Is the near-perfect Roku 3 the final cable killer?
There’s just one cathode-ray holdout left in my household roster of televisions. My bedroom dresser acts as a beefy stand to the 27″ Sony that I bought fifteen years ago and which still — damn it — works perfectly fine.
It also works as a metaphor for the changes in how TV viewing has changed. God only knows how I got this 99.6 pound set up the stairs to my apartment (the dent in the corner of the case suggests that success came in a nonlinear fashion). It displaced a notable volume of my living room’s breathable air.
But the size and heft of a TV didn’t used to matter. From the early days of TV through the Nineties, TV was something that you brought your body to. Watching TV was little different from going out to the theater.
Today, the screen itself is incidental. We don’t think about the screen, we think about the programming. And programming is something that we carry around with us and hope to access wherever we happen to be.
And a Roku box articulates that new reality perfectly. It pulls in content from dozens of different services scattered across the Internet and streams it to any HDTV.
The $99 Roku 3, released just a couple of weeks ago, is close to perfect. Roku continues to return fire in its perennial battle with Apple over who can build the smallest streaming media receiver. The Roku 3 is only slightly larger than an English muffin and it’s hard to imagine the company shaving any more millimeters or ounces from it.
Pretty things are pretty, yes indeed. But there’s not much reason for the Roku 3 to be this small and stylish. This latest iteration uses a remote that connects to the box via WiFi Direct. Line-of-sight is unnecessary; the remote works whether you’re pointing it at the device or not, and you’re even free to hide the box inside pretty much anything other than a Faraday cage.
Official mobile apps for iOS and Android can control the Roku just as well. The box also has an IR receiver that lets you control all functions through the universal remote of your choice.
WiFi Direct requires no setup and no intermediary WiFi base station. And it’s a two-way communication. Witness the jack on the remote. Yup, you can plug in headphones and watch TV in the bedroom without disturbing your significant other. It also includes game-style buttons for game-style gaming, similar to what you’d find on the game controller of a game console that plays games.
This is so that the Roku can play games.
Because the manufacturer left the first Roku 3 engineering sample in the open air overnight, Angry Birds spores eventually landed on the device and ensured that the Roku wouldn’t be the only electronic device that lacks a version of that game. The remote also has a Wii-style motion sensor.
As with previous Rokus, the third edition can connect to your home network via either wired Ethernet (10/100, fast enough for HD) or WiFi. Its wireless radio works with all of the standards that any modern base station supports: a/b/g/n, with operation on dual bands for greater stability.
You can plug in a USB storage device and play music, videos, and slideshows directly through Roku 3. A microSD slot lets you increase onboard storage. That extra storage might come in handy, as the library of Roku “channels” (which you can think of as “Roku apps”) continues to grow.
I can only see one drawback to the Roku 3, and it’s just a nitpick: it wants nothing to do with your old-fashioned analog set. This is an HDMI-only party. If you’re looking for a cheap way to keep an old analog set useful, you can still buy previous-generation (and less-expensive) Roku boxes that sport Clinton-era analog video and audio outputs.
Roku 3 sports a much faster new CPU, according to the manufacturer and an iFixit teardown of the hardware. Previous Rokus could play 1080p HD without any trouble whatsoever. So presumably, this extra steam is there to support future apps and the new, slicker user interface.
The new interface is rolling out to all compatible Roku boxes. It does away with the standard-def-friendly side-scrolling UI and replaces it with gridded channel icons and a layered menu system.
The nature of the new UI speaks volumes about Roku’s future. The original interface reflected its heritage as a box that streamed Netflix and maybe a couple of other services. Clearly, Roku 3 and the new UI is intended to support functions more akin to those of a cable box: a device that allows you to choose between dozens or even hundreds of sources of entertainment needs a sophisticated control deck.
And Roku is better poised to deliver that type of wide-ranging experience than Apple is. Apple TV is the best-selling streaming video device in a still-immature market. But the range of content available to Apple TV is tightly restricted by Apple. When a new channel appears, it’s big news.
Any developer can create a new channel for Roku. There’s a free Roku SDK. The company’s own curated Channel Store is the easiest way for Roku users to find and access new kinds of content, but they’re free to locate and activate “private” channels on their own. The procedure is well within the abilities of anyone who isn’t easily intimidated.
Two of these channels are real game changers: they turn this humble “$99 and you own it” box into something akin to a cable box.
Aereo is that wonderfully gutsy monthly service that delivers all of the over-the-air channels available to people within that same broadcast area. The programming is in HD, there’s a digital program guide and a full DVR, and you can watch live or recorded shows on Mac or PC web browsers, iOS devices, or the Roku. Aereo is only available in the metro NYC area right now. But they’re expanding into almost two dozen cities by the end of spring.
Time-Warner Cable one-ups Aereo by offering Internet streaming as a free sidecar to its home cable service. TWC TV will bring as many as 300 familiar channels to Roku.
Throw in HBO GO — another channel available on Roku but not Apple TV — and the Roku’s starting to look rather special. Other channels allow the Roku to stream content directly from your Mac or PC-based home media server.
Apple TV and Roku have a lot of overlap, though. Both devices support the big streamers (Netflix, Hulu Plus), and both boxes work with a huge library of movie and TV titles available for purchase or rental (the iTunes Store for Apple TV, and Amazon Instant for Roku). Then there are the usual menagerie of live major league sports services.
Apple TV’s advantage is in its polish and its ecosystem. Nope, there’s no HBO GO app, but there’s AirPlay. Any iOS or MacOS device can stream video out through an Apple TV with just a couple of taps. Many apps (including HBO GO) can stream directly. Those that can’t can still be enjoyed on your 4K 120″ GargantuTron through screen mirroring.
You don’t need to install a media server to stream from your desktop media library; it can connect to anything running iTunes. And Apple TV comes with a bunch of channels that are sorely missing on Roku, YouTube and podcasts at the top of that list.
Roku’s chief talked about YouTube at SXSW and intimated that support is coming this year. It can’t come quickly enough. The ability to Favorite a YouTube video when I encounter it on my desktop browser and then play it hours or weeks later on my Apple TV is a killer feature. Roku is also promising PBS and PBS Kids in the near future.
But TWC and Aereo are defining advantages for the Roku. Until those age-old rumors of Apple striking deals with networks for live TV programming, Roku will be the only cheap device that can deliver the full buffet of network programming, including live sports.
It’s a seriously cool development. When I set up the Roku 3 for Aereo, I finally had something in my living room that I haven’t had since the changeover from analog to digital TV broadcasting: CBS. That was one of the four channels (out of eleven) that I could no longer receive in my house over the air without having additional cable drops installed everywhere.
It’s more than just being able to watch The Big Bang Theory while I scrub my sing. The Roku-Aereo combination makes me think of television in a whole new light. It also makes me think of my monthly cable bill as an unnecessary luxury. Because the notion of restricting television to just my two hardwired cable boxes seems downright stupid when I can just plug a cheap and cheerful Roku into any screen within WiFi range.
I’ve said before that canceling your cable TV subscription and getting all of your entertainment via streaming services isn’t a single “aha!” decision. Every now and then, you award a few more points to that idea. Once you have 100 points, you cancel cable.
When I reviewed Aereo a couple of months ago, I announced that my experience with this excellent service bumped my score from 88 to about 93.
Now that I’ve tried it on the new Roku, I think I’m at 97. It’s time for me to stop using cable for a week, just to see how that works out.