Saturday, September 8, 2012

Roku: review after few months of use

We have used our Roku XS devices for a few months and there are few things I wanted to say.

The honeymoon is over

 I liked this device initially but as I used it more and more my opinion about it plummeted. Now the initial good impression is completely displaced by its problems and quirks. For starters there are a lot of problems with the hardware and the software. My first Roku XS remote is died within a week and I took the device back to Costco for a replacement. My second Roku XS was rebooting randomly when in the sleep mode and not booting back after that without power cycle. I took that one back to Costco too. I did not even unpack the replacement Roku and will take it back this weekend after more frustrations with the current unit.

Roku problems

Where do I begin? 
Automatic updates to the software - this has to go. Roku updates itself to the new version of the software without any way to revert back. The new software at times is worse than the previous but there is no way to stop the update. If you find a good version of the software you can't keep it on your device. The bottom line is that this feature will bite Roku (the company) in the rear one day.

HuluPlus - we have been using this service to watch TV after dropping the satellite. The app is bad from usability standpoint and also the service is slow. I have no problems with their content, if one does not like the content, one does not have to subscribe. I do have a lot of problem with their inability to deliver it. Half of the movies that I tried from Criterion collection fail to play smoothly. Hulu states that I need 3Mb/s service for HD quality. Well, I have 19Mb/s at all times and I want to watch SD. There is no way to select SD on Roku and videos do not play well. The transition between commercials and content often result in macroblocking for a few seconds. Browsing content is also terrible as it is very slow on the Roku app. The app itself is huge memory hog and does not stop running when you exit from it. Because of this all other apps suffer when Hulu is started.

Codec and container support on Roku is terrible. They should fire the QA department and get a new one. The only codecs they claim to support is the h264 and the WMV. That is a blatant lie. WMV is not well supported and a lot of videos do not play and worse cause Roku to lockup and reboot after watchdog is expired. Same with the container support. The mp4 container is OK. Files are recognized and played correctly most of the time, except some files produce lipsync problems which can not be fixed by transcoding. PC plays these files just fine but not Roku. The mkv container is also on the list of supported containers but this is a blatant lie as well. The files in the mkv container often cause Roku to lockup and reboot and even if the file can be played, seeking in the file causes reboots. This is my biggest problem with Roku.

Roku also claims that device supports subtitles. Technically it is true but the support is very finicky as the file must be formatted just right. VLC has no problems with the file but Roku will not play it if it is encoded in Unix format or has no empty line at the end or numbers do not start with 1 or many other reasons.

Another bad miss is absence of the parental control, as well as the inability to select applications that are loaded on the specific device under the same account. If application was removed from one device it will be removed from another linked to the same account.

Now to the general content selection. It is true that Roku has many more channels than say WDTV or a networked DVD player but most of the channels are junk, just like your cable or satellite. Hulu, Netflix, Amazon are available on most of the other devices so Roku does not get any credit here. On other devices the quality of streaming is better however. The other channels like HBOGO require subscription to the HBO on cable?! If I have a subscription to cable why would I need Roku to watch it? Private channels do add to the selection but they come and go - stop working for no reason and then start working again. Of course most of them are not getting paid but then why bother?

The user interface on the device is too simplistic and often fails to respond to the remote. I am not sure if this is app problem or in general Roku problem but with closed source system we will never know.

At the end the only app I really like is MyMedia which allows you to stream content from your PC. That app works OK and you can stream your pictures movies and music collection to the TV. It is also open source so you can modify the app or the server and add the features that you want.


Would I recommend Roku after a few months? Maybe, most likely not. If you want to play movies that you took with your camera or ripped from DVDs, the answer is HELL NO. If you want to watch Netflix or Hulu, the answer is maybe. I would get a networked blue-ray for that. For the same $100 you will get more functionality.
Roku is clearly used the wrong chip for their product! They should have used a chip that is capable of playing many more formats. Even the same Broadcom can supply a number of chips that are much more capable. In any event they should test the software better to make sure simply playing a file to the device would not cause a reboot!

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