A primer on Roku

Updated: March 4, 2016 - 3:45 pm

Greetings, Southwest Journal readers! Your friendly, local Gadget Guy here.

A client recently shared an article idea with me. The idea was sparked when he was out to dinner and sharing about his new setup with a Roku stick. As the client talked about his Roku, he realized that he had no idea how it worked. Figuring that others may be in a similar situation, he suggested I write an article about it. So, let’s dive in.

What is Roku?

Put simply, Roku allows you to stream movies, TV shows, music and more directly to your TV. For the past decade (probably even longer), content and software providers have been working to provide Internet-only options for viewing TV and movies without physical media (DVD, Blu-Ray) or cable service. Some have been truly successful like Roku, while others have been acquired and shuttered like Boxee. Have you heard of Boxee? I didn’t think so.

Roku boxes have been around since 2008. There are multiple models with various features and they even have a “stick” version which is not much larger than your thumb. The Roku stick plugs directly into an HDMI port with no other noticeable equipment. (It does require power, but that is presumably behind the TV.)

An added convenience of the Roku stick is its radio frequency (RF) remote. Unlike infrared (IR) remotes, which are the most common, radio frequency (RF) remote controls are easier to use because they don’t require line of sight and do not have to be aimed at the equipment. The drawback with RF is that the midrange and lower universal remotes will not be able to control it.

Essentially, Roku boxes and sticks are mini computers that run Roku’s own interface — Roku OS, which is based on Linux. They connect to your Internet with wireless or wired options, depending on the model. They are connected to your TV by HDMI, composite, or component video, again depending on the model (all of them have an HDMI option, but some provide older connection methods). Once connected, you choose channels that you would like to include on your device. These range from Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, HBO Now, and PBS to channels of interest such as cooking or photography. With some channels, you have to have a separate subscription (i.e. Netflix), but many are free.

The Roku device pulls the show you want to watch and streams it to you on demand, generally with the option to pause, rewind, and fast forward. There is no DVR function, as everything is at your fingertips on demand. There are also apps for both iOS and Android that allow you to control your device from your smartphone or tablet, as long as you are on the same wireless network.

There are, of course, devices other than Roku which allow you to stream shows and movies to your TV. I’ll cover a few of those options below. Also, all of the following devices, including the various Roku options, are under $100 — and some are under $40!

Apple TV is very similar as far as offering programming. However, a major downside to Apple TV is that you are limited to Apple’s closed ecosystem. This means, you won’t be able to access competitor services like Amazon or Google via the Apple TV.

Another option is Amazon Fire TV (also available in stick version), which is based on Android. Though, being a competitor to Google, it does not allow Google content. The device is built around Amazon’s own ecosystem and focuses on pulling in and offering content from Amazon’s own library. However, Netflix and other services are still available.

Google’s Chromecast is a bit different. It is another stick (or dongle, as it is often referred to) that plugs into an HDMI port. Then, you use  a smartphone, tablet, or computer to “cast” a stream to the Chromecast. Then, the Chromecast makes the connection, and you automatically start streaming from the Chromecast rather than your smartphone. Essentially, Chromecast allows you to “cast” movies, shows and music from your phone to your TV.

Chromecast is a great option, as you have any app available as long as it has Chromecast abilities built into it. For instance, Netflix, HBO Go and Now, Showtime Anytime, Hulu, and more all have this casting ability baked into their iOS and Google apps. One downside is that you do not have a separate remote to control it; you use your smartphone, tablet, or computer only.

At the end of the day, Roku is my current favorite because it has provider agreements with Amazon and Google (for Google Play TV and Movies), as well as the other usual suspects such as Netflix and Hulu.

Though, I should point out that even Roku has its own drawbacks, especially if you are part of the Apple ecosystem with your iPhone or iPad. It does not provide any connection to your iTunes music or movies that you have previously purchased. For me that is not a deal killer, but it is something to consider. Let me know if you have any questions.

It is fun to bump into people in the neighborhood and discuss my articles. If you have any questions that you would like me to answer in my column, please email me at paul@gadgetguymn.com. Thanks!

Paul Burnstein is a tech handyman. As the founder of Gadget Guy MN, Paul helps personal and business clients optimize their use of technology. He can be found through www.gadgetguymn.com or email him at paul@gadgetguymn.com.