Roku 2 review: The one to watch
Repeat after me: I must not watch an entire TV series in one sitting.
Back when DVDs were all the rage, spending the best part of a day staring at a television screen required some minor investment of energy. You did, occasionally, have to get out of your seat to change discs. Now, thanks to streaming devices such as the Roku 2, being lazy has never been easier: you can access countless movies, TV series and albums without even having to get off the sofa.
Roku has been in the media-streaming game for some time now – redesigned for 2015, the new Roku 2 slots neatly into the middle of its range. While the Roku Streaming Stick appeals to those wanting a tiny, cheap streaming device that disappears behind a TV, the Roku 2 takes the more powerful hardware from the Roku 3 and slashes the price from £100 down to £70.
Many of the features you’d want, or indeed expect, are still present and correct. There’s a single HDMI socket on the rear, which supports TVs up to 1080p in resolution, and networking is covered by the pairing of dual-band 802.11n wireless and an Ethernet socket. That’s not all: the Roku 2 also has a microSD slot and a USB 2 port for watching locally stored media on the big screen.
Hook up the Roku 2 to your broadband connection and there’s no shortage of content to get stuck into. Roku touts support for 1,400 streaming channels, and while a significant number of those are no-name filler, most of the big names you’d expect are on the list. Netflix, Google Play, Now TV, BBC iPlayer, Spotify and YouTube all make the grade, and the streaming services for ITV, Channel 4 and Five are all there, too.
The only notable absentee here is Amazon Instant Video. While Amazon’s services are available on Roku devices in the US, the UK hasn’t been so lucky. And if the numerous forum threads scattered across the internet are to be believed, it doesn’t sound like that’s going to change anytime soon. Could it be due to an exclusivity deal with Sky’s Now TV streaming service? Very possible. In any case, those tied into Amazon’s services would currently be wise to look elsewhere for their media-streaming kicks.
Slashing the price by £30 means that some of the fancier features from the Roku 3 have gone missing. For starters, the Roku 2 uses a basic, infrared remote control rather than the souped-up RF model from the Roku 3. There’s no microphone for built-in voice search, no motion control for compatible games, and the remote’s headphone jack has gone, too, so you can’t plug in a pair of headphones for late-night music listening or movie watching.
In practice, the remote control is fiddly. We noted a laggy, sticky feel even from around a foot away, and the infrared technology makes it necessary to point it directly at the box for it to function. That means you can’t hide the Roku 2 behind your TV. In my home setup, where the Roku 2 was sitting off to the right of a projection screen, I had to constantly remember to point the remote in the right direction. It was far more pernickety than my other IR remotes.
Thankfully, there is a solution. One easy fix is to place the Roku 2 in a more central position and simply put up with the subpar remote control, but there is another option: it’s also possible to download the Roku app to iOS, Android, Windows Phone and Windows 8.1 devices and use the app’s built-in remote-control functions. I downloaded the Roku app on my iPhone 6 Plus, and this provided lag-free remote-control functions, as well as the ability to use the onscreen keyboard for easier typing.
It speaks volumes about the quality of the Roku’s interface that this didn’t ruin the experience. Setup is wonderfully straightforward: simply connect to a local network and use the generated code to activate the Roku from any internet-connected device nearby. At this point you add your payment details, since some channels and games cost extra.
Next, it’s simply a case of choosing which streaming apps and services to install. During setup, you get to choose from the big names such as Netflix and Now TV. Thereafter, adding extra services is done by flicking through Roku’s Channel Store, selecting which you want, installing them.
Paid-for services such as Netflix and Google Play require you to login with your account details, which is something of a button-prodding faff with the remote control, but you only need to do it once. That done, you can hop in and out of the various channels and goggle to your heart’s content.
In the US, the Roku’s Universal Search function is its killer feature. The concept is alluring: want to find a particular movie or TV series? Type in the name and Roku provides a list of which streaming services sell/rent it and for how much. Want to watch more movies from a particular director or catch up on films starring your favourite actor? No problem. Tap in the first couple of characters on the remote’s keypad and watch as the list of suggestions pings into view.
Universal Search works well in the US, because most of the major services support it; in the UK, however, only Netflix and SnagFilms are in that group. If others join, such as Now TV and BBC iPlayer, it may prove useful. Right now it’s a waste of time.
There are other ways to get entertainment onto your TV. The Roku Media Player service can play media from connected USB devices or microSD cards, or stream content from devices on your home network. Third-party apps such as Plex can stream content to the Roku 2 from a home media server or compatible NAS device, even when you’re away from home. It’s a hugely flexible little device.
There is supposedly support for casting technologies, but this seems to work inconsistently across devices and apps. For example, I was able to cast from the YouTube app on Android and iOS, but not from the Netflix app on either platform. Nor was I able to mirror the screen using Google’s integrated screen-casting feature, while Roku’s own remote-control app refused to let me use the Play To feature, suggesting I buy a newer device.
Despite this, if you can live without the nifty features afforded by the Roku 3’s souped-up remote control, the Roku 2 is a capable entertainer. You get the same library of streaming services and the same slick interface as its pricier sibling; for £70, that’s not to be sniffed at.
The lack of Amazon Instant Video will be a disappointment to fully paid-up Prime customers, and the sorry state of the Universal Search function is a missed opportunity. Roku needs to get more search partners onboard, and fast.
Yet, for all that, I’m resolutely upbeat about the Roku 2. In fact, it’s so tempting I’m considering dumping my Amazon subscription and going back to Netflix. It really is that good.