[29 January 2014]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
Roku streaming is ready to offer Roku TVs. The longer its competitors wait (cough, Apple, cough), the harder it will be to dethrone the current champs.
As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to streaming content, you have three legitimate options outside of a video game console: An Apple TV, Google Chromecast and Roku. These are the leaders in providing people with something reminiscent of a regular cable television package through the Internet. There are other products from which you could choose (Aereo, the only-available-in-certain areas, Barry Diller-backed Web TV service is probably the most noteworthy), but if you’re looking for a Big 3, these would be it.
Apple TV is fine for people undyingly loyal to the Mac brand. If you worship at the altar of iTunes, iCloud, iBreakfast or whatever other snappy term Tim Cook can smack on the end of a lowercase “i”, the box is probably a good fit, though be warned: It will tie your hands if you ever want to browse something like, say, iAmazon. Or in other words, if you get in bed with Apple, you’re not getting out. There is a selection of channels you can choose, yes, and there’s no doubt that you’ll have access to enough stuff to keep you busy when you decide to plop down on a couch with television in mind, but at the end of the day, it’s kind of like a high-tech version of Misery, where Kathy Bates is replaced by whatever operating system used in Her. The thing does an adequate job at quenching your TV thirst; it just limits your options.
Google’s Chromecast, on the other hand, looks like a jump-drive and essentially demands you have a mobile device in order to use it conveniently. In short, you get the stick, put it into the back of your television, head to a computer near you, set the thing up, and unless you want to walk back and forth between your desktop or constantly open and reopen your laptop, you control the device with your smartphone. It will give you Netflix and YouTube and some other Internet video resources, but it’s nothing that will change your life. And at $35, what did you expect: A virtual reality censor that beams you into the middle of a Mad Men episode? Come on, now.
And then there’s Roku.
I was recently given one of the latest generation models after months of debating whether or not it would be worth the hassle. I was already in possession of a Playstation 3 that I use for nothing but streaming content from Netflix and the occasional Amazon rental (no time for games in this silly life). What could the Roku possibly offer that I can’t access through the PS3, I wondered. During a good week, I might watch one or two movies and one or two episodes of a television series on DVD. Many weeks, I don’t even turn the TV on. What’s the point in having the Roku option if I might never even use the thing?
Well. I’ll tell you the point: It’s awesome.
What the Roku does is all but force you to at least consider browsing its seemingly endless array of channels once a day. It turns the entire notion of Internet television on its head and demands your attention, even if you really don’t have the time to see which music video is playing on the Vevo channel or you can’t spare a few seconds to browse what Hulu Plus might have added overnight. It’s a tiny box that redefines the television experience if only because of its breadth. Just when you think there’s nothing else that might interest you, another episode of 60 Minutes pops up on the CBS News app or another behind-the-scenes vignette from Austin City Limits is unleashed on the PBS channel. In short, it’s crack for anybody who refuses to pay for cable TV anymore, but wants a taste of the small screen every now and then.
And now, as the company announced at this year’s CES conference in Las Vegas a couple weeks ago, the Roku is about to take a few more steps toward the mainstream:
“An awful lot of companies have tried to figure out how to make consumers want to stream Internet video in the living room,” Time‘s Harry McCracken wrote, “One of the few to have succeeded is Roku, whose cheap little boxes offer easy access to 1,200 channels of content, from biggies such as Netflix, Amazon and HBO Go to stuff you never knew existed. The company has sold 8 million boxes, which have been used to watch 1.7 billion hours of video to date. At this year’s CES show in Las Vegas, Roku’s big news is that it’s going to be possible to watch those 1,200 channels without even paying for and hooking up that cheap little box. It’s going to work with TV companies to build Roku TVs.” (“Roku to make line of connected TVs”, 6 January 2014)
And boom goes the dynamite. Why? Because this, as opposed to various other clunky, over-priced smart-TV ventures in the past, will work. How? Here are some reasons:
1. It’s already trusted. When Samsung or Google mindlessly tossed out screens that could connect to your Twitter account as you watched ESPN on the fly (like they did a couple years ago) it was a mistake. There was no walk-up, no institutional confidence within the consumer to believe that it would be a valuable asset as part of a home entertainment system. As McCracken pointed out, eight million of those tiny Roku boxes have been sold to date, and that doesn’t even count the amount of people who, at the very least, now know that the product even exists.
The whole cutting-the-cord thing is an alternative lifestyle anyway, and as the months pass and the technology becomes more advanced, the practice keeps bubbling up into conversations regarding adequate TV consumption both near and far. Anymore, it’s hard to think that many of those discussions don’t include the Roku name on, at the very least, a cursory level. Happy customers today means loyal buyers tomorrow. Of all the products to emerge in the wake of this subculture, the Roku seems to be the one that’s universally appreciated on all sides.
2. Speaking of loyalty, whose customers are more brand-obsessed than Apple’s? The answer, of course, is nobody’s. But here’s where this can actually work to Roku’s benefit: For years now, the Cupertino outfit has flirted with the notion of its own TV set. In fact, it was widely rumored that Steve Jobs’ final legacy project was an attempt to figure out how to bring cable television to the Internet in a scenario where all parties could win. The problem? Apple still hasn’t been able to crack the code. Each year as the company readies its “special announcement” conferences, tech sites and blogs from all around the world endlessly speculate if this will be the time Apple finally unveils its TV plans. And despite some heavy duty hints or insinuations, the world as we know it is devoid of any breakthrough from the Mac people. This reality has only opened the door wider for someone else to slip in and gain the hearts of those looking to make the jump to online content.
So far, that “someone” has unquestionably been Roku. The longer the people at Apple wait to move on this matter, the more likely it is that consumers won’t care nearly as much by the time they actually do. And because Apple is probably the most dangerous competitor in this high-tech world, getting a jump on it would be crucial to achieving success. Roku has that jump.
3. Roku’s catalogue of options is so far ahead of its competition that it may just be impossible for anyone else to catch up. This is actually a more relevant argument than you might think. The current Apple TV box has about a couple dozen channels from which to choose, but Apple’s obsession with itself actually gets in the way of its appeal in this instance. Chromecast, in addition to being an extremely limited device, is bound by the chains of Google, like it or not. Roku? It came into this race on its own. The only vague tie it has to anything is Netflix (when first dreamed up 12 years ago, it was designed specifically to get streaming Netflix content into homes that didn’t have video game consoles, though at this point—and especially considering how the box offers channels from every single other Netflix competitor anyway—such is now hardly an afterthought). The possibilities are endless.
The only real way something like Apple could challenge this aspect of the equation is if the company—on its own, mind you—somehow came up with a way to completely change the face of television as we once knew it. I.e., as innovative as this medium is, you can’t replace 60 Minutes over night. The series has such an established fan base that it seems downright absurd to think Apple could come around with some brand new newsmagazine and become an equally iconic institution.
Even when it comes to fresh original content, Netlix has already established the bar with House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black. What has Apple or Google done to set themselves apart and make them essential? Nothing. At this point in the game, people just want the most options, rather than brand-specific products. Sure, maybe someday ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX will be fully replaced by Netflix, Apple, Amazon and Google, but that day isn’t even remotely close and this reality plays to Roku’s favor.
And 4. Live feeds. As a result of reason No. 3, Roku also provides the ability for companies to offer private channels. The one I currently lean on most is USTVNOW, which provides live local feeds from the Big four networks as well as a few cursory channels (PBS, CW, etc.) for free. You can get more if you want to pay for them (20 bucks gets you about 20 live channels and DVR space), but who really needs to do that when you can back up the fundamental options with Netflix and Crackle and Hulu? Combine that with the Watch ESPN app, which itself is also free, and what you have is a slate of about ten channels you can access whenever you want to watch something in real time, all for no monthly charge. And because the Roku requires you to use an HDMI cord to connect the box to the television, the pictures come in HD quality. You quite honestly cannot tell the difference between something coming in through an old-fashioned cable TV package and something coming in through a Roku.
The best part? Those reasons don’t even broach the device’s neat, little quirks. A jack for the remote control that allows you to listen to whatever you’re watching through headphones, muting the TV in the process. The tiny, light black box that can easily be hidden if you don’t want people to know you’re relying strictly on the Internet. The you’ve-got-to-be-kidding me ease of the interface, breaking channels down by genre and allowing you to add whatever you want in a matter of seconds. The fact that it takes up less power than a night-light, so you never really have to turn the thing off. The list goes on and on and on and on.
“I started out to review the new Roku 3… but as I started writing, I realized that Roku is evolving into what could become a serious competitor to cable and satellite,” Larry Magid, wrote, “What I like about Roku is that it gives users a choice. You can subscribe to just the channels you want or just pay for just the shows you want to watch. And, because almost all of these channels are also available to watch on the web and/or on mobile devices, you also get a choice as to where to watch your shows.” (“Review of Roku 3: Could It Kill Cable and Satellite TV?”, Forbes, 1 April 2013)
If television is inching its way away from the traditional formula we’ve all grown into accepting—and make no mistake, it is—there fails to be a single better option than the Roku. For those scared to cut that cord for good, it’s the most reliable and expansive way to feed that TV hunger we all feel every so often. For those already experienced in the Internet television phenomenon, this thing will give you perks unavailable to you otherwise. And for those unwilling to even consider the jump… well, what the hell’s wrong with you?
Because like it or not, we live in a culture obsessed with change, obsessed with innovation. When it comes to the most fundamental level of home entertainment—television—we ought not believe that tradition will win the battle between convenience and convention. The quicker we can embrace such metamorphosis within such a commonality among the normal life, the quicker we can begin to mold a brand new ideal, a brand new approach, a brand new definition of television acceptance.
The art of TV-watching is in the midst of rewriting those very rules. And the Roku is at the forefront, eagerly waiting to put pen to paper.