Roku on a Stick: Making Smart TVs Smarter


Roku quickly made a name for itself over the last few years thanks to its smart (and affordable) TV set-top boxes that allow users to easily stream Internet content from Hulu, Netflix and others to their TVs. Today, the company is announcing its newest product: the Roku Streaming Stick. This device is the size of a USB flash drive, but includes built-in WiFi, a processor, memory and software. It's not a stand-alone piece of hardware, though. Instead, the idea here is to augment existing smart TVs – or at least the few of them that support the so-called Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL) standard. Basically, the idea here is that you can plug in a device like Roku's new Streaming Stick (or a mobile phone or any other standard-compliant device) and add new functionality to your TV.

For Roku, this means the company can offer its portfolio of channels and services to users through a significantly more inexpensive device, as the Streaming Stick doesn't need cables or a power supply, for example.

The devices will go on sale later this year, which is probably not a bad move, given that a number of new MHL-compatible TVs will be announced at CES later this week. Roku is also partnering with Best Buy's house-brand Insignia to "pair the Roku Streaming Stick to create a Smart TV for Best Buy."

5:40 pm

Cord Cutting: It’s Easy if You Try


Cord cutting, that is cancelling your cable or satellite contract in favor of going Internet TV-only, isn’t as hard as it sounds. Chances are, unless you are a real TV addict, you can easily live without cable these days and switch over to an affordable set-top box from Roku or Boxee with a subscription to Hulu Plus and Netflix.

My Experiment in Cord Cutting

While the pundits are still discussing whether cord cutting is real, I decided to see what life without cable would be like and cancelled our cable subscription about two months ago. Since then, I’ve used nothing but a basic Roku box to watch TV shows. Indeed, if you’re already somewhat picky about the shows you watch, cutting the cord turns out to be pretty easy.

Today, for a total of $16 per month, we subscribe to Hulu Plus and the most basic Netflix plan. We still watch virtually all the shows we looked at before and when news breaks, we can watch Al Jazeera’s live stream, which more than makes up for not getting to see the talking heads on CNN, MSNBC and Fox.

Before I cancelled our cable subscription, we were already watching virtually all of our TV from a DVR anyway, so the idea of time-shifting shows was nothing new. Unlike with a DVR, Hulu Plus doesn’t let you fast-forward through ads, though. Given that it only shows one ad at a time (often as short as 15 seconds), however, these interruptions are far more bearable than the 5-minute blocks you find on regular TV.

A few words about my experience with the Roku box: It just works. Its user interface could react a bit faster and its animations could be smoother, but I have not complaints about the video quality (which is the only thing that matter in the end) and thanks to a fast Internet connection, I haven’t run into any issues with degraded video quality or buffering streams yet. The Roku, in my opinion, offers more flexibility than an Apple TV at this point (which doesn’t support Hulu Plus) and is also the cheaper option in the long run.

Missing Shows

There are major holes in the Hulu and Netflix lineup, though. There are barely any CBS shows available, for example, which means that if you are addicted to all 15 franchises of CSI, you are out of luck (same if you want to see 60 Minutes). While many Fox shows are available on Hulu Plus, American Idol is not (but you can still get your reality TV fix thanks to ABC’s Dancing with the Stars). Oddly enough, some shows (like Fox’s Fringe) don’t stream on Hulu Plus but are available for free on Hulu’s free website. Missing in action, too, for the most part, is live sports, though that is rapidly changing and you can now see both NBA and MLB games live on the Roku. I couldn’t care less about watching sports on TV, but at least it’s good to know there are options.

Filling the Holes

Of course, just because you broke off your relationship with your friendly neighborhood cable TV provider doesn’t mean you can’t get free, over-the-air TV anymore, so most of these holes are easily plugged by a simple antenna (though you would actually have to sit through the ads and be in front of your TV at the right time – just like people used to do 10 years ago…).

You Can Do It if You Try – But Know What You’re Getting Into

That said, though, cutting the cord is obviously not an option if you just need to see Oprah, Dr. Phil and every show on the Food Network. It is easily an option, though, if your TV diet mostly consists of watching the Daily Show and a few select programs that are available on Hulu and Netflix streaming. Indeed, I’ve watched uncounted hours of interesting documentaries on Netflix instead of vegging out in front of yet another mindless show on Home and Garden TV.

My advice for those who want to cut the cord: do a test run before you cancel your cable subscription. If you can switch over without the constant urge to turn on your cable box again, you’re probably good to go.

11:30 am

The Internet Invades the Living Room: Report Says 7% of U.S. Households Will Cut the Cord by 2014


The Internet is slowly making its way into our living rooms. Even if your TV itself isn’t directly connected to the Net, chances are there is a game console, Blu-ray player, Apple TV or Roku box attached to it that can bring streaming video from services like Netflix, Hulu Vudu or iTunes directly to your TV. Indeed, according to research firm SNL Kagan (as reported by USA Today), 14% of TVs are now connected to the Internet in some form or another. SNL Kagan expects this number to climb up to 38% in 2014.

At this point, however, only about 2% of households with Internet-connected TVs have “cut the cord” and use the Internet exclusively to watch “professionally produced programming.”

There has been a lot of discussion in the tech and TV industry about whether “cord cutting” – that is dropping your cable or satellite service in favor of going Internet-only – is a real phenomenon or just a figment of some early adopters’ and tech journalists’ imagination. According to SNL Kagan’s predictions, though, the next few years will see a steady growth in Internet-only households (7% in 2014).

Even cable industry insiders – who long thought that this was just a fringe movement – now think that cord-cutting is real and a potential threat to their industry. In an interview with USA Today, Verizon’s vice president for consumer strategy and planning told the paper that his company has “been looking at this issue for the better part of a year, and our perspective has pretty much done a 180 to a belief now that pay-TV  ‘cord cutting’ will happen.”

It’s Real – But not for Everyone (Yet)

Clearly, though, cord cutting – even though it is a very real phenomenon – is still not for everyone. Not having access to most live sports events makes it a non-starter for a lot of people right now – though this is slowly changing as the major sports franchises in the U.S. catch up to this trend and see it as a potential new revenue stream. It’s also current nearly impossible to get access to live news and local news through devices like the Roku box or your Xbox. Chances are, though, that this will change in the near future. There are no technical reasons for keeping this content off these devices – just the politics of TV networks and cable operators and sooner or later, even these companies will realize that they can’t stop this trend anymore.

Image Credit: William Hook

12:19 pm