Roku: The Way We Watch

A couple weeks ago I mentioned something about our roku box in connection with getting a new tv stand, which prompted a few folks to contact me and ask how we like using the roku. And like it, we do. So for anybody wondering whether you should buy a roku, here's a review of how it's worked for us. (And I know this isn't technically a post about my crafting or domestic pursuits, but since a crafty project usually accompanies me while I watch television, we're going to call it relevant here.)

We cancelled cable when we moved into our last apartment. Before then, we had the whole shebang - cable with DVR, Netflix with streaming, and the MLB (major league baseball) Extra Innings Package (go Phils!). For television, we relied mostly on the DVR, which allowed us to record television shows that we liked so we could watch even if we weren't around when the show actually aired. We used our Netflix for movies and catching up on old tv shows, like West Wing. Navah watched baseball through the Extra Innings package (since the Phillies games weren't always showing on television in DC), and we occasionally used Hulu.

When we moved into our apartment on Capitol Hill, the cable was maintained by the landlord, but it was the most basic version without DVR or on-demand that would allow us to choose when we wanted to watch particular shows or get movies for free, like our old cable had been. We knew we wouldn't really take advantage of the cable if we didn't have that flexibility (or even the ability to use a guide to see what was on), so we decided to forego cable entirely. And that led us to thinking about a roku.

The key benefit of a roku is that it allows you to watch programs that stream or download on the internet on your tv without having to connect your computer to your television. The roku works through your wi-fi connection directly (or through a landline, if you prefer to go that route). So, anything that we had been watching on a computer, like Hulu or our streaming Netflix, we were now able to watch on television. And the roku has a channel "store," which lets you download internet channels to play on your television. In addition to Hulu and Netflix, we downloaded a few free movie channels, Pandora, a yoga video channel, the MLB network, and Amazon Instant Prime.
This is usually the point at which people start asking about how the cost works. So, here's the deal. You buy the roku box outright. We paid $80 for ours, and that's it. There's no monthly fee - you just own the device. And there's no fee to download the particular channels you choose. So the fees that you pay are the ones that you would pay to a service provider, like Hulu or Netflix. We have the Netflix channel, so in order to access our streaming movies on the Netflix channel, we still pay Netflix. We upgraded to HuluPlus, which means we pay Hulu, and the same for the MLB network and Amazon Instant Prime (we pay per download, not per month).
But, our monthly costs have actually gone down as a result of that one $80 investment. We use to pay about $100 per month for cable (through Comcast), including the DVR. We paid for two separate Netflix accounts that we had both maintained after moving in together, so that came to about $30 per month. The MLB network was $200 per season through Comcast. And we would occasionally purchase a Comcast movie through their on-demand program, usually for $4.99. So, assuming we bought one Comcast movie per month and we spread the MLB network cost across 12 months, before the roku, we paid about $151 per month for our television and movie watching. Steep!

When we quit getting cable, we dropped $100 from our monthly expenses (we still pay minimally for our internet connection). And though we upgraded to HuluPlus, which costs $7.99/mth, we reduced our Netflix subscriptions as a result. We didn't combine them (don't be crazy - a happy couple is a couple with separate Netflix accounts), but we each reduced the number of movies that we get and now get streaming on only one account, since that's the one we have set up on the roku. So now we only spend about $20 per month on Netflix. And the cost for the MLB network is reduced to $120 if you purchase it for the internet and not through Comcast. We still buy the occasional movie for $3.99, but now it's through Amazon Instant Prime. So, using the same formula as above, our monthly television and movie watching bill is now $42. That's a savings of $109 per month and a little less than $1400 per year! That's plane tickets for a honeymoon, my friends.

Of course, we had to drop the $80 for the roku, but we've had it for more than a year, so even if you added in that cost as a monthly fee for the first year, we've obviously more than made our money's worth. And we've done it while watching all the shows we love on our television rather than on a tiny computer screen in our laps where we often had to use headphones to hear well enough.
It's been fabulous for me because I have a particular penchant for 80s television, and with the Netflix and Hulu channels, I can watch all the Murder She Wrote, Cosby Show, and Doogie Howser that I can stand. And I just know they'll put Little House on the Prairie on streaming soon. I just know they will.

But rarely is anything perfect, and you probably want all the info before you decide whether buying a roku is right for you.

Here are the major cons in my book:

First, because the roku works off the internet in your house, when the internet goes out, so does the roku. Our last apartment had kind of finicky wi-fi, so we had some frustrating evenings of sitting down to watch a movie and discovering that the internet was on the fritz. If you know your internet isn't reliable, then that could be a major factor for you. Because ours was okay the vast majority of the time, it was something we could live with. And who knows whether our cable would've been out too?

Second, if you get the roku in lieu of cable, you only get to watch (on your television) the current television shows that are on Hulu or HuluPlus. Almost everything we want to watch is on there, but there are a few exceptions. For instance, the current season of Downton Abbey is available on but not on Hulu or HuluPlus. And there's no PBS channel, so I can't watch that on the roku. It's not too big a deal because it's available on the internet. But I have missed some network programming, like awards shows, and parades. These things are obviously not on Hulu, and they don't stream on the internet. The loss of these programs hasn't been enough to prompt us to get cable since the cost savings are so great. And it certainly wouldn't make us give up the roku since we get so much flexibility with our other shows from that. But with the upcoming summer Olympics, we're thinking we might try out an antenna to see if we can get a few basic channels.

Third, sometimes Hulu lists shows on its website that actually play through the station website, such as House Hunters on HGTV. Because those shows are not actually available through Hulu, they won't be available on the roku. If there's a show that you know you're going to desperately want to watch on the big screen, it might make sense to do a little internet research before you buy.

And finally, we didn't really know which roku box to buy. When we bought, there were 3 options (now there are 4), and we felt like the website didn't give much guidance as to why you might choose one over the other (aside from price). After asking around and getting no clear answers from anyone we knew who had a roku, we just took the middle-of-the-road approach. We've been happy with ours, but we're still not sure whether we would've been just as pleased with the cheaper version or if the more expensive one would be serving us better.

Even with those few flaws, we basically couldn't be happier with the roku. I love that it's saving us money while allowing us to watch television in the way that we really want to: on our own terms. There's a part of me that misses the days when we got excited for Tuesday night because that's when Doogie Howser was on. But truthfully, those days are gone. And, for my money, it didn't make sense to keep paying for something that didn't work with our busy lives. Now I get excited for Saturday mornings, which is when we eat pancakes and watch Parenthood on Hulu, pausing the episode every 5 minutes or so to discuss and critique the choices everyone's making.

I'll also put in a caveat here that the roku has been a great money-saving tool for us, but we know a lot of folks who have a roku along with their cable just because they love the flexibility it provides and the ability to watch internet streaming programs on the television.

So, should you buy a roku? Obviously, that's for you to decide based on your television-watching habits. But if you enjoy watching television and movies, I would definitely recommend it. The roku combines the flexibility of watching on the internet with the viewing experience of watching on your television, and I think it's a winning mix.