Why Roku? Easy; Tablo. With the instant love affair with my Tablo DVR and good reviews about viewing Tablo on Roku as well as it appears that Roku will be the primary focus of client development for the people at Tablo, it seems like a no-brainer. Roku not only supports Tablo but has a wealth of other viewing apps I will get into later. The sheer amount of add-on apps far out-paces the offerings by the competition. The combination of Tablo support and other Roku apps gives me great hope for finally cutting the cable. Roku also has a built-in marriage saver; remote headphones for private listening while your spouse sleeps.
The Roku comes in four models; 1, 2, 3 and "stick". Models 1 to 3 are small boxes that connect to your TV basically like any other small media player. The stick, I believe, is roughly equivalent to a Roku 2 but has the same form-factor issue of being a direct-connect device I complained about when looking at the EZ-Cast and Chromecast devices. For a comparison of Roku models, check out their page at https://www.roku.com/products/compare
Roku 3 < Editor's Choice
Roku 2 < Runner-Up
I purchased a Roku 3 for my living room, that's where I do most of my viewing and I want to make sure I have the best options and quality where I spend the bulk of my time. It sits almost innocuously on a shelf in my TV stand taking up virtually no room compared to my old DVR and putting off virtually no heat so closing the cabinet door causes no worries. Wiring is also minimal with an HDMI connection to the TV and a power connection. I'm going wireless for my streaming so I won't have to run an Ethernet cable across the house and down a wall. Running network cables sounds like no fun at all.
After plugging everything in and putting batteries in your remote the Roku 3 comes up to a "choose your language" screen and then the remote doesn't work. And you change the batteries thinking "maybe I used those in my Xbox controller", and it still doesn't work. A quick Google search later...you have to "pair" the remote so that your particular Roku works with your particular remote. Frustrating that I didn't get a message on screen hinting on the issue but it makes sense seeing as the Roku remote is not an infrared remote like most TVs and DVRs, it's a radio frequency (RF) remote, which allows you to put the Roku out-of-sight and still use it. Also, if you have more than one Roku in the house you will be glad the Rokus don't respond to buttons on every remote in the house. To pair your remote unplug then replug your Roku's power and press the hidden pairing button inside the remote's battery compartment for about 3 seconds. Wait about 10 seconds for the LED on the remote to stop flashing and your Roku and the remote should now work together.
Go through the Roku setup wizard, get connected to your wireless network, create an account on Roku's website, give them your email address and billing information...yeah, not too wild about those last two. Finally register your device online with a different internet capable device when prompted with activation code on-screen (not wild about this either, why can't I register straight from Roku?).
Activating your Roku
Un-check now or waste time later
When registering online, uncheck the apps you don't want or you will have to uninstall them from Roku later
Registration successful? Yep. Roku will connect and begin it's arduous software update then download and install any apps ("channels" in Roku-ese) associated with your account. This feature is really neat if you are setting up multiple Rokus so you don't have to remember all the games and channels you found earlier. This feature sucks if you forget to uncheck the several free apps when you registered your Roku because then you get to select and uninstall each one.
Oops, forgot to un-check some stuff. :(
Now that Roku is up and running go to the channel store ("search" on the Roku menu) and download free Tablo app. It installs easy peasy and now you can access your Tablo DVR while in front of your TV instead of on a laptop. If you played around with the Tablo web app you will notice the Roku app is extremely lacking. The fine folks at Tablo are theoretically on the verge of making the Roku app virtually identical to the web app in the upcoming months. There have been several patches and updates so there is no reason to believe the update won't be spectacular and soon.
The Tablo app is very limited, almost generic but has great possibilities. The interface feels more like a tablet app, all cutesy icons instead of tech coolness like a modern DVR. The most crippling aspect of the Roku app is that it lacks a TV channel grid, you just see a list of channels with what is currently playing. When programming items to record it is also much better to setup programs via the web app as a search function is currently missing on Roku. The new app debuted at CES with user refinements and a much less Roku and much more DVR interface.
Cheesy Roku interface
Watching recorded video on Tablo is quite nice. The interface for selecting your recordings is much more like NetFlix than a DVR and is actually a refreshing interface once you get used to it. I have also found that the Tablo picture is better and clearer than cable video on 1080 channels that have been compressed. All in all, the Tablo app on Roku is very useable, but needs an update to be a true DVR replacement.
OK, enough of Tablo, we are back to talking Roku. Local channels are great and fill the need for "basic cable" but one can't live on bread alone. The following apps (channels) have been great in filling that void;
Netflix - My main movie source. It costs $8 per month, much cheaper than any movie channel selection my cable ever offered and cheaper too. Netflix also has a good deal of original programming not available anywhere else.
Crackle - More movies except it's free, but with fewer choices and commercials added.
Manga - Tons of free anime on demand. Did I mention free?
Viewster - Tons of anime and some TV style shows, free.
Weather Underground - Not that I watched the weather channel much, but this one is free. Not as good as their website but you don't have to get a laptop out to check the weather.
Revision3 - I know TechTV has been dead for years, but I still miss it. A good portion of the people from TechTV actually landed at Revision3 and there are many tech shows available for free.
TWIT - More tech, more TechTV talent.
Portico - This replaced discovery channel/educational, some sports, documentaries and even some limited Tech TV
iFood.TV - Replaces food network.
Fox News - Plays the video content from the website but if you select "play all" it's sort of like watching the TV channel without commercials.
History - Well, it's recorded content from the History Channel. Free.
Roku Media Player - Streams media stored on my PC in the other room. Sweet.
YouTube - Not just a link to the website. It actually logs in to your account and show you everything you are subscribed to.
Pandora - All those hundreds of music channels on cable? Not needed. Pandora allows you to customize and train your music channel to play the types of music you like. Free again.
Rdio - More music.
My only real complaint about Roku is that once you have it setup is there are too many up-sale attempts (would you like fries with that?). There is a constant advertisement on the home screen that offers whatever new movie the highest bidder is peddling that day and there is a semi-permanent "TV Shows" and "Movies" options in the menu that lead you to pay services and the option to hide them is buried in settings. Many "free" apps push for subscriptions as well and it isn't always apparent before you download and install them. It's still less than the up-sale attempts on every video selection on Amazon's Fire device but annoying none the less.
It would be nice if Roku would up their HDMI compatibility to have my TV switch inputs to Roku when I use it or at least have some universal remote features so I don't have to hunt up a TV remote for power and volume needs. It seems like a minor fix that the volume buttons on the side of the remote would actually changed the volume output of Roku, but no...the volume buttons only control volume for headsets connected to the remote.
Well, Roku 3 worked for my living room but I found a great deal on ebay for a bundle of new Roku 2 systems. With the three Roku 2 systems costing only a few dollars more than my Roku 3, I couldn't resist. The Roku 2 is not a bad box, it has an older Netflix app and doesn't support games but that's what my Xbox is for anyway. So now it's DVR all over the house and even in the garage with NO CABLE BILL!
Roku 2 and 3 get a big thumbs up and double thumbs up running the Tablo app. Consider the cord cut and goodbye cable.
Cutting the Cord:PART 1, EZ-Cast
Cutting the Cord:PART 2, Chromecast
Cutting the Cord:PART 3, Tablo DVR
Cutting the Cord:PART 4, Roku