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What the Heck is a Roku (or Apple TV or Amazon Fire) and Why Do I Need One?

Dan Tynan

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.

What the Heck is a Roku (or Apple TV or Amazon Fire) and Why Do I Need One?

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).

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Meet the Amazon Fire TV set top and Google’s Chromecast dongle.

These devices fall into two basic types: wallet-sized boxes that cost roughly $100 and connect to your set via an HDMI cable, and cheaper “thumb drive” dongles that cost $35 to $50 and plug directly into your TV’s HDMI ports (Chromecast, Roku Streaming Stick).

Roku also makes boxes that use composite (red/white/yellow) cables to work with older sets that lack an HDMI port. All new flat-screen TVs have HDMI. Older tube TVs do not.

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Front and rear views of the $70 Roku 2. (Roku)

For the major differences between them, see “Features Compared: Amazon Fire TV Battles Roku, Chromecast, and Apple TV for the Soul of Your Set.”

How do these suckers work?
All of these devices require an Internet connection of at least 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps), and up to 8 Mbps if you want to watch programs in HD. The 1.5 megabit speed is available on almost every DSL and cable connection (but not always on satellite). You generally need cable or fiber for 8 Mbps.

They typically connect to WiFi networks so you can put them anywhere in your house.

Each device contains a processor, a wireless antenna, and enough memory to temporarily store programs as they stream down the wire, so your shows aren’t constantly interrupted whenever your Internet connection has the hiccups (though that sometimes still happens). You can also plug the boxes directly into your router or modem via an Ethernet cable for a more stable connection.

How do I tell them what I want to watch?
All of the boxes and the Roku Streaming Stick come with a small remote that lets you navigate video and music “channels” (sometimes called apps) via an intuitive interface. Chromecast works a little differently. There is no remote, and instead of a central interface you use the controls inside individual apps on your phone or tablet to “cast” the content onto your TV.

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Roku offers more than 1,200 channels to choose from, most of them obscure. (Roku)

But it’s not like turning on the set and flipping through 300 cable channels until you find something worth watching. You need to pick the services you want to watch and log into them first before you can go all couch potato, and there are some things you simply can’t get, like 24/7 cable news networks.

So I buy the box and get all these channels for free, right?
Not exactly. Some channels are ad-supported and free, some require a monthly subscription fee, some charge a fee and show you ads, and some charge you by each show you rent or buy. Typical prices are $1 to $3 per hourlong show, $4 or more for 24- to 48-hour movie rentals, and $13+ if you want to put the flicks in your permanent library.

The good news? Roku lets you search across the major video-on-demand channels by title, actor, director, or genre, so if the same show is available on multiple channels, you can pick the cheapest one. Amazon Fire TV ups the ante by letting you do the same search using just your voice, but it requires a small extra step to see content from sources other than Amazon’s. And, of course, Amazon Instant Video is often a more expensive way to watch shows.

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Amazon Fire TV lets you find shows by speaking their names into the remote. Really. (Amazon)

Do I really need a set-top box to watch Internet video?
Yes and no. You can get to most of the major services — Netflix, Amazon Video, iTunes, Pandora, Hulu Plus — on the web, on your computer or mobile device. In fact, there’s some content (particularly on Hulu) that you can access only via a computer, because the video service doesn’t own the rights to send it to your set-top box.

Still, there are many channels that are available only via a streaming device. And in any case, it’s a lot easier and more comfortable to watch this stuff on the big screen from the comfort of your couch.

What about sports?
Are you a big sports fan? That’s one area where these devices tend to fumble. You’d have to pony up hundreds of dollars for annual subscriptions to professional baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer channels; even then, there are a lot of exceptions for local blackouts and games carried by the major TV networks. And there is no NFL channel yet on any of the boxes.

Then there are some channels you can access only if you already have a working cable or satellite account, such as ESPN Watch, HBO GO, or Showtime Anytime. It somewhat defeats the purpose of having a set-top box, but the cable companies will do anything they can to keep you from cutting their cord.

Bottom line: Can I really use any of these things to cut the cord?
It depends on what you like to watch. If you’re a big fan of live TV events, sports, daytime television, shopping channels, and the 24/7 cable news circus, probably not.

If you like nothing better than to binge on episodes of Breaking Bad or Dexter until your eyes bleed, and/or you hate paying ginormous cable bills for a lot of crap you have no intention of watching, then you’re an excellent candidate for one.

You may also be able to supplement your set-top video habit with over-the-air channels and other options. Look for more about that in a future Modern Family column.

OK, final question: Will using Amazon Fire TV turn you into a crazy old coot who talks to inanimate objects?
Yes, but only if you’re Gary Busey.