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When I mention that I’m getting a new Roku to non-techie friends, the reaction is usually bewilderment. Like much tech today, the name gives you no clue what it is. Roku may sound like some new Japanese way to fall on your sword, but it’s actually a way to stream video to your TV from sites like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and numerous others.
And what is streaming video you may ask? Streaming allows you to watch a movie on your TV instantly without going to the video store (are there still any?) or waiting for the little Netflix envelope to arrive in the mail. Instead, the movie streams over the Internet directly to your TV, just like when you watch a YouTube video.
You’ve probably streamed YouTube to your computer or tablet, or even your phone, and you can do the same with movies – without a Roku. But why would you want to do that? Remember how great it was when TVs got big enough to see from across the room. It beats me why some kids today actually prefer watching movies on a 10-inch screen.
Roku is not the only streaming device, it’s just the best one IMHO (translation: in my humble opinion). Other options are the ridiculously cheap Chromecast and the not-so-cheap Apple TV. I could compare and contrast these, but your eyes would glaze over, so I’ll stick to just explaining the Roku, which is my favorite because it’s the most senior friendly.
Both the Roku 2 and 3 have a terrific little feature, a headset jack on the remote so you can listen to your favorite shows and movies without bothering anyone. For a hearing aid wearer like me this is a godsend. The Roku also supports closed captioning, another huge benefit for the hearing impaired and anyone who can’t understand current slang.
How to set up Roku
If you have a flat screen TV, you can plug it right into the Roku with an HDMI cable, which isn’t included (don’t even bother figuring out what HDMI stands for, just buy one). If you don’t have a flat screen TV – which displays high definition video – go out and buy one immediately. (I’ll cover the wonders of HDTV in another column.) Seniors should have a TV that doesn’t require Moishe’s Movers to bring into another room and that won’t break your foot if you drop it.
I know I promised you last week that I’d install my Roku myself but I wimped out and offered my techie friend Lynn dinner if she’d come over just in case I needed her to troubleshoot. Even though she yelled at me when I grabbed the batteries from the package and tried to put them into the Roku, I wasn’t discouraged.
“Erica, there’s a reason you have trouble installing things. You don’t RTFM,” she said, with a typical techie’s supercilious sneer.
“Read the f***ing manual.”
I hate reading manuals. There’s always one instruction that’s incomprehensible and makes me want to throw it across the room. I’d rather just root around in the shipping materials and plug things in until I get totally lost and have to put in a hysterical call to customer service. In this case, the manual that I didn’t read clearly stated that the batteries go in the remote. Note to self: RTFM
The worst part about Roku installation is the laborious onscreen menus. It’s almost impossible to get it right on the first try. Roku also intrusively asks for your credit card, but you can avoid giving it to them by hitting “skip” on that screen.
No Lynn? Where to get help
Roku has decent 24-hour customer service, albeit with a Bombay accent. 1-888-600-7658 (ROKU). They will walk you through the setup if you get stuck. First, they will ask for the serial number which you will find on the box, not the Roku itself.
If installing hardware gives you an anxiety attack and you don’t have a Lynn, my all-purpose solution is to call the cable guy. There will probably be a small charge for a special visit, but not as much as if you called Best Buy’s Geek Squad, a service that many seniors rely on. Or, you could wait until your TV or Internet goes on the fritz (not a long wait in my area) and when the cable guy arrives to fix it ask sweetly, “As long as you’re here would you mind helping me install this thingie I just got?”
Remember to ask him how to perform a crucial step – changing the input on the TV from cable to DTV, which involves yet another remote. Remotes seem to give birth to each other every time you get a new gadget. Tip: write down which is which on masking tape and stick it on the remote backs.
Once you have your Roku set up, just hit the “home” icon on the Roku remote and you’ll see all the channels you can access. Make sure to set up your Netflix account online, and put a bunch of movies and TV shows on your streaming queue. I’m binge watching Breaking Bad at the moment. Then put in your Netflix password on the Roku (if you remember it) and sit back and enjoy. Do the same for Amazon, where you can stream movies for $2.99 each. There’s a lot more a Roku can do, but I’ll save that for another column. You’ve learned enough for today.
Click here for more detail and a comparison of the different streaming options.
Also check out www.roku.com.
Roku 2 and 3 go for around $70 and $90 respectively, but you might find one for under $50 refurbished.
What aspects of technology mystify you and what do you want to learn more about. Erica will explain in future columns.
Erica Manfred is a journalist, essayist and humorist who writes about everything from dentistry to divorce to fantasy fiction. Friend her on Facebook.
It must have been my bad luck day but I was unable to get Roku 3 going, even with the help of an instant chat with the Roku rep that I rate fantastic. Turned out that the little Roku isn’t compatible with my router which is actually a modem from Time Warner. To top it all, the remote quit. First the batteries that I promptly replaced (and tested), and then the entire remote. The lights are gone and the thing is DOA.
My cable modem is ARRIS brand. I wish that Roku website had a list of the compatible modems. Now while waiting for a replacement remote to arrive, I’m still contemplating bringing the the little Roku back.
What have I done to deserve this?
I have posted the whole story on my WordPress blog that made me feel somewhat better. Any suggestions are welcome.
Not true that Roku doesn’t work with Time Warner modem because it does with mine. Something else is going on here. I had some trouble with my Roku stick recently with a Comcast system and was on the phone with Roku tech support for quite a while. I had to reboot it a few times. Maybe there are glitches in the newer Rokus.
Thanks for taking the time to reply, Erica. I couldn’t get it going and this is what Roku rep told me.
Perhaps you have a different modem? Mine is an ARRIS brand.
I had no problem working Roku 3 last year with Comcast. But it died due to not being plugged into a surge protector. BTW Roku instructions booklet says to plug it into the wall outlet and accompanies this with a pic of a plug in the wall, no less. But now I know otherwise.
Hope they’ll send me a better remote, will try again.
Great article Erica. For those who live outside US like me, you can access Netflix, Hulu and similar media stations on your Roku by using UnoTelly or similar tools.
Hello, we had to buy a Roku to receive our Time Warner Cablevision (cable fried in wall and can’t be replaced -long story). But, with Roku we can watch live tv by clicking on TWC icon. My question is: can we make a list of favorites on Roku or can Roku pick up our favorites from our cable which is connected to the tv which IS not on Roku but on actual cable???
I never heard of being able to watch live TV on the Roku through TWC–or making a list of favorites. But thanks for telling me it’s possible. I’d think TWC would know the answer to that since you’re watching their Roku channel. And/or you might try calling Roku.
Oh boy, I am having such a hard time to get my little Roku going. Turns out that it is not compatible with the TWC modem. Mine is an ARRIS model. I wish that Roku website had a list of the compatible modems.
Kparis, what modem are you using? If you don’t mind me asking.
Roku’s Netflix menu system is so ancient. Avoid buying Roku, if this is your need. They haven’t provided Netflix menu updates for most of their units, and blame Netflix. Netflix blames Roku, because the menu system programming is very different than what Netflix programs as the “standard” for other boxes. So, you now have far cheaper streaming boxes that allow much more functionality within the Netflix menus than Roku, which looks like something out of 2011.
The Netflix menu on the Roku 3 seems very functional. It’s pretty much the same as on my computer, but of course if I put something on my Netfllix queue on my computer it will turn up on my Roku.
So glad that you have written an article on Roku.
Several years ago, I had a major battle with my cable company, in which they charged me for two wrestling matches which they claimed I watched at 7 am, and refused to remove the charges (I don’t like wrestling at all, and there is no way that I would spend $30 to watch it at 7 am). Long story short, I promptly returned their cable box and requested that they place it “where the sun don’t shine.”
But any sort of antenna reception is impossible for my apartment, so for several years I had only 5 stations, none of which were my beloved Channel 13 (PBS). So I had to make due with those shows that could be seen on their website and on YouTube over my PC monitor.
Then along came Aereo, which rents antennas that stream all local stations.through the internet at the princely sum of $8 per month (about 20% of what NYC cable companies charge for the same).
But in order to use Aereo, you must have Roku 3 (or Apple TV) in order to stream it to your TV, as well as your other devices.
Needless to say, I will now live happily ever after!*
* (Providing Aereo doesn’t loose any of the future lawsuits filed against it by networks and cable companies)
Can one use the Roku on a tv that is not connected to cable?
The Roku just has to be able to access your wireless connection. I think you can use it with a TV not connected to cable.
We just got a Roku 3….love it! Hardest part of the Roku is getting from regular tv to the input where the Roku is! Maybe I’ll just leave it on Roku.
Linda, that is a big hassle, but the cable guy said he could program the cable remote to do it all to reduce remote proliferation. Unfortunately I didn’t ask him how when he was here. But I’ve pretty much got it down, as long as I don’t misplace the TV remote.
Oh. Maybe I’ll have to try to find that info for our satellite remote.
Linda, if you have the TV remote–not the one for the satellite bu the TV itself–there is an “input” button. That should allow you to change from the Roku (which is DTV) on my remote, to your satellite (cable on my remote)
I recently bought a Chromecast — cheap, easy to install, and works (most of the time, depending on my network). I’d love to see a comparison of the two devices.
Thanks for the nongeeky review!
Joan, I didn’t have room to review the Chromecast, but I understand that it doesn’t carry as many channels and you have to use your smartphone as the remote. Not so convenient especially if the phone rings. LOL. Check out the link in the article. That has a good comparison of Chromecast vs
I hadn’t heard of this device, Erica, thanks for the lesson. I have been watching movies on my 17″ Macintosh screen.
The Roku would allow me put it on the widescreen in our living room for those movies that my wife also likes (we have different tastes).
I have Apple TV, but after reading this I may consider Roku for my parents. They need user friendly and an option that can contain the sound. Love it!
I’ve got two of them, one for each of my gorgeous flat-screen tvs. Although with smart tvs, smart DVD players, and an Xbox, there’s a good deal of redundancy.
It seems everything is moving in the same direction. At some point, every device will offer Internet access, navigation, streaming, photos, phone calls, texting, voice recog., etc. The only thing that will be different will be the size of the device.
Eventually you’ll be able to stream video on your toaster so you can watch while toast is cooking. LOL
My wife and I considered a Roku. Right now we’ve just hooked the flatscreen up to my laptop with a HDMI cable. We’re streaming Nexflix from the laptop, which works just fine.
We also considered a PlayStation 4, but that’s around $400. We’ll see how the laptop connection works. The Roku, especially with its affordable price, is still a possibility.
I needed a new DVD player, and ended up getting one that provides YouTube, Pandora, Netflix, and a couple of other options. It’s actually a nice amenity although at first I smirked at the sales clerk and said, “Why do I need the Internet to watch a DVD?” Now I’m wondering, how come I can’t check my email on it. Oh, wait, I can. Then how come it doesn’t have voice recognition….and so it goes. We live in fantastic times, don’t we?
Those are actually more options that I didn’t mention or the article would have been a whole lot longer. You can get streaming built into a smart TV or DVD player. But the Roku is more versatile, has more channels, and has that great remote. And yes, the times we live in are amazing when it comes to technology. When it comes to good manners, not so much.