The pre-stick Roku is a box that you connect to your television via a cable to stream entertainment from the Internet through various content providers. The Roku Streaming Box began as the first device to allow streaming of Netflix to your television, but now its lineup has grown to more than 1000 channels, including all the major streamers plus a number of relatively small niche and local channels. Some of the services, such as Netflix, HuluPlus, Amazon, HBO Go, Spotify and various sports apps, require paid subscriptions, while many others, including Crackle, Pandora and a large number of stations that provide news, international programming, music, public domain classics and similar content, are free. You can even rent movies and shows through some Roku apps. All the current models also allow you to send limited content from your phone to your TV via the Roku mobile app.
There are three set-top box models currently available through Roku's website (listed from lowest to highest price): Roku 1, Roku 2 and Roku 3. All three connect to the Internet via WiFi, play up to 1080p high-definition video and allow for 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound, but there are some notable differences. Roku 1's Wi-Fi is not dual-band. Roku 1 and 2 allow you to connect to your TV either via RCA cables (for analog stereo and 480p standard definition video) or an HDMI cable (for 720p or 1080p high-definition video and digital 5.1 or 7.1 surround audio pass through). Roku 3 requires an HDMI cable. Roku 1 comes with a basic remote, but the Roku 2 and 3 remotes include a headphone jack and 3's also includes motion-control for gaming. Roku 3 includes Ethernet for wired Internet connection and USB and microSD slots for external storage. Roku 3 also has a processor that's 5 times faster than the others and comes with "Angry Birds Space" preinstalled.
Unlike a DVR, the Roku doesn't store most of its content, but streams it directly, eliminating the need for large amounts of internal storage. Streaming via the device requires that you have high speed Internet, with recommended speeds of at least 1.5 Mbps for standard definition content and 3 Mbps for HD.
Setup and use are fairly easy. You connect the box to your TV via an A/V cable (included) or an HDMI cable (purchased separately, but required for HD quality playback), plug it into a power source, and control it with the simple battery-powered remote. There are a few steps to connect it to your home WiFi network (or optionally Ethernet, if you have the Roku 3) and to create a Roku account. You have to go to their Channel Store and pick whatever channels you want the option to view. You can then pick a channel from your list, browse its content and watch to your heart's content.
Many other devices stream online content to your TV these days, including other set-top boxes, most new Blu-Ray DVD players, DVRs, gaming systems, Smart TVs and even some HDMI-enabled home computers. But Roku stands out from most of its competitors for its affordability, intuitive user interface (UI) and number of available channels. They are a leader in the set-top box field, having sold millions of units to date. Roku is even working on a line of television sets with integrated Roku hardware and software [source: McCracken].
And now, with the new HDMI version of the Roku Streaming Stick, they will compete directly with the other new inexpensive stick streamer, the Chromecast. Continue reading to find out more about Roku's latest innovation.