Roku: My Number One Pick for Cable Disablers
Roku is now my #1 streaming device recommendation for cable-disablers looking for an easy way to watch content from the Internet on their TVs. While Amazon Fire is good, and Apple enthusiasts might prefer Apple TV, and more geeky types might want a Chromecast, Roku is probably the best choice for most people.
What is a Roku?
Roku comes in several versions but basically it is a small black box (or stick) that comes with a remote control and power adapter. Roku connects to the Internet through your home’s Wi-Fi network (some models also have Ethernet connector), so you need an Internet connection to use it.
Roku allows you to watch paid and free content from the Internet such as Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, YouTube, and much more, on your TV. Most of the programming is pre-recorded, not playing in real time. Please understand, Roku is NOT a direct substitute for cable TV!! I can’t emphasize that enough. You won’t be getting AMC, History Channel, Fox News, and all of the other channels you get on cable for free with your Roku. It’s more like having a video rental store in your home, where some of the shows are free, and some require payment. It has no storage capacity so you can’t record shows (but videos that you purchase are accessible later).
Note that if you already have a “smart TV”, you probably don’t need a Roku. Your smart TV already does a lot of what the Roku does.
Most Roku units only have HDMI output, so it won’t work with old tube-type TVs. If you have an old tube TV, you’ll have to use a Roku Express+, which has composite video outputs in addition to HDMI.
Physically hooking up your Roku is pretty easy. Plug in the power adapter to the wall, and connect the other end to your Roku. Then, plug in an HDMI cable (not included!) to your Roku and your TV.
Setting up your passwords is more of a pain. You will need to choose your Wi-Fi network and enter your password using the dreaded letter-picker and remote control:
Then you’ll have to create a Roku account, if you don’t already have one. One annoying thing is that it asks for your credit card information, even if you never plan to purchase any paid programming.
For every streaming service that you have (such as Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, Hulu, and so forth), you’ll have to go through the drill of authorizing your account, usually by getting a code from the Roku and entering it on your computer. If your TV and computer are far apart, you’ll be doing a lot of running back and forth (like I was). But, it’s a one-time deal. You won’t have to do it again.
Roku has the largest number of “channels” to choose from among all of the mainstream set-top boxes. Some offer free content, many offer content that you have to pay for. These are not the same as cable TV channels. In general, the content is usually not live like broadcast or cable TV, but pre-recorded, so it’s like renting from a video rental store.
Roku has really improved the amount of free content that is available right out of the box. In no time I was watching free videos on YouTube, the History Channel, and Roku’s own featured channels.
But there are a ton of other channels to choose from. There are the ones you would expect like Netflix and Hulu. Here are some other ones that I tried:
- Vevo is a music video channel. I had low hopes for this channel but I was actually impressed by the selection of bands offered. I’m keeping this channel.
- Crackle offers a few “B-level” and mostly “C-level” older movies for free. I already offer this channel on my Internet remote. It’s worth keeping.
- Popcorn Flix is a free movie channel like Crackle, except that we’re talking about “C-level” and “D-level” movies here. I mean, I hadn’t even heard of any of them. They look like they went straight to video. Still, it’s free, so what the heck, I’ll keep it.
- NBC News has news story video and audio clips, not full shows. I was not impressed, but it’s free.
- NASA TV is a live video streaming channel, unlike most of the other channels. In other words, you just watch what’s on as opposed to searching from pre-recorded shows. That has some appeal. You’ll see shots of mission control or the International Space Station with commentary. It’s cool but gets tedious after a while.
- Facebook allows you to watch video and photos that are posted on your Facebook wall.
- Vudu has movies that you have to pay for, so I skipped it in favor of Amazon.
- SyFy was a little disappointing. I was hoping for reruns of “Battlestar Galactica”, but they have other SyFy originals like “Face Off” and some less-well known shows. But, it’s free so I’ll keep it.
- Smithsonian is a good channel with free shows on history, science, nature, and culture. I immediatley watched a “Discovery Channel” type of show about a new Navy destroyer. This one is a keeper for me.
- YouTube is my favorite source for free video content. It’s available on all current-generation Roku devices and some older models!
- History Channel is pretty good. In a few seconds I was watching episodes of “Pawn Stars”.
So, out of the box, I was able to start watching some pretty good shows without paying a dime!
Voice Search – The Killer Feature
Probably the most exciting feature for me was voice search. If you’ve ever had to use the cumbersome letter-picker to spell out the name of a movie you’re looking for, you know why voice search is so helpful. It lets you simply say what you’re looking for instead of having to select each letter with the remote control. Amazon Fire TV has this feature, which is why it previously was my favorite.
Note, the Roku Express and Premiere models do not have built-in voice search. Voice search comes with Roku Premiere+, the Roku Streaming Sticks and the Roku Ultra. But, if you don’t have a model with voice search, you might be able to use the Roku app on your phone to get the feature.
So how did Roku’s voice search understand your speech? Pretty well, I would say. It had no problem with most of the movies and actors I searched for. However, it did have quite a bit of trouble understanding “Silver Linings Playbook” for some reason. I had to say it slowly, with pauses between each word for it to understand. Amazon Fire, on the other hand, understood it the first time I said it, with no pauses.
So, perhaps it’s not quite as good as Amazon Fire’s voice recognition, but it’s still an order of magnitude or two better than using the letter picker from the remote control.
But, where Roku’s search clobbers Amazon Fire TV is in the search results. Roku gives search results from multiple sources including Netfilx, Amazon Instant Video, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Vudu, HBO Go, Cinema Now, and so forth. Amazon Fire only gives results on Amazon, which kind of sucks if you have other services. Sadly, neither gives results on YouTube.
Remote Control Headphone Output
One feature unique to some Roku models (Roku 3 and Roku Ultra) is headphone output in the remote control. This allows you to listen to the TV using headphones so you don’t disturb other people in the room, neighbors, etc. If you need this feature, it works well, and none of the other boxes have it!
Streaming from Your Computer
Another feature I like is the ability to watch video on my computer’s hard drive on my TV. To do that, I had to add a channel called “Plex” and install the Plex server software on my computer. Once I did that and got them synced up (not too difficult), I could watch almost all of the video that I had on my computer’s hard drive – much more so than with my Apple TV, which has severe limitations to what file types it will play. So, Roku beats Apple TV here. If you have lots of video files on your computer that you want to watch on your TV, get a Roku.
Roku can mirror the screen of Android devices, but it can’t natively mirror Apple iOS devices. More info on mirroring to Roku here.
Several readers have mentioned a service called PlayOn, which allows you to stream from your computer to your Roku. The premium version gives you access to more channels, mostly the network websites. Cost is currently about $45 for a lifetime license.
Using Roku as a Spare Cable / Satellite Box
Several readers with pay satellite or cable services have asked me if they can use a Roku to watch DirecTV, Xfinity, etc. on a second TV without having to rent another expensive decoder box from the provider.
As far as I can tell, for DirecTV, the answer is “no”. There is a DIRECTVNOW service with Roku app, but that is separate from DirecTV, and DirecTV customers can’t use the app without subscribing.
Xfinity does have a beta Roku app which lacks some features but is still usable.
Spectrum TV does have a Roku app that allows you to watch your content using a Roku, but only when connected to your home’s Internet (i.e., you can’t use it in a hotel, for example). So in this case you could use it as a substitute for a cable box.
Since this site is about cutting cable and satellite, I don’t subscribe to any paid satellite or cable TV services, so anyone who does, please chime in on the comments below to correct or clarify anything I’ve said about this!
Roku vs. Other Streaming Boxes
- Has the most channels out of all of the mainstream set-top boxes.
- Some Roku models have voice search, and will search multiple services (unlike Amazon Fire TV, which only searches Amazon)
- Roku Ultra has headphone output in remote control
- Easy to use
- Cheaper than Amazon Fire TV
- Roku Express+ (note the “plus”) will work with old tube TVs
- No iTunes access.
- Can’t do screen mirroring with Apple devices
- Slightly worse voice recognition than Amazon Fire TV, but not terribly so.
- Amazon Fire TV is slightly easier to set up if you order it using your Amazon account (comes pre-set with your password).
If you love Apple devices and have lots of content on iTunes, get an Apple TV. However, neither Roku or Apple TV alone can be considered a direct “replacement” for cable TV. If you want to watch all of the free content from the Internet on your TV, a Chromecast might be best for you. If you have lots of Amazon content or own an Amazon Echo, then Amazon Fire TV might be best.
If you want a way to watch Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Amazon Instant Video, Amazon Prime, and tons of other programming on your TV with minimal fuss, then get a Roku because it has the most apps by far out of all of the streaming boxes, and doesn’t require a computer to use.
Which Roku Should I Get?
If you think Roku is right for you, you might be wondering, “which one should I get?” It’s one of the most common questions people ask me, especially since Roku exploded their product lineup into a confusing mix of boxes and streaming sticks. Here are some guidelines:
- If you have an old tube TV with no HDMI input, the only Roku that will work for you is the Roku Express+ (note the plus at the end!)
- I think the voice remote is a killer feature, so that eliminates the Roku Express and Premiere. These don’t have the voice remote.
- I would avoid the regular Roku Streaming Stick, because it can’t do 4K. Even if your TV doesn’t do 4K now, you could just get the Roku Premiere+ for the same cost, and that does support 4K. So, that eliminates the Streaming Stick.
- If you need headphones in the remote for private listening, go with the Roku Ultra.
- If you need an Ethernet port (i.e., you don’t have WiFi), go with the Roku Ultra.
To summarize, my recommended Roku models are:
- Express+ if you have a tube TV.
- Streaming Stick+ if you want a good mid-level solution.
- Roku Ultra if you want the best.
Note, you will need a separate Roku box for each TV in your home.
If you’re ready to take the plunge, you can buy a Roku on Amazon:
As you can see, there are many models available. The Roku Streaming Stick is the lowest-cost model, but has HDMI only, so it won’t work with older TVs. Roku Express+ will work with older TV’s because it has composite video output.
What do you think of your Roku? Please leave a comment below. – Brian
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If you have a question about this article, leave a comment below. I personally read and answer each one. If you want advice on TV reception, leave your zip code. I'd also love to hear how you're saving money on TV. Tell me your story! - Brian