What the Heck is a Roku (or Apple TV or Amazon Fire) and Why Do I Need One?
If your TV has spent the past five or 10 years tethered to a cable or satellite service, blissfully unaware of the Internet video revolution that’s been brewing, it may be in for a bit of a surprise. Some of the world’s biggest tech companies — Amazon, Apple, and Google among them — want you to cut your TV’s ties to traditional cable and satellite, and instead hook it up to the firehose of Internet video, using an inexpensive device known as a set-top box.
So if you’re tempted by the notion of telling your current TV provider to take a hike, but you’ve never looked into set-top products like the Roku, Chromecast, Amazon Fire, or Apple TV, then pull up a chair and tune into this primer on Internet video.
What’s a set-top box, and why should I care?
Simply put, it’s a device that delivers Internet video to your TV. They’re called set-top boxes despite the fact that, as David Pogue points out in this video, they don’t actually sit on top of your set. A better name for them is “streaming media devices,” but only incurable geeks call them that.
The technology to bring Internet video to TV has been around since the 1990s, but until the past few years, it didn’t have much impact because there wasn’t much Internet video worth watching. Now nearly all mainstream movies and TV shows are available on Internet services like Amazon Instant Video, Apple’s iTunes Store, Google Play, and Netflix. You can also stream music with services like Pandora, iHeartRadio, and Spotify.
This is what Internet TVs looked like circa 1996. Cost: $4,000 (HDnux.com)
Theoretically, at least, these boxes allow you to ditch your ridiculously overpriced cable or satellite TV plans, pay à la carte for the shows you like, and watch them whenever you feel like it.
Sounds fabulous. Where can I get one of these things?
There are four leading makers of streaming media devices, most with misleading names.
One is a company called Roku, which is Japanese for the number six. (Roku is the sixth company started by its founder, Anthony Wood.) Then there are Apple TVs and Amazon Fire TVs (neither of which are televisions), and Google’s Chromecast, which sounds like something you’d do to an old Harley to keep it from rusting. Google is also rumored to be coming out with another video streaming box, allegedly called Android TV (also not a television).
Meet the Amazon Fire TV set top and Google’s Chromecast dongle.