Roku HD – The Future of TV

I bought my wife a Roku HD for Christmas.  She works out of town and wanted Netflix streaming for her little apartment.  Before the Roku HD left the house forever, I thought I’d play with it and see how it compared to my Netflix streaming on my LG BD390 Blu-Ray player.  In a way, I wished I hadn’t, because now I hate my LG BD390 Netflix streaming.

If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have bought the LG BD390.  I spent $100 over my budget to get the highly rated LG BD390 because it had wireless-N built in and Netflix.  The BD390 is great for playing Blu-Ray discs, but has been less than spectacular for Netflix and wireless.  I would have been better off buying a basic Blu-Ray player and the Roku HD, spending the same as I had on the LG BD390.  But I might not even agree with this decision by next Christmas.

I hooked up both the Roku HD and BD390 to the same wired Ethernet.  The BD390 has never liked my Linksys WRT160N version 1 router – but that’s Cisco’s fault.  Cisco won’t update the original model of this router and it needs it.  I mention these annoying tribulations because anyone buying network devices to add to their TV need to be prepared for pitfalls and aggravations.  However, even after I hardwired my den, the BD390 would not consistently work well with Netflix.  My internet reception was usually one half of the gauge or a little over.  On rare occasions I got HD reception and things looked fantastic.  I keep waiting for a BD390 update that would tweak its Netflix feature, but so far I’ve been living with average quality Netflix streaming.

I set up the Roku HD, which was a complete snap.  It’s a tiny device, weighing just ounces.  (Here’s a peak inside the older model.)  I’ve been watching an episode of Farscape every night, streamed via Netflix through my BD390, so I decided to look at the next episode on the Roku HD.  I got 4 dot reception, that’s Roku talk for their streaming quality meter, the highest level of streaming.  I was overwhelmed by how much better the image was over the LG.  On the BD390 I assumed the show was old and the visuals were crude.  But no!  On the Roku HD the make-up, costumes, and sets are gorgeous.   And my wife leaves this weekend taking the Roku HD with her!  Bummer.

This morning I got up and played with the Roku Channel Store and found all kinds of extra content (Mediafly, Twit.tv, Revision3, etc.)  Techie shows I love that drives my wife from the room.  I was amazed by how good Internet TV content looked on my 52” HDTV.  Since I’m already planning on building a HTPC that would replace my BD390, I’m now worried that anything I build won’t be equal to the elegant little Roku box.

Now take all of my enthusiasm for the Roku HD with a grain of salt.  Go to the Roku Forums to read about other people’s experiences.  Not everyone is getting 4 dot reception.  Many fight with bad network connections, rebooting Roku boxes, bad updates, etc.  Also, remember, generally only users with a problem come to the forums to begin with, so we don’t know how many people have fantastic out-of-the-box luck like I did.

But I am in trouble.  I don’t want to watch Netflix streaming on my LG BD390 anymore.  It’s a shame that Farscape isn’t on Blu-Ray, but for now I just put the DVDs into my queue and I’ll be networking the show via USPS mail.  I would jump over to Amazon and order another Roku HD, but I want to wait and see if I can build a HTPC that does a better job instead.  The Roku HD box has a very tiny chip to process the Internet video stream, so I’m wondering if a powerful CPU and GPU can do a better job.  Watching the same episode streamed through my computer looks way better than the BD390, but not as good as the Roku HD, but that might be because I’m sitting twenty inches away from the LCD monitor and I’m sitting ten feet from my HDTV.  Like I said, everything is very iffy with Internet TV watching.  Twit.tv looked fantastic blown up to a 52” HDTV via the Roku HD box, but it looks just as great on my computer.

Actually, I’m struck with the overwhelming impression that the Roku HD box foretells the future of TV.  We watched a HD movie over the Roku box and maybe it wasn’t Blu-Ray 1080p quality, but the illusion was damn close.  I gave up Comcast cable to live with over-the-air broadcasts and Netflix and I’ve been very happy.  If I could get all my TV from a little box like the Roku I would.  I’d give up DVDs and Blu-Ray discs too.  In my post about building an HTPC I wanted to reduce my entertainment center from 5 electronic devices connected to my Samsung HD to one. 

If that one device could be something the size of the Roku box that would be even more elegant, but obviously, the solution is to put the little Roku circuit board inside of the TV and have just a TV and sound bar, and even then, why can’t they build a great sound bar into the TV too?  You can see where this is going.  A flat panel on the wall with a power cord and an Ethernet cable.  No HD antenna, cable or satellite cable, and if wireless improved, the future TV wouldn’t even need an Ethernet cable.  While I’m wishing, if they could also take the small circuit board from my Roku SoundBridge M1001 that streams music, and put it inside the TV too, we’d really be living in the future.

In other words, maybe I should hold off on building my HTPC.  By Christmas 2010 or 2011 such a simple elegant TV solution might show up on the market.  There are already TVs out with built-in Internet access, but they are limited.  Obviously, such an Internet TV will bring about a tremendous paradigm change in the TV business.  The Netflix model, of one monthly fee to watch exactly what you want to watch, and only that, is too powerful to ignore.  Why pay big bucks to cable and satellite providers for 250 channels you don’t watch?  Why hassle with HD antennas if the Internet provides better reception.  Why buy DVDs and Blu-Ray discs and mess with storing them when Netflix will do all the work for you?

The Netflix model for video and the Rhapsody model for music should be the standard for the future, but will the content providers allow so many revenue streams to be dammed up?  Will the Roku box change the TV world?  If on-demand streaming content can approach the visual quality of Blu-Ray, why not?

JWH – 12/30/9