Why Roku Sucks, And I Use It Every Day 9.5.2011

Using the Roku is a bit like reading a fantastic and exciting novel, only to have it end prematurely with a terrible cliché. Not that long ago, it wouldn't have been that bad. However, these days you can get a dedicated media computer and run an hdmi cable to your receiver for a couple hundred dollars. For many of us, you can even use your phone as a remote. If you're going to buy a dedicated device like this, with no control over the user experience, there had better be a really good reason.

The funny thing is, despite being rife with problems and feeling like a truncated user experience, I'm addicted to mine. I'll explain why after detailing some of the pros and cons.

Cons (in no particular order):

  • The authorization process is ridiculous. If anyone is in the same room during a purchase (or other authorization), they'll immediately know what your code is (you navigate to numbers and hit enter, hard to miss). I understand the limitations inherent in a remote that has no numbers on it but I think too much was sacrificed in the name of simplicity on this one. However, I might have been more comfortable if they went one step further and made the code be a sequence of directions (like an old NES cheat code). For instance, up, up, right, up, left, down, appearing as * * * * * * on the screen would be ok by me.
  • List navigation is terrible. Since we're limited to Netflix movies previously queued, I've usually got upwards of 150 items in my queue. Trying to move through that list makes me feel like I should take a nap while holding down the left or right button. They could have at least taken a lesson from cheap alarm clocks and sped up the rate when holding the button down. However, if the cover art isn't loaded yet (or it's not helpful), you've got a secondary issue of recognizing the item you're looking for... my next point.
  • Bad Netflix list display. A textual representation of titles other than the selected title should always be displayed while the thumbnail is in view. It doesn't matter if it's small or truncated, it's a necessary element of the scanning process when you're trying to move quickly through a large list.
  • You can't add new Netflix titles. This is a big fat duh, you should be able to shop for Netflix titles through the interface, not just work with titles already in your queue. At this point I wouldn't even care if it were as lame as the Amazon streaming interface for finding titles. That being said, it really should have: new releases, genres, friend list interface, search, cross-linking by writer, director, or actors, and all lists should be sortable by release date or stars.
  • The content is just too limited. There are pretty much only 3 things worth your time, Netflix, Pandora, Amazon streaming (only because I keep getting promo credits). Maybe MLB is valuable if you're a sports fan... but the rest of the stuff is total junk. I know Hulu is the "holy grail" and unlikely to happen any time soon but what about reaching out to Google for Youtube content? Getting some network to test out some overpriced content stream? Whipping some interns into cobbling together some feeds for popular online comic strips?
  • Half-hearted Flickr feed. It's great that you can stream stuff in higher definition than you can through a web page. However, the transitions are jarring, it cuts off the content instead of continuing to the end, and you can't stream music at the same time (tricky feature request maybe but it turns this into killer background when friends are by). Also, you should be able to control slide speed and info display options among other things.
  • Slow button responsiveness. Sluggish button response combined with action queue = accidental navigation. It's easy to go too far in navigating since the feedback isn't immediate. I often find myself accidentally choosing the channel store instead of Netflix because I hit a button too many times without realizing it.
  • Lots of wasted space. While the navigation is attractive, there are more effective, more information dense layouts that would work better for power users. I'd very much like this configurable. And, as a minor nit, don't fill up the empty space with a lame ad for something you already have. Seriously, I've already added the Pandora channel, you don't have to hit me in the face with a banner to tell me about it.
  • You can't reorder your channel listings. I keep a number of the channels in case I get bored enough to go fishing for content. However, I really want all of the things I use most often to bubble up to the left for ease of access.

Pros:

  • It's simple and pretty. The navigation is surprisingly intuitive and attractive. They do an excellent job of providing a fairly rich user experience with a handful of buttons in a tolerable form factor for a remote.
  • Excellent memory. It remembers the last selection in Netflix so you don't have to track down what title you were on. It also remembers where you are in a series and has a nice visual indicator for how much of any title you have completed watching.
  • It's High Def. Currently you can't get high(er) definition streaming Netflix content over your computer.
  • No display or interaction issues. It gives you a simple interface to Netflix streaming that can be navigated with a remote and doesn't cause obnoxious issues like:
    • Doing anything on your computer causes the full screen to go away.
    • Needing to do something on a different screen than the one displayed on your tv.
    • Having over or under scanning issues such that you lose screen real-estate or some of the content.
    • Having processor intensive activities on your computer that impact video playback.

So, why am I addicted to my Roku despite my laundry list of complaints? For the price of a decent dinner for two, you can add a ton of high quality content to your system in 5 minutes without any of the complexity of having a media computer. Moreover, there's nothing wrong with the hardware, a software update and some partnerships could solve nearly all of the apparent issues. It's not amazing but it's good enough to keep me from setting my computer up most of the time.

I'm interested to hear your thoughts, feel free to leave comments.