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Roku opens a new world of TV net streaming

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

I got a Roku box, along with a three-month trial of Netflix Instant Streaming, as a birthday gift this month, and I'm already hooked.

Roku is a device which makes it easy to display various Internet-based video services on your TV. Some top-of-the-line modern TVs have Roku-like features built in, as do some modern gaming consoles. But if you don't already have this capability, Roku ( http://www.roku.com ) is affordable, easy to use, and works like a charm.

Setup was quick. You need a high-speed Internet connection and a home wireless network. (I think there may be one Roku box available which will let you connect to your home network by Ethernet cable, but most of the models are designed for wireless use.)

The Roku unit is not much larger than a hockey puck, squared-off instead of round. You plug it in, and then connect the cable to your TV. Use the included cable for standard definition, or supply your own HDMI cable for high-def, assuming your Internet connection is robust enough to support that.

Then, you give Roku the login information to get onto your home wireless network, and you link the Roku box to an online account at Roku's web site.

You install various apps or channels on your unit from the Roku Channel Store ( http://www.roku.com/roku-channel-store ), and each app gives you access to a different type of content. The channels fall into several different categories:

* Subscription-based video services: These are services like Netflix and Hulu Plus that allow you unlimited access to content for a monthly fee ($7.99 a month for either one). If you already have an account with Netflix or Hulu Plus, you can link the Roku app to that existing account. If you don't, you can set up a new account. Between Netflix and Hulu Plus, you'll be astonished at how many movies and TV shows (current and classic) are available.

Amazon also has some movies and TV shows available for unlimited viewing for members of its Amazon Prime service. There are also sports-related subscription channels like MLB.TV, with live or on-demand streaming of Major League Baseball games.

* Pay-per-view video services: Amazon Instant Video, the leading example among Roku's default lineup, offers numerous movies and TV shows for which you can pay individually and access at any time during a 48-hour period. (The Roku box doesn't store content; it only streams it to your TV.) For TV shows, you can buy by the episode or buy an entire season of a show for a reduced price.

* Free channels: Crackle, owned by Sony, has a variety of movies and TV shows available for streaming. The movies are uncut and uncensored, the way you'd see them on DVD or a premium cable channel, but they are interrupted for commercials, as they would be on broadcast or basic cable. There are other free-content apps available as well, with everything from TV evangelists to old movies and cartoons which have been allowed to fall into the public domain.

Regular readers of this column know that I enjoy the netcasts on Leo Laporte's TWiT (This Week In Tech) network; now I can watch those podcasts, live or on-demand, on my TV screen instead of a computer screen. The outstanding series of TED talks, bringing new insight to various important issues, is also available as an app.

* Promotional or preview channels: Flixster shows movie trailers. A Disney channel shows promotional content for current Disney projects, and so on.

* Audio-only channels: Pandora Internet Radio is available, and there's also a "newscaster" app which delivers news stories, audio clips and podcasts from various TV news outlets.

* Games: You can play Angry Birds and other popular games on your TV by installing Roku apps for them. Some games may require a special type of Roku remote control.

* Facebook: There's a Facebook app that lets you watch recent photos and videos from your stream on the TV.

It's up to you which apps to install or remove; however, my Roku came with dedicated Netflix, Pandora and Crackle buttons on its remote control.

It's free to download most of the major channel apps and install them on your Roku unit; however, in order to use the paid-content channels, you have to deal directly with the content provider, such as Netflix, Hulu or Amazon. There are also some Roku apps that cost money (which is the reason Roku asks for your credit card information when setting up your online account).

There's a tech-savvy generation of "cord-cutters" who have foregone cable or satellite TV altogether and watch only what's available through the net. A Netflix subscription and a Hulu Plus subscription together would cost less than a cable or satellite bill, and would give you a relatively large number of on-demand programming choices, especially when combined with free services like Crackle. (The downside would be that your Internet bill might go up once you lose the bundle discount for combining it with your TV service.) Both Netflix and Amazon have plans to offer original content. Netflix has new episodes of "Arrested Development" in the works, as well as an American remake, starring Kevin Spacey, of the British miniseries "House of Cards."

Some people have bought new digital-TV-ready roof antennas and signal boosters and have gone back to receiving their local TV stations for free over the airwaves, watching everything else over the Internet.

I'm not quite to that point yet, especially because I'm still under contract to a satellite provider and I live in an apartment, meaning a rooftop antenna is out of the question. But I have to admit it's an intriguing notion.

--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.

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John I. Carney
Loose Talk / Charge Complete
John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette.