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Roku’s streaming channel wants to take on Amazon Prime.
Since the dawn of Netflix, Roku has seen the importance of being on the front line of the cord-cutting revolution. They were the first company to produce a device strictly for streaming Netflix and made its devices welcoming to new streaming upstarts. Roku even added private channels so users could make their own free services. What you may not know is that Roku has its own streaming platform to watch content, the Roku Channel, and it’s recently seen some major improvements with the addition of premium channels.
In a market so crowded with streaming services, does Roku Channel do enough to set itself apart? Here’s everything you need to know before you get started.
What is the Roku Channel?
Originally launched in September 2017, the Roku Channel is a free, ad-supported, streaming media service. Offering a mix of movies and TV shows across a wide range of genres, the Roku Channel will be instantly familiar if you’ve ever used a free service like Crackle. Where Roku Channel sets itself apart is the inclusion of live TV streaming and, as of January 2019, premium channels.
Movies and shows on the Roku Channel are lined up in a series of scrolling lists, so you can quickly find the genre of entertainment that you’re looking for. Once you’ve selected your program, hit enter on your remote, and start watching. Users can pause, rewind, and fast-forward during on-demand programming, but not live TV.
During free programming, Roku Channel will periodically interrupt your viewing to show you some ads. No one likes advertising, but as someone who has spent a great deal of time with other free ad-supported streaming services, Roku Channel’s restraint is appreciated. During a two-hour movie, you can expect six ad-breaks, each totaling about two minutes. During an hour-long TV show, you can expect three ad-breaks. Thankfully, unlike many other free streaming services, Roku Channel’s ads aren’t deafeningly louder than what you’re watching, either. The service also doesn’t pile long ads on top of other long ads. You’ll notice the breaks, but it never feels over the top.
When it comes to finding something to watch, the content breaks down into three buckets: live TV, free movies and shows, and premium content.
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1) Live TV on Roku Channel
Live TV stations are listed under the header “News, Sports, and Entertainment.” You’ll see a mix of broadcast and online programming. Thankfully, the live TV options include an impressive amount of news, with ABC, Yahoo!, Newsy Top Stories, and Newsmax.TV available to keep you informed. On the entertainment front, Roku Channel’s live TV options are similar to the leading free live TV service Pluto; expect to see familiar but not “broadcast familiar” names like America’s Funniest Videos, TMZ, Fail Army, and The Pet Collective. Finally, its sports content is a mix of talk, extreme sports, and gaming. Stadium offers live coverage of current sporting events, with an emphasis on college sports. Edge focuses on skating, BMX, and other traditional extreme sports, Combat Go showcases up and comers in the combat sports world, and WHAM spotlights gamers.
Compared to a pay cable package these live channels can’t compete, but if you’re working on a budget, these are solid live TV options. You can keep up with world events, watch funny videos, and enjoy some MMA all without paying a dime. Hopefully, Roku Channel will continue to develop this section of the service, but it’s already a value-added feature to an impressive free app.
2) Free movies and TV on Roku Channel
If live TV isn’t what you’re looking, for the Roku Channel still has hundreds of hours of entertainment awaiting. Movies and TV shows are grouped by genre for the most part, with series sitting next to films in the listings. This takes a little getting used to, but Hulu also sorts its content that way, and it’s easy enough to get used to.
Genres are hyper-specified and include both TV and movies in the same lists. There’s action, horror, fantasy, TV, award-winners, comedy, adventure, crime, science-fiction, historical dramas, etc. While Roku Channel doesn’t feature the same over the top sub-classes and secret codes as Netflix, there’s an impressive dedication to variety.
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No matter what kind of entertainment you’re looking for, Roku Channel probably has something for you. Serious dramas like The Master, Contact, and Finding Neverland stand proudly next to action hits like Terminator 3 and Platoon. TV content features a mix of sitcoms, reality shows, home improvement, syndicated sci-fi, and dramas. Even educational history shows make it into the mix. Featuring everything from smashes like Hell’s Kitchen and 3rd Rock from the Sun to guilty pleasures like Jerry Springer, Roku Channel serves up plenty of reasons to stay on the couch.
3) Premium subscriptions
On Jan. 28, Roku started rolling out premium channels like Starz and Showtime to Roku Channel. The idea is to turn Roku Channel into more of a hub like Amazon Video, where users can have all of their content bundled into one centralized location (and one bill).
At launch, Roku Channel will offer an eclectic lineup of 25 premium streaming channels, including EPIX, NOGGIN, Smithsonian Channel Plus, Viewster Anime, and more. The only catch is Roku Channel subscriptions can’t be used to log into the streaming apps of services like Showtime Anytime. At least at first, you’ll be locked to the Roku Channel app for streaming this premium content. That could change with time.
Users will be able to browse premium channels’ lineups before signing up, utilize free trials, signup with one-click, and bundle their subscriptions into a single monthly bill. Subscriptions will be rolled out across Roku devices slowly at first, with the feature expected to be available on all supported devices by the end of 2019. A Roku spokesperson noted that users will receive a 30-day free trial of Showtime or Epix if they sign up before March 31, 2019.
To be clear, users won’t save any money by subscribing to these services via Roku Channel. While a pricing list wasn’t available, a spokesperson clarified, “It is the same cost as on platforms- standard cost of channels.” What you’re paying for really is the convenience of having all of your streaming entertainment centralized in one place: Roku Channel.
Here are all of the premium subscriptions available on Roku Channel:
- Baeble Music
- CollegeHumor’s DROPOUT
- Fandor Spotlight
- The Great Courses Signature Collection
- Lifetime Movie Club
- Monsters and Nightmares
- Magnolia Selects
- Warriors & Gangsters presented by Magnolia Pictures
- MHz Choice
- Shout! Factory TV
- Smithsonian Channel Plus
- Stingray Karaoke
- Viewster Anime
Roku Channel devices
Initially, the Roku Channel was only available to users with Roku devices. All Roku owners already have the app pre-installed on their device. But Roku-less streaming fans can now watch the channel without a Roku device by using their web browser. I tested the site on a Mac laptop, iPad, Windows PC, and iPhone. In each case streaming was clear and navigation was easy.
Along with subscriptions, the company has announced plans to let viewers watch the Roku Channel on the Roku app. Currently, the Roku app works purely as a smart remote for Roku devices. With the upcoming update, the app will also allow users to streaming Roku Channel movies and shows on the go.
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Is Roku Channel worth it?
The addition of streaming subscriptions is an exciting one, but the Roku Channel was already a compelling streaming service. Unlike other free ad-supported streaming apps, Roku Channel offers a curated list of content you’d want to watch, from classic shows to Oscar winners. Yes, it has a lot of the same filler B-movies you’ve come to expect from ad-supported channels. What separates it from the pack is its outlier content of award-winning films and unsung modern classics like Battle Royal, Cake, and The Proposition.
The bottom line is Roku Channel’s free lineup features a surprisingly impressive selection of titles if you’re willing to dig and take a risk. Add to that the inclusion of actual live TV, albeit in a limited fashion, and Roku is making a serious play for eyes in the streaming world.
The most significant selling point for me, however, is the way it handles ads. In my hours of testing, the Roku Channel never once deafened me during an ad-break. Too often while watching a free-streaming service, the ads are 10 times louder than the program you’re watching. The drastic change in volume can range from annoying to absolutely jarring. Roku Channel’s standardized volume level kept ads from being something I dreaded to an accepted part of the experience.
With Roku’s planned expansion of the Roku Channel in the next year, now is the perfect time to give the app a shot. It may not be able to compete with Hulu or Netflix, but companies like Crackle should take notice of how Roku Channel is evolving.
Need more help? Here are the best Roku hacks, how to turn off your Roku, how to use Kodi on Roku, and how to make Roku screen mirroring work. If you’re looking for something to watch, here are the best Roku channels, Roku private channels, Roku free channels, and free live TV on Roku.
John-Michael Bond is a tech reporter and culture writer for Daily Dot. A longtime cord-cutter and early adapter, he's an expert on streaming services (Hulu with Live TV), devices (Roku, Amazon Fire), and anime. A former staff writer for TUAW, he's knowledgeable on all things Apple and Android. You can also also find him regularly performing standup comedy in Los Angeles.