At $99, Roku rulez with incredible future potential

At $99, Roku rulez with incredible future potential

Summary: Roku is a couch potato's delight, but there's so much unrealized potential. A couple of weeks ago I inquired with the folks over at Roku about their low-cost, $99, on-demand streaming content player, and asked if they could send me over an evaluation unit.



Roku is a couch potato's delight, but there's so much unrealized potential.

A couple of weeks ago I inquired with the folks over at Roku about their low-cost, $99, on-demand streaming content player, and asked if they could send me over an evaluation unit.

Man, am I in love with this thing.

Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more.

The premise is pretty easy to grok -- $99 paperback-sized set-top box, with built-in HDMI output (and legacy outputs for older sets including that old analog set you don't feel like replacing) with integrated ethernet port that connects to your broadband Internet, and is combined with your existing  Netflix subscription which can stream a library of 12,000 movies at crystal clear HD-upscaled DVD resolution direct to your TV. All you can eat, unlimited downloads. No extra fees. Totally solid state, low power, no hard disk, nothing to schedule. Just go to the Netflix site on your web browser, add a bunch of movies you want to see in your queue, and watch them instantly on the Roku.

Yes, there are a bunch of limitations. But at $99, and for all-you-can-eat on top of my existing $8.99 Netflix DVD queue for no extra money per month, I'm not going to complain too much. Most of the content on Netflix's instant-view queue is older movies and previous seasons of TV shows, although there is some fairly recent stuff there as well, and more content is being added all the time. There's a ton of great classic movies and TV, and if you have little kids and an old TV in the basement that is otherwise going to get lost in the analog apocalypse in February, there's plenty of content that is child appropriate that you can have complete control over.

Granted, there is also the issue of needing a decent broadband connection and the lag required to queue up enough cached content before it can start playing a movie. On my Cablevision/Optimum Online 20Mbps connection, it takes about 30 seconds before a movie can play, and since the unit has only like a minute or two of cache, it's a little cumbersome to do instant replays as well.

You also can't browse the entire Netflix instant play library and directly add to the queue from the Roku device -- it still requires that you go to your desktop browser to add content to the machine. The interface is extremely limited. I expect, however, with the price of SSD units dropping, and with Fiber-Optic 100Mbps+ connections direct to the home becoming more commonplace over the next few years, and rich embedded OSes like Android maturing these early adopter issues will be less of a problem in the future. Netflix also announced today that Korean consumer electronics manufacturer LG Electronics would be building Roku functionality into the next-generation of their HDTVs, as some of ther DVD player units have now -- I expect other TV and DVD player manufacturers to follow.

The potential for the Roku going forward is practically unlimited, and I think we've barely scratched the surface of what this thing or future devices similar to it could do. I love the idea of a totally solid-state device with no hard disks to crash, with all of the content stored online.

Ideally, I'd love to completely toss my satellite service and my DVRs, and have everything I'd ever want to watch completely on-demand. No more missed recordings, no more tuner scheduling, and no more atmospheric interference resulting in botched digital recording quality or black screens. And nobody would need a stupid Blu-Ray player or a disc library, because apparently Roku is now rolling out a patch which provides true HD content capability to the unit.

But why stop at movies and TV shows? Why not boost the capability of the Roku with something like an OMAP 35xx processor in a BeagleBoard?  How about some interactive content, like educational distance learning material, or computer-based training courses? Or all of your iTunes content? Why not throw them on the desktop, with a mouse and a keyboard, and remotely host your entire home computing environment?

Do you love your Roku? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Hardware, Mobility, Networking


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • It is very good...but...

    For another $100, you can get an XBox360 - That has a video store with HD content all over, the best game machine on the market, a Mediacenter extender - AND a BETTER (In my opinion, I own both) Netflix streamer than the Roku.
    • Except...

      Yeah, but I think an essential part of the Roku functionality is how it re-purposes your existing NetFlix functionality. So the $99 is it, assuming you're already using Netflix.

      If you aren't, then XBox360 is a good alternative--maybe a better one. But for those millions of existing Netflix customers? Roku is down and dirty, in the best possible way.
      Snark Shark
  • My only concern would be

    my ISP.

    Like, if they're not a key part of the delivery infrastucture, and don't benefit from your humungous feed requirements, wouldn't they begin to protest sooner or later. I have several friends that have had their line speeds reduced because of excessive data transfers which fell foul of their 'fair use policy'.

    IOW the ISP really ought to be part of the package.
  • RE: At $99, Roku rulez with incredible future potential

    Have had my box for 2 weeks and so far excellent. My only problem was when my ISP dropped speed for a while. However, spoke with Roku tech support and they showed me how to adjust for line speed drops. The Roku box has 'undocumented' adjustments. Took less than 5 minutes from opening the package to watching my first movie..

    Weaverville, NC
  • "rulez"? "grok"?

    When I see those two terms used in a story, I'm reaching for the handle to flush...
    • At least he refrained from "kewl". (nt)

      • Yeah well

        I need to use more of these millennial colloquialisms to reach ZDNet's core demographic because clearly, at 39, I'm an old fart, or even a "dinosaur" for not using the Windows key!
        • Dont let them get to you

          All of Ed Bott's explanations about moving from Windows XP to Windows 7 are exactly the same as moving from Windows to Linux - its amazing how it comes round..... and about the dinosaur comment from Chris, just call him a blinkered Mac fanboy... :o)
        • Holy Sh*t Jason !! I thought you were older than me. :)

          Guess I'm the old fart round here.

  • RE: At $99, Roku rulez with incredible future potential

    Bought one for the parents over Christmas. They're on 750k DSL (backwoods Alaska). Result: very few problems with stopping or hesitation. The box only shows 2 dots (out of five) for link speed, but was able to buffer and play easily.
    They went overcap (only 10Gb) in six days watching movies and cable tv series. They now want to drop their satellite provider and use the monthly fees to increase their cap.
    I have my pc hooked to the tv, but I'm now considering buying the Roku: the convenience (remote control), clean u/i, totally standard a/v equipment hookup, wifi to my router - it is an excellent product.

  • RE: At $99, Roku rulez with incredible future potential

    Nope - I beat you at 43.

    I have a Roku, a MVIX-HD, and a myriad of MCE Systems. Each have their own faults and assets. The Roku device is well designed. It's simple to use, simple to connect, quiet, compact and get's the job done -- diplaying content at 10ft. The resolution and picture quality is very good and besides a week or two when Netflix was having some type of network issues - it has never caused me any grief. The MVIX, while it does not have Netflix capability, has an incredible picture and offers a multitude of formats. I rip all of my DVD's to an ISO and store them on the Hard Drive - ready at a moments notice for replay. You can rip to DivX HD and watch them in all of HD's splendor. The MCE Systems - well, this is a thorn in my side. I have found many plugins that can stream movies from your Netflix queue - and some quite well - but the fact is that I don't think the Media Center PC's are quite ready for prime time yet until they reach a level of 'modularity' and ease-of-use like the Roku standalone. The intricasies of matching hardware components to play nice nice witht he software is often times daunting and when there is a hiccup - things can get ugly.

    Roku has announced it will soon be adding support for Amazon video. And I am sure others are being considered as well, such as HULU. This is just the beginning of the 'all-in-one - all-you-can-eat' type media concentrators and it will be a great joy to see how the hardware manufacturers put together ... what some of us have been able to hack together over the years. I'll be there to criticize all of their shortcomings :)

  • Stop pushing this crap.

    "at crystal clear HD-upscaled DVD resolution"

    Every HD TV "upscales" when you show SD content on it, or it wouldn't fill the screen. Stop pushing this fraud as some kind of "near HD" or HD substitute. "Crystal clear"? Nearly as meaningless as "digital quality." So there's no multipath or snow in the picture. So what? How about compression artifacts galore?

    The more people settle for crap, the more crap we'll have, and high quality will simply be unavailable at any price. Look at the already low standards we've set for our national HDTV system. Now stop cheerleading products that don't even rise to that level, and serve to derail the market opportunities for anything better.