After only about two months in the App Store, Roku’s addressed my biggest complaint with their free virtual remote control. In addition to navigating one’s digital media streamer by swiping, Roku has now integrated a “standard” D pad option that responds to individual taps. While it does get the job done, the presentation seems a bit spartan – beyond what I assume are promotional Netflix, Pandora, and Crackle shortcuts that mirror the physical Roku LT remote. And speaking of physical remotes, not all contain the instant replay button – and this oversight should be a primary draw for Roku’s iPhone app. The updated app also includes faster Home screen loading and improved device discovery, having no difficulty locating my latest hardware. However, there’s still no sign of an official Android or iPad app. Should you have just such a need, check out Cassidy Napoli’s “Remoku” creation that enables Roku control via a web browser.
Archives For Roku
Simple.TV is the retail DVR you wanted five years ago. And yet it’s still interesting enough to make my personal list of top product announcements coming out of CES 2012. Why? Because it’s a truly viable, inexpensive way to add digital video recording to your TV set-up without cable’s help. Maybe you remember the Replay TV? Or even those precious few DVD players available around 2004/2005 that imported guide data and sported DVR functions? The Simple.TV box does the same, but with a few twists.
Briefly described, Simple.TV is a bring-your-own-hard-drive DVR that slings over-the-air (OTA) and clear QAM cable content to various mobile devices and media extenders — sort of a sexier, evolved HDHomeRun… albeit, with fewer tuners. Simple.TV doesn’t directly attach to your TV, but if you want to DVR stuff on the flat screen, you can always access the box via apps on your Roku, Boxee Box, Windows Media Center or Google TV device. The Simple.TV transcodes content to MPEG-4 with variable bit-rate streaming, and it makes any video, live or recorded, available through one of the company’s apps. CNET got a hands-on with the device, and found the iPad app in particular to be pretty slick.
Perhaps the best thing about Simple.TV is the price. The cost for the box is $149, and you can add on unlimited remote streaming for up to five users, as well as richer guide data and automatic recording for $4.99 a month via their Premiere Service. If you have cable TV service, you can connect the Simple.TV box to the coax along with your broadband connection. Or if you don’t, you can catch those over-the-air signals.
The cable DVR solution is certainly the simplest option for consumers out there, but for die-hard cord-nevers (like some of my neighbors), and college students or recent grads who don’t have the cash for a pay-TV subscription or premium-tier extras, Simple.TV is a cool DVR alternative. And it’s been a while since we’ve had an inexpensive one of those.
As part of Roku’s “Streaming Stick” outreach, their team offered up interviews with CEO Anthony Wood. While we chose to pass on the opportunity, our pals over at GigaOm were more aggressive with their coverage… and dug up a few interesting nuggets in speaking to Wood (who you might recall created the ReplayTV DVR).
First, the Streaming Stick may land in the $50 – $100 price range — which is where we find the current stand alone Roku boxes. Further, the UI is said to be the same as what’s found on those very same boxes. Yet it’s not clear to me if this merely represents parity between the devices or that Roku is sticking with their existing simplistic presentation.
But what’s most interesting is GigaOm’s dive into Roku sales. The company had anticipated moving 3 million units by the end of the year. However, Roku ended up with about 2.5 million deployed boxes – despite a massive (and sometimes befuddling) advertising campaign and the introduction of a low priced $50 mass market streamer. As to why? From GigaOm, Wood:
cited Netflix’s fall stumbles as one reason that sales may have been below its goals.
Some context makes this even more interesting… in that Wood was a Netflix VP and the original video streaming box was spun out of Netflix to Roku along with both financial and personnel investment. And now, several years and many “channels” later, it appears Roku’s fate is still intrinsically linked to Netflix. Something any potential suitor should take into account.
Based on recent traffic, it’s clear many of you received Roku streaming hardware for Christmas or Hanukkah (with interest in a YouTube Channel… and content somewhat more racy). So we thought we’d take this opportunity to point out Roku’s brand-spanking new iOS remote app.
First off, Roku’s official app is free and therefore immediately worth a look for iPhone and iPod Touch owners. But, beyond the cost, we’ve found the remote highly polished for a v1 release – featuring a more efficient and powerful Roku Store experience than our Roku boxes actually offer via their television interface. Further, the virtual remote provides the priceless ‘instant replay’ button that’s not actually found on most Roku physical remotes – such as the one included with the $50 Roku LT. Yet there are a few areas that could use some improvement.
As a long time user of the very nice DVPRemote ($1.99), a third party Roku app, the official app is in desperate need of a virtual keyboard to enter credentials and search for content on various channels. Additionally, while some may appreciate swiping over tapping… many do not. And I’d personally like to see navigation “buttons” offered in a future upgrade. Again, Roku could follow the lead of DVPRemote by offering just such an option. But, in the interim, we’ll continue to recommend DVPRemote. Especially to those looking to control their Roku from an iPad. Continue Reading…
Everyone wants in on the EPG business. That’s one of the conclusions I took away from the SCTE Cable Tec-Expo event earlier this month. Even as CE manufacturers are pumping up the volume on connected devices with their own video interfaces, vendors in the cable TV world are pushing a range of solutions that tie the electronic program guide into larger content management systems for pay-TV operators. I talked about Rovi’s TotalGuide EPG a couple weeks back, and there’s Arris’ Moxi guide, but those two are far from the only players in this game. Here’s a sample of three other companies touting their own guide solutions.
Clearleap is perhaps better known in the world of Internet delivery than it is in the cable industry, but the company is rapidly carving out a niche among MSOs. Speaking with CTO John Carlucci at the SCTE event, I learned that Clearleap has a hosted, white-label guide on the market, and that it offers media services to help operators manage, encode and deliver video to connected devices. Clearleap’s solutions are strictly IP-based, but they’re already being used by Verizon for its VOD platform, and Carlucci says the company’s in trials with “four of the top five” operators for its media services. As for the guide specifically, Clearleap’s solution could be a compelling one for tier-2 and tier-3 operators. The service runs on a pay-as-you-go model, and Clearleap is rapidly adding advanced features. The company recently integrated with Great Lakes Data Systems (GLDS) to add options for a-la-carte transactions that are tied back to a subscriber’s monthly cable bill. (Think additional IP content purchases on top of the monthly subscription) Carlucci says social features are on the way. Orbitel, a small cableco out of Arizona, launched the Clearleap/GLDS solution in October to create a branded VOD experience on subscriber Roku boxes.
Back in September I heard from a source that Starz was not only pulling its content from Netflix, but also planning an app on the HBO Go model. Now we have confirmation from Starz President Chris Albrecht that a mobile app is on the roadmap for 2012. Not only that, but Albrecht said at an investor conference in New York yesterday that Starz is also open to offering a service not tied to a cable TV subscription. This may be a warning shot at operators who are blocking HBO Go on the Roku. If premium content providers like Starz and HBO can’t count on their operator partners to get their content to every paying audience, then they have to look at other distribution options.
On the other side of the coin, I have serious questions about Starz’s ability to go it alone. One option Albrecht reportedly mentioned at yesterday’s conference would be to bundle Starz with a broadband connection rather than with cable TV. But I think Starz would need to offer a pretty sweet deal to make that attractive. Does Starz really have enough desirable content for consumers to pay for the content by itself? The a-la-carte model always sounds good, but it would get expensive awfully quick. And there are only a few channels with enough cache to get consumers pulling out their wallets. ESPN and HBO could maybe pull it off, but Starz? I’m skeptical.
Meanwhile, Albrecht did say that Starz is also in discussions with other distributors like Amazon.com and Blockbuster, even if it’s through with Netflix.
Every Netflix fan knows the pain of trying to browse the Instant Streaming catalog, and I know I’m not alone in longing for a better UI. Fortunately, there’s an app for that. At least on the Roku.
The Instant Watch Browser for Netflix, developed by TheEndless, debuted as a Roku channel back in June. It’s a nice step up from the native browser, letting you dig deeper into the Netflix catalog for stuff you might actually want to watch. You can buy the full version for $2.99, or download the “lite” app for free. After adding it to my own Roku last week, I found several new TV series to drop into my Instant Queue.
The biggest perk with the Instant Watch Browser app is the ability to scroll through more titles in every genre. I haven’t upgraded to the full version of the channel yet, but even without it, I can see up to 100 selections in every subcategory of entertainment. For example, a click on TV Drama takes me to a list of shows divided up by Crime Drama, Courtroom Drama, Dramedy, etc. One more click on a subcategory and I can see the top 100 titles available for instant streaming. That doubles the number listed in the native Netflix browser, and even that artificial cap goes away if you pay the $2.99 fee.
There are other benefits to getting the full version too. Notably, you can run title searches with the premium channel, and add selections directly to your Instant Queue from the browser screen. According to the FAQ on the developer’s website, the full version also provides:
- A more up-to-date catalog than the lite version
- Additional genres for HD TV and movies
- Title ratings
- Ongoing enhancements based on user community feedback
Oddly, the Instant Watch Browser has gotten very little attention online. Perhaps it just hasn’t been discovered yet by the tech-writing regulars? In any case, it’s worth a download. For the price of a latte, I’ll certainly be adding the full version to my Roku line-up.
Digital media streamer WDTV Live Plus has been updated to offer Hulu Plus. Although Western Digital’s platform (review here) may not feature as many “channels” as Roku’s, they clearly offer a solid and growing lineup of online content including Netflix, YouTube, Pandora, and two video on demand services. Additionally, as I frequently mention, one of WDTV’s prime selling points (over Roku) is their support of local media playback via USB or network devices (including DLNA). In fact, if that’s a priority the Roku 2 may let you down. Roku’s Director of Product Management recently reinforced their position to a customer via email:
If the ONLY thing you purchased the Roku 2 for was local media streaming, you should return your player for a refund. We are primarily an Internet streaming device (Pandora, Netflix, Vimeo, MLB, Hulu, etc.). We don’t have the broad file type/codec support that some more dedicated local network/USB streaming boxes have.
I no longer hoard much media, digital or otherwise, locally and prefer others handle content aggregation for me. But if you desire well rounded local media playback, the WDTV Live (~$100) is worth a look.