Once upon a time our TVs were humble devices that offered a meek selection of programmes that started in the afternoon and closed before midnight. Instead of spending their time watching a barrage of poorly made reality shows families would gather around the fire and listen to stories read from the big book of idyllic, bygone lifestyles. The children would then reitre to bed after a healthy cigarette and dream of adventures that contained little real violence and no advertisements every fourteen minutes. Surely this was a glorious age…
Today things have changed…rather a lot. With satellite and cable services now broadcasting hundreds of stations into our homes twenty four hours a day it can be hard to even find something to watch under the weight of choice. Children dribble in zombie-like fashion while Disney remove their desire to achieve academic greatness and replace it with the essential thing in life – to believe. Although what to believe in is never actually stated. Possibly friends, or castles, or friendly castles? Meanwhile the adults slowly lose their wills to think thanks to a never ending supply of X-Factor, morbid soaps, and various semi-famous people eating worms in forests in the desperate hope to once again be even more semi-famous. It’s all a bit much.
One of the most pressing problems though is that television is getting expensive. Whereas many of the shows mentioned above are essentially free on the public networks here in the UK, to get the premium shows that are actually worth watching like Game of Thrones, Dexter, Castle, The Walking Dead and suchlike you need one of the packages offered by Sky or Virgin. Initially these seem like good deals but slowly they creep up the price. Want HD? That’s £10 more. How about films? £16. The newest films? That’s £4 per rental on top of your existing package. Sports? Ha ha ha, let’s just see if you can remortgage your house first.
After being a customer with Sky for several years I’ve recently decided that enough is enough and I want out. The thing is I don’t need to see all the latest shows when they first air. If I can save some money, and time to do other things like writing, then all the better. But once you’ve had the banquet can you go back to the microwave meals? Well, yes…with a little help.
The little thing I have in mind is called a Roku, and it’s pretty damn cool. This tiny device is about the same size as a set of coasters and through various forms of electrical sorcery turns your dumb TV into a smart one. By simply connecting an ethernet cable to your wireless router and then plugging the other end into the Roku you can have access to many of the internet based services available. There’s no fee and as the Roku 2 XS here has now been superseded by the Roku 3, you can probably pick one of these great little devices up for around £80.
Once the unit is plugged in to the router, and attached to your TV via an HDMI cable, you can stream older movies from the various channels on offer. These are not premium services to be sure, but you can find a fair few 80s films that are still a good watch and some older classics that are well worth your time. If you’re into video podcasts (and there are now a surprising amount of good, free ones online) then you’ll be able to find many of them with their own free apps that can be downloaded from the Channel store. There’s also the BBC’s excellent iPlayer service built in, which is never a bad thing.
Admittedly the free selection is somewhat basic, and the clunky interface that the box employs can get on your nerves quite quickly in spite of the very cool and comfortable controller that comes in the box. But…there are a couple of jewels in this diminutive crown. Netflix is a very good streaming service that allows you to watch an impressive amount of TV series and a fair few films for only £6 per month. The Roku streams the content perfectly and in HD where possible. This combination means that you can watch some excellent shows such as the aforementioned Dexter, and big hits such as Breaking Bad, The Killing (a personal favourite – the Danish one not the terrible US remake), The Office (US), Arrested Development, Jonathan Creek, Firefly, and a whole host of other comedies and crime dramas for less than a couple of pints every month. What’s more you can watch them in order and in any amount you chose – so no waiting for next week’s episode. Compulsive, obsessive personalities of the world rejoice! Netflix also has it’s own exclusive series called House of Cards which stars Kevin Spacey as is a truly masterful look at the darker side of American politics.
Alongside that is the ability for the Roku to play digital copies of films via a USB stick. So if you want to save space in your house just rip your DVDs onto a hard drive (there are plenty of tutorials online to show how easy this is) and then store the physical copies in the bike-shed, loft, or wherever. If the urge to watch Pretty in Pink or Inception arises, all you need do is simply pop a thumbdrive into the Roku and press play. Easy.
It might be a bit rough around the edges in the interface department, but the Roku 2XS has it where it counts. It’s a great little unit that, when paired with Freeview or Freesat, could give you all the entertainment you need for a lot less money than you currently pay.