Our friends at Roku are indulging in a bit of Christmas fun with their Stuff Your Stocking promotion. It’s a straightforward draw to win goodies such as a 40″ Hisense Roku TV, Roku 3 and Roku Streaming Stick (HDMI Version) along with subscriptions to Sky NowTV, Netflix and Rdio. The exact prizes vary from country and the competition is open to residents of the US, Canada and UK. There are different draws for each country so make sure you follow the right link.
I tend to watch lots of science documentaries. Over time, I’ve seemed to nearly exhaust the documentaries available on Netflix and Amazon videos. One of the things I really like about the Hulu Plus is that it includes shows from the BBC, Canada and Australia. This opens up a new world of high quality documentary material that isn’t available to me otherwise.
From a technical streaming point of view, the service always seems to stream well. I have encountered no server issues streaming either via DSL or mobile data connections.
The various Hulu Plus apps themselves do have a few issues. I regularly use the iOS, Android and Roku versions of the Hulu Plus apps. The interfaces seem mostly straightforward, though there are a few quirks and differences from one app to the next.
The biggest problem I’ve encountered is the service being able to remember where I’m stopped at in an individual video as well as a series of videos. For example, let’s say I’m in the 5th episode of a season. The service may or may not remember that I’ve already watched the previous 4 episodes.
Additionally, if I pause in the middle of a video, there’s at least a 50% chance that if I come back to the series later, instead of starting me out exactly where I was in the paused video, the service will kick me to the next episode even though I haven’t finished watching the prior episode.
These synching problems seem to be consistent across all of Hulu Plus’ apps. I can use only one app, say on my iPad Air, and will likely encounter the synching issue the next time I open the app to try to get back to where I left off. Moving to a different device entirely I will still encounter the same synching problem.
These synching issues are areas where Netflix and Amazon really seem to have this nailed down and leave Hulu Plus lagging behind.
Even with the synching issues, I really like Hulu Plus and make extensive use of it. In my view it is well worth the $8 monthly charge.
Until today, the big absentee from Roku‘s line-up of catch-up services in the UK was ITV and its regional partners STV and UTV in Scotland and Northern Ireland. At #2 in terrestrial broadcasting behind the BBC, it was a fairly glaring omission, especially as Channel 4 and Five have been on-board for ages. Now UK Roku viewers can use ITV Player to catch-up with the last 30 days of ITV’s content across ITV, ITV2, ITV3, ITV4 and CITV with programmes such as Britain’s Got Talent, Coronation Street and The Americans in addition to coverage of this summer’s World Cup and Tour de France sporting events. Hurrah!
Roku‘s streaming media boxes have been around since 2008, arguably taking the #2 spot behind the Apple TV. This is an impressive achievement considering the absence of a major brand behind the product line. Here in the UK, set-top boxes like Apple TV, Roku, and Google TV have a relatively low-profile: the BBC’s iPlayer catchup service is massively popular, but as the app is widely available on satellite decoders, cable boxes, games consoles and laptops, there is little demand for an additional streaming device. The latest generation of low cost, plug-in streamers from Roku and Google may well change this. Let’s take a look.
What I have here is the UK edition of Roku’s Streaming Stick, a thumb-sized streaming device that plugs directly into a TV’s HDMI port, bringing Roku’s wide range of content and 450+ channels to a British audience. We’re used to a high quality TV service from the likes of the BBC, so the content has to be there, and we’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s get it out of the box first.
The Streaming Stick is presented in Roku’s trademark purple with neat packaging that promotes “This is going to be fun”. In the box is the Streaming Stick itself, a remote control (including decent batteries) and the power supply, which is actually a USB charger, connecting to the Streaming Stick via microUSB.
The remote control is slightly different to the previous generation – there are no game buttons, motion controller or headphone jack, and it uses WiFi Direct rather than Bluetooth to communicate with the Streaming Stick. Admittedly of little consequence unless you are an existing Roku owner expecting those features.
Getting started is easy – plug the Stick into the TV’s HDMI port, power it up with the microUSB cable and put the batteries into the remote control. Switching over to the HDMI channel, the Roku Streaming Stick initially asks for the password to a local wifi network. Once connected to the wider internet, existing Roku owners can can login with their credentials or new owners can sign up for a user name and password. Apart from having to use the remote control rather than a keyboard to do the finger work, it’s painless.
Roku uses the metaphor of channels to deliver media and content. For the smartphone generation, these are more easily thought of as apps which mostly deliver video content. In addition to programmes, there are games, weather forecasts and picture viewers. From the hundreds of channels available, you add favourites to your account to build up your collection. Some channels / apps cost a few pounds, but the vast majority are free.
From a UK perspective most of the major players are on-board with apps for BBC iPlayer, 4oD, Demand 5 and Sky Store. ITV player is noticeable in its absence. There are apps too for Netflix, Spotify, YouTube, Flickr and the Roku Media Player which does what it says, playing locally available pictures, music and video. There are lots of other apps and channels to choose from, categorised by type to help you find what you want.
Many of the channels are US-centric and there’s a ton of faith-based programming, mostly Christian with a smaller number of other faiths. Local US TV stations are also present, which can be fun if you are going to be visiting an area on holiday or business.
Of course, there are plenty of independent content producers as well. GNC is right at home on the Roku….
To complement the content, there’s also an app for smartphones, which lets your device replace the remote control, both at a simple button pushing level and for more advanced features such as choosing new channels.
But the real trick is the “Play on Roku” feature which pushes content from your smartphone to the Roku, including music, photos and videos. All you do is select the content on your phone and, bang, it’s up on the big screen in glorious HD. It’s a great feature and a fantastic way to review photos and short videos on a larger screen, especially after a holiday. If you take a lots of photos with your smartphone, it’s almost worth getting a Roku for this feature alone.
One final thing…as I mentioned, the Roku Streaming Stick is powered by microUSB via a provided USB charger. I found that the Streaming Stick wasn’t terribly fussy about the power source and that you can easily run the Stick from other sources, such as a USB battery pack or even the TV itself, if equipped with a USB port. Could be handy to know if you are travelling or simply want a tidier entertainment unit.
Overall, the Roku Streaming Stick is a great little gadget that provides loads of extra content for UK viewers. It might be a more expensive at £50 than the Google Chromecast at £30, but there’s more content and the Roku has a remote control, which I think is a plus point. It’s handy too for a second TV that perhaps doesn’t have a satellite or cable connection, and can now use iPlayer or Netflix. It’s a neat, plug’n’play solution that is about as simple as it can be.
Thanks to Roku for the review unit.
Recently Roku released its Chromecast-like steaming stick. This comes on the heels of a version 3 release last year of the set-top box, an update that came with a remote that has a headphone jack built-in, allowing private watching for those times when the house needs to be quiet. The box retails for $99.99, but if you act today, you can get a deal.
Today only, Woot, the daily deal site now owned by Amazon, is offering the little set-top box for the price of $64.99 — a savings of $35 over the regular price.
“Faster and more powerful than ever. Enjoy 1,000+ channels of movies, TV shows, sports, and more. Plug headphones into the motion-control remote to play games or watch late-night flicks without disturbing the household. Fully loaded with one-stop search, 1080p, dual-band wireless, Ethernet, USB, plus a free Roku app. The Roku 3—the new streaming standard”, Woot describes it.
Roku is perhaps the prime player in an increasingly competitive market that includes Google and Apple as the other big players, though Microsoft’s new Xbox One is also a part of this, though it does more than just video. And remember, you can watch the Geek News Central podcast on it as well!
Digital video recorders (DVRs) are commonplace but usually they’re integrated with a cable decoder. Tablo’s offering records OTA (over the air) HD broadcasts that are transmitted from local TV stations, free of charge. Still not excited? The Tablo can stream both live and record programs to any connected device including Android and Apple devices, and set-top boxes like the Roku or AppleTV. Now that’s cool.
The Tablo contains two tuners (with a four tuner option), so can record two broadcasts at once. There’s no built-in storage but there are 2 USB ports for external HDD units to provide whatever space is needed. It’s perfect for cord-cutters. I’d love to see this come to the UK too.
The Tablo is on pre-order for US$219 and will be available in February 2014.
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The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is now in full swing, despite that it doesn’t technically start until tomorrow. Products are already being announced at a blistering pace. One that comes as a bit of a surprise is a new TV from set-top box maker Roku.
The company has teamed with Hisense and TCL, who will actually build the hardware. The smart TVs will be powered my Roku software, allowing the interface to work in the same way as having a box hooked to a current set. “Roku TV removes all of the complicated layers and menus, and unnecessary features and settings that plague smart TVs today, and instead provides a Roku home screen that brings together all content sources. Just like Roku streaming players, Roku TV will have full access to the Roku Channel Store filled with more than 31,000 movies and 1,200 channels that feature TV shows and live sports plus news, music, kids, food, science, tech, fitness, foreign language and other programming”.
Customers will be able to control the TV via mobile apps for both Android and iOS or via the included standard remote control, which Roku promises will be less complicated than many of those currently on the market.
The sets will come in a range of sizes, starting at 32-inches to going up to 55. The first units will hit the market in the fall of this year.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given Google’s now somewhat defunct plans for GoogleTV, YouTube has been one of the glaring omissions from the Roku platform. But not any longer. Roku has announced that a YouTube channel is now available on the Roku 3 in USA, Canada, UK and the Republic of Ireland. Older Rokus will be getting the channel next year, though the exact timing is unclear. For non-Roku owners, a channel is roughly equivalent to an app on other platforms.
The YouTube channel supports full 1080p HD and the press release suggests that subscriptions will carry over from other platforms so that your favourites can easily be seen on the Roku. The new channel also features “Send to TV”, which after pairing, lets you send a YouTube video from your smartphone or tablet for viewing on the Roku.
As a Roku 2 XS owner, I’m delighted but will have to wait a bit longer until I get the YouTube channel on my device (unless Santa has a surprise for me). Sadly, it will be one less reason to turn on my Nintendo Wii, especially with the HD support on the Roku.
Hurrah – 4oD (4 on Demand) is now available on the Roku in the UK! It looks like this is breaking news as there’s no mention of it on either Roku‘s or Channel 4‘s websites and I only happened to notice when I was checking for new channels. A few tweets are beginning to appear. Having a quick rummage, it looks on a par with the web version but without some of the personalisation features.
For non-UK residents, Channel 4 is one of the four terrestrial broadcasters (BBC, ITV, C4 and C5). The BBC’s iPlayer and Channel 5’s Demand 5 are already on the Roku, leaving ITV as the last network to get their catch-up TV service onto the Roku. Hurry up!
This morning, Hulu Plus updated their website to include Chromecast support. With an update of the App, you can now watch your hulu subscription on the big screen.
Chromecast is Google’s answer to over the top television. For $35, you can plug into your HDMI outlet and use your phone as the remote. With the introduction, you could only send Netflix movies, Google Play content or Youtube videos to the big screen. With the addition of Hulu plus, the Chromecast is starting to feel more useful.
Chromecast has a long way to go from say Roku - with over 750 channels to their arsenal. On the way are apps from Vimeo, Vevo, Twitch.tv and more. Also coming up is extended support for Netflix with iOS apps.
My Assessment of Chromecast
It does make things easier since I don’t have to look for a remote to call up a show. I did notice the quality – at 1080p, Chromecast projects darker on the TV screen. Roku and Apple TV are brighter and more vibrant.
Also, if you are using your phone for something else (like talking on the phone), switching to remote mode is tougher. Good thing others can control the screen with their smartphones…