Internet TV and Roku

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Roku streaming stickI picked up a ROKU streaming stick this weekend at the local Staples store to get access to some internet TV. The box advertises 500+ channels, while the boxes for the upscale models 2 and 3 offer 450+ and 1,000+, respectively.

However, the official webpage for Roku says you can get more than 1,800 channels in the US on these devices. The Canadian site suggests it’s closer to 1,000 – Canadians get shortchanged by this and similar services, it seems. But by my count on the screen, the actual number of possible “channels” tops 1,300.

Before you shout “woo hoo” and rush out to buy one, I suggest it’s not really close to that many, at least not channels you will want to subscribe to.

It also depends on your definition of a channel: i wouldn’t count more than 100 streaming applications like Plex, games (47) or screensavers (76) as channels, but Roku does.

As you will read below, it’s not whether you get 1,800, 1,000 or even 500 channels: it’s whether the channels are top quality, commercial programming like you get on your cable. Of that category, it’s maybe a dozen.

Why, when I had dropped cable almost two years ago, would I want TV now, you ask… well, I primarily wanted to find a more convenient way to get Acorn TV (the source of many BBC programs). We already have Acorn on the iPad that hooks up through Apple TV but it’s not as comfy or convenient to use as a simple changer. Tapping at the iPad while watching is distracting and frankly, the iOS app is clumsy. It times out frequently, and drops the show, forcing you to restart then fast forward to the dropped location –  unless you keep tapping the screen now and then to wake it up.

I am thinking of subscribing to Netflix, too, and wanted the same easy and dependable access. Yes, I could always hook my laptop to the TV with an HDMI cable, but that’s not always convenient, either.

First a comment on the device and setup: simple, easy, well-made. The Roku interface is cleaner and easier to use than either Apple TV or the internet-ready apps built into our Sony Blu-ray player or TV. Setup takes a few minutes to get networked and authenticate the device online (an external computer connection is needed here). It took another minute to link it to my Acorn TV account. After that, it worked flawlessly.

The HDMI picture is, from what little we’ve seen, clear and crisp and if the original was also in hi-def. However, not everything is presented that way. Sound seems okay, but volume is inconsistent (some channels are way too loud, others are low).

You get to add channel choices from a very limited selection of featured content at first – but there are more you can add later, through the channel store. These initial selections are all identified as “free” but for several, that’s only the interface to authorize the device that’s free. You still need a subscription account for Netflix and Acorn, for example, to get access.

Some – in fact many channels in the store list – are truly free – like Skynews, which, oddly is a British news service and about as relevant to a small Canadian town as any international news service that focuses on its own national events and issues. So it’s worth pretty much what I pay for it, as are most of the rest of the freebies.

Each channel has its own internal interface that lets users pick what to see on it and these vary wildly. Commercial enterprises generally have polished, easy to navigate and access interfaces (Skynews may be the exception, with its clunky, awkward access). Amateur channels are, well, amateurish in their appearance.

To my surprise, quite a few of the “channels” are little more than playlists, like those on YouTube. They’re not actual channels like you get on TV: they are selections of old movies or TV shows or video archives presented through a clumsy interface. And some of these “channels” actually charge for it!

The all-Sherlock Holmes and all-Robin Hood channels, for example, are 99 cents a month. Well, you can buy the entire collection of old TV shows for these series for under $10 each (I know: I have them). Personally, I prefer to own the DVDs because it’s easier and more convenient to choose which episode to watch. And you can probably find most of them on YouTube or Vimeo anyway.

Ninety-nine cents isn’t bad compared to the Dog TV channel – 24/7 programming to entertain your dogs when they’re at home alone – at $9.99 a month! My advice: buy a couple of $5 squeaky toys at a local pet store instead and spend the rest of your savings on a nice meal out.

I could spend $5.99 a month on the Paranormal “Reality” TV channel. Or I could simply throw the money out my car window every month. Let the psychics guess what I did with it…

Some of the content is clearly and painfully amateur stuff – a video tour of Barbados, for example, or a day in the street life of Havana. Poorly edited, murky sound and jerky images. No voice over, no curating, just stuff shot from the shoulder with a soundtrack added later. Home movie channels, they look like. Impressive? Not.

I wanted to add another news channel or two. Outside the British Skynews, my choices seem limited to mostly Fox News broadcasts (approximately a quarter of the 74 news and weather stations are identified by their logos as Fox affiliates) from the USA and some regional US broadcasters. Nothing Canadian, and nothing as classy as BBC.

I wouldn’t watch Fox News if it were the last news broadcast on the planet and they paid me to watch it. It’s not news; it’s conservative ideology thinly wrapped in a media skin. Ah, wait, they have the Sarah Palin channel and the American Survivalist channel, both listed under the news category… maybe that’s because Roku doesn’t have a wingnut category yet.

Weather channels? All-American. The Weather Underground lets you pick your location, and it functions like their website, albeit grainer and pretty ugly. But why would I want it when I can power the iPad, tap a weather app and get the info I need in hi-def before the TV has even warmed up.

Religious programming? More than 240 channels, the majority Christian and fundamentalist. I could watch “non-stop Bible verse art and animations…” or the Mormon Channel or any of a number of ministries. Or I could get Atheist TV channel (catalogued not with religion but stuck under “special interest” along with the Blind Cat Rescue Sanctuary 24-hour live camera feed and the NRA Freestyle channels which asks, “Who says you can’t like guns just because they’re cool?”…). No Buddhist channels I could see.

I can choose from almost 90 screensavers and apps, should I wish to make my TV into a giant fake aquarium, fake fireplace or show endless pictures of kittens. At least there’s one with rotating quotes from Shakespeare. I’ll be glued to that screen… and some of them charge for their app, too. or I could choose Jeopardy, Mah Jong or Wheel of Fortune from the list of 47 games – most of them a paid app, not free and all look very low-res.

Food channels: 84; music channels: 99 (many of which are internet radio compiler apps like Tunein and rdio); Sports: 69; internet TV: 130; special interest: 271; movies & TV: 246. Note there are some overlaps in some categories, too. There must be something I’d like to watch in all those channels…

Movies: Cineplex, Crackle and Netflix are the big choices for Canadians, all of which are subscription services (Crackle has free stuff, mostly B- and C films). You can get these services on a lot of other devices, so nothing special here. There are others available but only (you guessed it) in the USA. You can also get the NFB channel, which, like the rest is available on any other device.

Some of the amateur movie channels are basically playlists of old movies; several are even actually free, but expect to see old B-flicks, mostly unrestored and of dubious quality. Now for someone like me who actually likes old B&W scifi and horror, this isn’t too bad. But I have quite a collection of them on DVD already, so I wouldn’t pay extra to watch them on Roku. Even the few that seem to have more recent films seem like a selection of movies pulled from the $5 bin at Wal-Mart.

Facebook, Vimeo, TED and YouTube channels? Meh. I have access to that free content on every device. Not a selling point. Who would want Facebook on a TV anyway?

The ability to stream my media onto my TV? Available through a dozen apps on every device already – and about as useful to me as a bicycle to a fish.

Ah! A gardening channel. One only (which is paltry compared to the dozens of cooking channels). It’s a series of older British documentaries. Okay, not too bad, but they’re grainy and dated. Probably something also available for free online. And there’s nothing to tell you – no text explanations, no printed overview – what the episodes are all about. You have to load one, then determine if it’s what you want to watch.

So what am I missing that I can’t get in Canada but is available to Americans? Hulu and Amazon video, PBS, Time Warner, the Smithsonian Channel to name a few. I’d be happy to pay a modest subscription fee for them, but no way for Canucks. I’d pay to get CBC, TVO and BBC, too but they aren’t even offered to American users.

In fact, most of the worthwhile commercial stuff you can get in the US isn’t available in Canada. These show in the web channel lineup, but when you click on it you get the faux apology:

We’re sorry. At this time, we don’t support adding channels from the web for your region.

Sure you’re sorry. You’re sorry that the Canadian lineup is a sad list of mostly unwatchable, amateur crap and I have to go back to the TV to scroll through clumsy lists of stuff I don’t recognize. You’re so sorry you’ll refund my money and apologize for misleading Canadians… well, they’re not that sorry.

Even the subscription channels are often of questionable value – like Dog TV: overpriced. Want international content? For a mere $14.95 (per language), I can watch

…live international TV in 15 languages and over 180 channels. Featuring Arabic, Brazilian, Bangla, Gujarati, Hindi, Malayalam, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Cantonese, Mandarin, Taiwanese, Filipino & Vietnamese.

Or, being the cheapskate I am, I can watch these rivetting but free channels:

  • The Homestead Channel: Enjoy exploring the simple life! Discover hands on tips from real people living on and off the grid! Enjoy wholesome and exciting reality style programming!
  • Daily Horoscopes by Kelli Fox.
  • Alien Abductions and UFO Encounters abound around the Globe. The Aliens and UFOs Channel features top authorities on the UFO enigma revealing the ramifications of the Alien presence on earth with information you were never meant to know.
  • WeedTV: The #1 channel about Cannabis. Watch and learn, love and laugh with WEEDtv
  • War Games with Miniatures
  • JSTU Studios: Doing stupid hilarious stuff in public, and capturing all the funny reactions on camera.
  • LRN.FM is your source for the best liberty-oriented audio content.
  • 911 Channel: Full-Versioned & Free Forever, 911 Delivers Dispatcher Drama with Riveting Raw Recordings from Real 911 Operators
  • Liquidation Channel: a 24/7 live, home shopping channel that specializes in the sale of Jewelry and other accessories.

So is it worth the $60 for a Canadian to get the Streaming Stick (the Roku 2 sells for $80 and 3 for $120…)? Probably not if you already have a laptop, tablet or smart phone or anything faster than dial-up internet access. You’re basically paying $60 for the convenience of a remote channel changer for apps you can get on your other devices.

At $20, the Roku Streaming Stick would be a good value. At $60… it’s seriously overpriced. I’d wait a year or three to see if Roku can provide a better range of commercial-quality or professional channels licensed for Canadian viewers. As for Roku 2 ($80) and 3 ($120)… I’d avoid making such a high investment into what is barely adequate content. Consider an alternative like Apple TV instead (but not Chromecast, which is even more woefully short on Canadian-accessible content than Roku).

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