Susan Bigelow: After Satellite – One Year With Roku
A little over a year ago, after rising frustration with DirecTV’s cost and service, we decided to ditch the dish and buy a Roku for all our television needs.
The Roku, like AppleTV and a few other services, connects a television with online streaming services like Amazon, Hulu and Netflix. It’s an alternative to expensive cable or satellite services, made possible by the revolution in on-demand digital streaming.
Shutting off broadcast TV for the first time in our lives wasn’t an easy decision, but a few friends had tried it and liked it, so we figured we’d give it a shot to see if we could get all the entertainment we wanted through online streaming services. We used part of the money we saved to upgrade our internet speed so streaming would actually work, and got started.
The Roku model we bought was the basic version, the $49.99 Roku LT. We have older televisions, and HD streaming seemed like it would be a waste of money. I found the Roku a breeze to connect and set up. There are several default “channels,” which is how Roku describes the various services it works with, but plenty more that you can find through their channel store. You can add channels through the Roku website, or through the device itself. The remote is shockingly simple, and you can get a free app which turns any smartphone into a remote. This is especially useful if your cat keeps blocking the table the Roku is sitting on, since the smartphone works through the wireless network instead of needing line-of-sight.
We even bought a second Roku LT for the TV we put in our basement, where our exercise equipment is. It was easy enough to associate it with our Roku account and sign in to all of our services, and now we can watch hockey while we exercise.
The picture coming through our TV is surprisingly good. We upgraded to a much faster internet speed, currently a blistering (for us) 12Mbps, which was the best AT&T could offer in our area. This involved ditching our old DSL and installing some new cables here and there. However, getting rid of the massive tangle of fiber-optic cables that the DirecTV service had used was more than worth it.
We also tend to have fewer service interruptions than when we had satellite. The internet is rarely down in our area, and it’s nice not to lose picture when there’s a heavy storm or when the wind blows and a limb of our neighbor’s tree blocks the satellite signal.
We use a combination of Amazon and Netflix for almost every actual show or series we want to watch. We’ve been Netflix members for many years, and our Amazon Prime membership gives us access to plenty of free streaming videos. We decided against Hulu, though if they pick up more shows that we want to watch we may reconsider. We also heavily use sports streaming services from MLB and the NHL; most nights we’ll have a hockey or baseball game playing. We picked up a few extra channels here and there, but we rarely watch them.
The Year in Review
We’ve been able to do pretty much anything we had with our old satellite service, with a couple of exceptions. It’s very cool to have access to the massive library of older shows on Amazon and Netflix, and we’ve been working our way through some old favorites. For a currently running series we usually buy Amazon’s season pass, which makes the newest episodes available shortly after they air. These are automatically purchased and downloaded to our account, much like setting a DVR to record an entire season of a show.
Some services just aren’t available, however. There is currently no easy way to watch movies and shows in the iTunes library, but there’s not that much out there that we’re interested in which is exclusive to iTunes. We don’t use iTunes in any case; if we’d had a large iTunes library then we probably would have considered the more expensive AppleTV instead.
There was also no legal way for us to watch the Olympics through the TV or our computers because of NBC’s complicated streaming arrangement; a cable or satellite TV account was required to stream anything. I’m hoping NBC smartens up about this for Sochi next year, since we’re willing to throw big pots of money at them to be able to watch figure skating, but I’m not holding my breath.
Another thing that’s hard to find is live TV news coverage. The cable news networks don’t have Roku channels, or at least not useful ones. NBC News launched a channel, but it was just clips and podcasts instead of actual live content. I did find an Al-Jazeera channel which apparently does run the live content from Al-Jazeera English. This isn’t terrible, but I’d love to have, say, CNN or a local news station like WFSB. I tried the Roku Newscaster channel, but it doesn’t have a lot of content and I haven’t been back to it since the first time.
This is incidental, however, as I get most of my breaking news through Twitter (I have a massive list of political journalists and news services—I rarely miss anything) and it’s not hard to stream important events through my laptop. It’s still interesting how owning a Roku and being cut off from cable news has made my consumption of news and analysis far more dependent on written stories and short video.
Despite these drawbacks, Roku has by and large met our TV-watching needs. It’s far more convenient than even the DVR was, and the internet has taken the place of our former DVD and VHS library. It can be frustrating when internet service is slow or a particular show or event isn’t available, but 95% of the time it’s just as simple as deciding what to watch and watching it. The Roku has also saved us a significant amount of money. We saved enough by not paying for satellite that we were able to upgrade our internet speed and have plenty left over to buy content every month.
At this point I’m a convert. I was a little hesitant to cut the cord at first, but I’m very glad we did. We both hope that this is a first step towards a future where all entertainment is truly pick-and-choose instead of doled out by providers. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to give life without cable or satellite a try.