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Thursday, March 11, 2010

What the hell is a Roku box?

A what box?

ROKU. Yes, it sounds like a cheesy text message pickup line. I assure you it is anything but. What the Roku box is however, I suspect thoroughly crisps Apple's crust. It is what Apple TV wishes it were.

Apple TV was born first, but Apple being Apple, they locked it down to only work with iTunes. Therein lies the problem: content--or rather, the expensive content on Apple TV. Allow me to explain...

First, the uninitiated are asking themselves right about now, "What the hell is a Roku box and why do I care, anyway?" Allow me to answer both of those questions:
















1) A Roku box (http://www.roku.com) is a sleek little black box (with the world's simplest remote control) that connects your television to your broadband internet connection.

2) You care because this is the future of television, movies, and everything you might normally rent from Blockbuster or Netflix or get via cable. It is also a faster, easier, and far less expensive way to get your digital entertainment into your living room.

Who is this guy anyway and what's with the mustard thing?? The future he says? What's wrong with cable and renting DVDs? Everything. Let me explain how this works, and the logic will make itself apparent (except for the mustard thing--for that you have to go back to my inaugural moremustardblog post for the explanation).

It's incredibly simple, really. Most people watch television by turning on their TV and selecting a channel. Nowadays, a lot of people record shows on their DVR too. At the same time, you probably rent DVDs (or *ack* buy them) from Blockbuster or Netflix. Here's the punchline: My lovely little Roku box mostly renders all the above a massive annoyance, a huge waste of time, and (best of all) a colossal waste of money.

In addition to all the channels the Roku box offers (mostly online web-based content), it allows you to connect to your amazon.com account, where (for prices comparable to the iTunes Store) you can watch, rent or buy pretty much anything your heart desires from the Amazon Video On Demand service. But that's not the best part: My Roku box gives me access, for FREE to everything Netflix offers in their streaming "Watch Instantly" service (all you need is a minimum of the basic, "One-at-a-time" unlimited Netflix DVD rental account and they give you free unlimited access to everything that streams!)

Via my Roku box and Netflix, I am currently in the middle of watching LOST, Dexter, Dead Like Me and Heroes. Oh, and I watch a different movie pretty much every night. My kids are watching things like Mythbusters, Danny Phantom and other such fare. All without commercials of any kind (love that part).

If you have a Netflix DVD rental account that is a minimum of the unlimited one-at-a-time plan, hop on over to your Netflix account and try it yourself right now. Yes, I am serious. Add something to your Watch Instantly Queue for viewing later, or just click 'Play' on anything that streams. Yes, that's right--you can also watch anything you want (provided it streams--more on that in a sec) on your computer, at no additional charge.

This brings us to the shortcomings of this service.

1) Limited Netflix streaming content. Currently (03/2010), Netflix only streams roughly 20,000 titles. This is nowhere near enough, and they are working on expanding it. One day in the not-too-distant future, this is how you (and everyone else you know) will watch EVERYTHING. On demand, via a broadband connection direct to your TV. Netflix assures us additional licensing is their highest priority. Hell, I even applied for the job on Online Content Manager so I could help! Did not hear back yet from Netflix HR though... Wonder what the hold-up is?

2) Network programming is not available via Roku. Yet. This is a deal-killer for a lot of people, and I am sure Netflix and Roku are both keenly aware of this. If you watch TV regularly, you should know that at this time a Roku box will not replace your cable or satellite dish (ugh) ...yet. There's that pesky word again.

Currently, some popular shows from the past and present are available for streaming for free from Netflix, but only a small fraction of what is out there. No Sopranos, X-Files, Star Trek or American Idol ...yet. (Apple does seem to have a pretty good vice-grip on A.I. for now...)

On the upside, In addition to the likes of LOST, South Park, Weeds, Desperate Housewives, The Office, Dead Like Me, Heroes and Dexter, you can watch Night Rider, Emergency, Miami Vice, and The Greatest American Hero! I think I just gave away my age. Whoops.

Personally, I never watched much network television because I find most of it to be pure crap. And I loathe commercials. When the DVR became mainstream, I failed to see how I survived without it all those years. Now that I have a Roku box (thanks to my girlfriend for the *awesome* present!), I never have to watch another commercial again...

Want one? Amazon.com sells them starting at less than $100, or you can buy one direct from Roku.com (mine came from the former).

Thanks for reading! I hope this was informative, helpful, and most of all, just slightly cooler than your other options for wasting the last five minutes of your life. Remember, if you like this blog, subscribe and share with your amigos!

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