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Roku – not bad, but not good, and who is this really for?

April 23, 2011

While I was waiting for the AppleTV v2, I figured I’d try out the Roku.  And it’s clearly in the path of my ongoing media player quest.  So I bought the “top of the line” (which is hard to say given that it’s like $99 and has almost no frills) – and given all the hype I was excited to start using it.

Well, my first big disappointment was that it doesn’t play any of your own media.  I knew this when I bought it, but I was hoping there was some hack, or back door, or custom channel to do this.  Not sure how this really even fits into the “media player” category, as it’s more of a dedicated internet streamer only.   Unless you upload all your own media to YouTube or similar, you’re not playing it through the Roku.

Okay, so it’s sort of a new-cable-box-without-cable, I can get into that.  If it supports cutting-the-cord, then it’s gotta be good.

It has a bunch of channels that you can pick from, of course none of them are iTunes, but you do get Amazon and Netflix.  The interface is fairly simple, but it gets tedious if you have a bunch of channels.  Most of the channels are garbage, and some require an annoying coordination with a computer to actually activate – and I kept feeling like I was exposing personal information or something bad, as I had to go to really shady web sites to activate things like a weather “channel” (not The weather channel).

But the more I used it, the more it became clear that it was mostly a lousy browser with a horrible 10-foot interface.  Most of the channels just opened a browser to the site, slightly masked to make it look like a TV screen.  And as we all know with things like Windows tablets, regular browser interfaces don’t magically work well without a mouse and keyboard.  Unless it’s designed to be consumed through a TV screen, the user experience is poor at best.

Worse, some of the channels actually had a small arrow-cursor on the screen that you have to slowly manipulate with the remote up/down/left/right to click on things.  Painful.

Yes, a few of the channels that I played with had more app-like interfaces, but most of what I saw were in the broken-browser-interface model.  And all of it is sluggish and sort of sloppy.  That plus the fact that you don’t have the ability to play your own media files, it’s really not useful for much.

I guess this is the tradeoff for a completely open system where anyone who wants to can add a “channel” to Roku.  The concept is good, I think.  But in practice, it means the bulk of what’s up there is total garbage, and weeding through it all is almost impossible.  After a number of bad experiences with lousy content channels, it’s hard not to just give up.

For all the hype of how the Roku was the best thing ever for the non-technical user, I’m really surprised how much I didn’t like the interface at all.  For something in the $69-99 price range, I suppose it’s passable, but most of the valuable content you can get on the Roku (except Amazon), you can get on something like the Apple TV v2 for the same price and with a much better TV interface.  And all the awful content means the non-technical user will likely be overwhelmed almost immediately, and come to the conclusion that the curated experience of cable TV is much better.

So for now, the Roku is in my “test only when the update the software” bin.

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