximum viewing level on the Roku Plex app.  The maximum loading time for any of the TV and movie selections was in 30 seconds. Plex’s other dedicated apps loaded instantly.

PlayOn
PlayOn like Plex requires the Roku to locate a server from a computer. Again using my laptop based server I loaded PlayOn. The program and menus loaded quickly. Its Hulu app burst on to my HD screen as did the many official and private apps. Roku 3 essentially performed as though the apps were native to the box itself as opposed to operating from the remote server. TV Shows and movies loaded quickly and clearly.

Something New
A nice new addition to Roku’s lineup that came along with the Roku 3 is Big Fish Games. Roku already offers a lot of casual games but Big Fish Games gives Roku users many new options. The games are broken up into categories like the picture games, simulation games and puzzle games. Basically the same sorts of things a lot of smart phones offer. The games utilize Roku 3’s Wii like controller functionality. The games are not free but new users get a seven day free preview of the service which allows for unlimited downloads of games with a minimal monthly bill.

Nice Extra
The Roku 3 also comes with a comfortable little set of ear buds along with different sized ear pieces which can be used for private listening. Once the ear plugs are inserted in to the controllers audio jack the audio is directed to the headphones instead of the television speakers which is a great option for those who either don’t want to disturb others or want to tune out those around. That option will work anywhere within Wi-Fi range. This can be helpful if you just want to listen to music around the house through Pandora, Tune In Radio or any other music app you may crave while knocking out some chores. The ear buds are not exclusive to Roku products and can also be used in any other device. If you do not have need for private listening enjoy a spare pair of ear buds for your phone or MP3 player.

Mobile App
The Roku 3 works with Roku’s Mobile app for IOS and Android. Users who have smart phones and tablets may choose to utilize these free apps. The app provides users with an on screen keyboard which can simplify searches, a quick channel launch option and the popular feature “Play On Roku” which is not to be confused with the separate app “PlayOn”. Play On Roku allows Roku users to display digital pictures and movies stored locally on their mobile devices through their TV’s. Keep in mind though that Roku’s Mobile app must be used in concert with the product itself. It is not a mobile portal that allows users to access Roku based content on the go.

Recommendation
I always recommend that a streaming device be wired and with an Ethernet cable and not wireless. This will give you the fastest connection possible which is exactly what you want when you’re streaming in media. If you pick up this device power it up, plug in the Ethernet cord, and have fun. Roku makes it very easy to enjoy this experience.

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