Free and cheap alternatives to cable and satellite TV

Roku: My Number One Pick for Cable Disablers!
Feb 17, 2017 By Brian Shim

Roku 3 with Remote

Roku 3 ($29-$129 list) is now my #1 set top box recommendation for cable-disablers looking for an easy way to watch content from the Internet on their TVs (Apple enthusiasts might prefer Apple TV, and more geeky types might want a Chromecast).

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What is a Roku?

Physically, the Roku 3 is a small black box that comes with a remote control and power adapter. Roku connects to the Internet through your home's Wi-Fi network or Ethernet cable, so you need an Internet connection to use it.

Roku 3 and accessories

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.

Roku 3 only has 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.

Setup

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:

Roku 3 Wi-Fi password entryThe dreaded letter-picker.

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.

Content

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.

Roku channels
Roku's user interface is very easy to navigate using the included remote control.

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:

More Roku channels
Roku's Channel Store contains literally thousands of channels to choose from.

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 new 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 amazing. 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.

Important note: when you purchase a Roku 3, make sure it has the microphone logo on the back of the box, indicating it has voice search! The voice search feature was a mid-production change, so the older Roku 3 units don't have this great feature!! If you do have an older Roku 3, the folks at Roku told me that you can purchase a remote control with the microphone and it will work.

Note, the Roku 1, 2, and Premiere/Premiere+ models do not have built-in voice search. Voice search comes with Roku 3, 4, and Ultra models. 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 work? 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 as good as Amazon Fire's voice recognition, but it's still an order of magnitude or two better than using the Stephen Hawking-style 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.

Roku search resultsRoku searches give you results from a variety of content providers, not just Amazon like Fire TV does.

Remote Control Headphone Output

One feature unique to the Roku units 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!

The remote control itself feels nice and solid in your hand. In general, it's pretty easy to navigate with it. I slightly prefer the navigation on Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV where the "enter" button is in the middle of the four-way directional buttons, but that is minor gripe.

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.

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.

The Verdict

Roku box

Roku advantages

Roku disadvantages

If you want a way to watch Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Amazon Instant Video, Amazon Prime, and/or tons of other programming on your TV, then get a Roku. 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, connect your computer to your TV.

You may also want to read my reviews for Google Chromecast and Amazon Fire TV.

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 several 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. Roku 3 has the remote with headphone jack and voice search. Hope this has been helpful! - Brian

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