Be honest. How many of the hundreds upon hundreds of cable TV channels do you actually watch? A dozen? Fifty? More?
My guess is for most consumers, it's closer to the smaller number than the big one. Which is why many of them are taking a long look at their ever-rising cable bills and asking "Do I really need to pay the big bucks for all of these channels I never watch?"
In the old days, if you wanted to ditch cable, you were pretty much stuck with whatever you could pull off the air with an antenna on top of your house. Today, the Internet gives you almost as many options as those bloated cable TV packages, for a lot less money.
There are lots of ways to get that content from the Internet to your TV, but one of the easiest comes in the form of a small black box at little more than 3-inches square. It's called Roku and is one of the hottest tickets in town for those looking to cut the cable.
Roku comes in several configurations, ranging in price from $50 to $100, and supports more than 600 "channels" of music, news and entertainment. But these "channels" aren't like the ones you get on cable. They are individual packages of services and must be downloaded and run as an app would be on a smartphone.
Some, such as Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon, provide an all-you-can-eat buffet of movies and TV shows for a fixed monthly fee, usually less than $10 a month. Others, like Vudu, sell individual movies or TV shows -- similar to the pay-per-view options on cable. And some, thankfully, are free.
There is a lot to sort out here and the complex matrix of services may turn off some consumers. But the wide range of choices is also the appeal of Roku, since it empowers consumers to choose and pay for only what they watch. Or not pay anything at all if they are willing to settle for what the free services provide.
I have spent a couple of weeks playing with a top-of-the-line Roku 2 XS and was eager to determine whether one of these things really is an alternative to full-blown cable.
My conclusion: Maybe.
It really depends on what you want to watch and how willing you are to deal with complexities associated with juggling multiple Internet content providers.
Let's exclude one big group of folks right away: football fans. Roku has almost nothing to do with live TV and does not provide live TV coverage of college or NFL games. If you are hot to watch live sports and need those dozens of cable-only sports channels to catch your favorite college or NFL teams in action, Roku is not for you.
For everyone else -- that means anyone willing to get his or her live TV coverage via basic cable or a TV antenna -- Roku might just be the ticket.
The most economical approach is to rely on free channels. Services like Crackle, for example, stream a raft of old TV shows (if you can endure the ads). Public Television and most of the major TV networks offer free news channels on Roku. These are usually a collection of recent but previously aired interviews and features. Some are hybrids, like CNBC, which provides a live stock market ticker along with recorded interviews and commentary, usually from that day.
The next step up is to opt for an all-you-can-eat service like Netflix or Hulu Plus. I don't have those, but I do have Amazon Instant Videos, part of a $79-a-year service, which offers a mountain of older movies and TV shows. Recent movies and current episodes of nearly every TV show made also are available -- for a price.
This is where it can get expensive, since individual TV show episodes usually go for a minimum of $1.99 or more if you want to watch in HD. Movies can cost up to $6 each on some services if you want the sharpest HD picture and best sound. All Roku boxes support HD, but the cheapest one outputs a minimal 720p in stereo instead of the 1080p/Dolby Digital combination supported by HDTV (and the Roku2 XS). The cheapest Roku boxes are also wi-fi only. The $100 Roku 2 XS has wi-fi and an Ethernet port for direct connection to the Internet, which ensures more trouble-free streaming.
Speaking of which, I had very few problems with the streaming experience. A few programs stalled out during the two weeks I used Roku, but most played flawlessly using a direct Ethernet connection. In my experience, wi-fi connections tend to be much less reliable. If you plan to go wireless, run a few tests first using a wi-fi laptop in the same location as your TV. A 10mbs connection is required for the highest resolution HD movies.
The only other caveat I have is that Roku is merely a means to an end, not an-all-in-one solution. That means you must sign up for each service individually, a sometimes cumbersome system where you have to juggle a PC at the same time you are using your Roku and TV, since registration information and access codes must be entered using the provider's web site. In other words, the tech-challenged need not apply.
I also am not wild about the remote control. It works well enough and even contains motion sensors along the lines of the Nintendo Wii. (Roku 2 XS comes with the popular Angry Birds game). But the remote works on a radio frequency rather than the more common infrared, which means my Harmony One unified remote does not work with the Roku. I have to juggle two remotes now.
Be aware that many modern high-end HDTVs have something similar to Roku built in. They are called Internet TVs (or Smart TVs) and provide access to some of the same streaming services available on Roku. But the user interface may not be as user-friendly as Roku's and the number of available channels will be much smaller.
Apple TV is another option for those heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem. It is similar to Roku, in looks, price and functionality, but is more closely tied to content offered by Apple.
Tony Briggs has been writing about technology issues in the Daytona Beach area for more than 20 years.