Roku review: An inexpensive Internet fun box

The Internet streaming device doesn’t do much that’s new, but it does do a lot. And it’s cheap.

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Roku is coming to Canada on April 30, but I’ve already had a few days to play with the Internet streaming device, and I’ll admit that, at first, I was skeptical. With so many devices already connected to my TV, I wasn’t sure the Roku would provide much in the way of new. Indeed it doesn’t. Most of its “channels” are basically apps that can be streamed to your TV in other ways, but it does put a lot of stuff in one place with a nice, simple user interface.

The Roku isn’t like Apple TV, PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. It’s not intended to sell movie or TV episodes. Instead, its built to stream much of what the Internet already has to offer.

One of the first channels I installed and launched was Flickr, so that I could see what my recent wedding photos looked like on a TV. In many cases, the channels require you to first authorize your Roku on your computer through the app’s respective website. So if you load Rdio, for example, the Roku directs you to the music streaming service’s website, where you punch in a code. From there, the Roku automatically launches the service. Simple enough. Flickr and my photos, by the way, worked and looked great.

Roku is launching in Canada with around 100 channels, with promises to quickly grow that closer to the 450 that U.S. users get. But even with fewer channels for now, it still has plenty on offer.

The real-time news channels from The Wall Street Journal and CNBC host high-definition video, so it’s almost like getting a free CNN replacement. Facebook, Flickr, Weather Underground, recipe channels and various Internet radio stations are all there at no cost as well.

Indeed, many of the channels on the Roku are free, but it’s also easy to spend a bundle through it. You have to punch in your credit card details when activating the device, in case you want to buy any of the paid apps, most of which are games—more on that in a second. Many of the channels, however, only work if you’re a paid subscriber. Netflix, one of Roku’s most popular channels, is of course a paid subscription service.

The only channel I had problems with was Facebook, where I kept getting error messages. I checked with Roku to see if this was a common issue, but apparently not—it might be an issue with my unit or account. On the plus side, having tried Facebook on my TV through other devices, it’s probably not something I’d want to use my Roku for anyway.

The slightly higher-end Roku 2 XS, the one I tested, comes with a Nintendo Wii-like motion remote control for playing games. Playing Angry Birds on a big screen with a motion controller (which you could already do if you have a Wii) as opposed to a touch screen is pretty cool. I didn’t try any of the other games, mostly because I’m a cheapskate and didn’t want to spend money to download them. There are a bunch, though, including game shows such as Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!

The Roku doesn’t technically have the ability to stream media from a computer, which in this day and age seems backward. Fortunately, there’s a free downloadable channel that allows for streaming from a USB key. You can thus copy music, photos and videos from a computer onto a stick and plug it into the device. The only issue I found with this app is that it’s incapable of playing the popular .avi video file format. With any luck, this will be fixed either through updates or by additional channel apps.

The Roku is ultimately a curious device. It has some limitations and doesn’t do much that’s new, but it does do a lot—and it does it well. With a low price—the Roku 2 HD is only $89 while the Roku 2 XS is $109— it’s a worthwhile pick-up for anyone who does a lot of web surfing, or for people who want to get entertainment on their TV without having to subscribe to cable or satellite. However, if you’ve already got a ton of other streaming devices under your TV, you’re probably already covered.

UPDATE: For anyone who’s wondering, here’s a full list of the Canadian channels available at launch: Movies & TV: Netflix, Crackle, Crunchyroll, Revision 3, Flixster, Chow, Movie Vault, Pub-D-Hub, HouseofHorrors, WealthTV (free and paid), Break, Classic Westerns, EWTN. News & Weather: WSJ, CNBC, Fox, CNET, WeatherUnderground. Music: Classical TV, Rdio, Tunein Radio, MP3Tunes, Radio Paradise, Soma fm. Sports: UFC, MLB.TV, NHL, MLS. Photos & Videos: Facebook, Vimeo, Flickr, Shutterfly, PicassaWeb, USB Media Player. Games: Rovio Angry Birds, Rovio Angry Birds Seasons, Rovio Angry Birds Rio, Jellyvision – YDKJ, Jellyvision – YDKJ lite, CobraMobile Storm in a Tea Cup, Noodlecake SuperStickmanGolf, Sony Jeopardy, Fieldrunners, Wheel of Fortune, CastleWarriors, Frisbee Forever, Downhill Bowling 2, Mouse About. Other: TEDtalks, TWiT TV, iFoodTV.

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