The Roku set-top box is definitely one of the core components to any cord-cutting lifestyle. Roku offers vast content accessibility with its inexpensive hardware, making it a fantastic option for upgrading each television within a typical home, thus allowsing family members to spread out beyond the home theater in order to watch their favorite shows or movies. While my fiancé is watching an episode of Law and Order: SVU over Hulu Plus in the living room, I can use the television in the bedroom to stream an episode of The Walking Dead on Netflix. Beyond providing access to stunning high definition video, the interface is extremely simple to use and the setup process is minimal.
However, the usefulness of the hardware isn’t limited to the content on the public channels available within the Roku Channel Store. In addition to a somewhat hidden batch of private channels that can be installed on the device, video content can be streamed to the Roku hardware from a laptop or computer through a home’s wireless network. Music and photo content can be streamed from a mobile device like a smartphone or tablet. If you have just started using a Roku set-top box recently, or simply want to become more of a power user, here are several tips and tricks that will improve your overall experience with the Roku hardware:
Beef up your wireless network for HD streaming
While a wired connection to a home’s router is the best possible solution for streaming high definition video, that’s typically not an option for rooms that aren’t located near the home theater. In addition, only the Roku 2 XS comes with an Ethernet port for a wired connection to a home’s router. The less expensive models in the Roku line rely exclusively on wireless b/g/n compatibility to play streaming video and audio content.
If you are using an older Wireless-G only router, it may be time to upgrade to a Wireless-N device. Ideal for households that are viewing multiple streams of high definition content at the same time, a Wireless-N router provides a significant capacity boost as well as access to a different frequency band that’s less susceptible to interference from other wireless devices. It’s also important to note that you should check with your Internet service provider to view the bandwidth available under your current plan. A third party verification tool like SpeedTest.net provides good metrics to use before deciding to upgrade to a more expensive option.
You may already have a wireless-N router, but can’t pick up the signal very well on the opposite side of your home. If this is the case, look into picking up a range extender to extend the signal to your Roku device. One of my personal favorites is the Securifi Almond. Not only can it be used as a wireless router if needed, the touchscreen setup is ridiculously simple and the Amazon reviews for the Almond are absolutely stellar. There’s also the Almond+ router coming out later this year, but Roku hasn’t announced hardware support for the new 802.11ac 1.17Gb/s standard as of yet.
Browse and install hidden, private channels
Separate from the public channels listed within the Roku Channel Store on the Roku hardware, there are a collection of private channels that simply haven’t been officially approved by Roku.
Private channels can range from applications developed by individuals that don’t want to go through the approval process to applications still in a beta-testing phase. The majority of these applications are free, but there are some private channels that require a premium subscription or purchase.
In order to check out a complete list of these channels, take a look at an unofficial guide here. To add a private channel to your Roku device, log into the Roku site and look for the “Add a Private Channel” link within the account profile menu. Simply enter in the access code and the channel will be added to your Roku devices. For reviews on private channels, check out Streamfree.tv as well as RokuGuide.com. Personally, one of my favorites is the selection of curated content found on Nowhere.TV. Keep in mind that private channels aren’t supported by Roku officially, thus buggy performance could occur during operation.
Enable Airplay-like streaming with Twonky Beam
If you have been using the Roku hardware for some time, you may have noticed that Google hasn’t launched an official YouTube application on the Roku Channel Store.
In fact, Google wasn’t thrilled about the unofficial YouTube channel. The application disappeared from Roku devices during 2011, much to the disappointment of many Roku users. The private channel did not allow ad placements or pre-roll advertisements, obviously Google’s main complaint with the unofficial channel.
Fortunately, you don’t have to wait for Google to get around to bringing a YouTube channel to the plucky set-top box. If you own an Android or iOS mobile device, download an application called Twonky Beam (Android / iOS). Updated with Roku (and Xbox 360) support during December 2012, the application allows users to stream Web video content over a home’s wireless network to the television. It’s somewhat similar to AirPlay between an iPhone and an Apple TV.
After adding the Twonky Beam Roku channel here, users can use the Twonky Beam mobile application to bring up videos on the Web. Due to the mobile browser interface, users can load up any Web page with video and stream the video content to the television as long as the mobile device supports the format. The second screen also offers control options for pausing and adjusting the volume. In addition, users can continue to browse content through the mobile application while video continues streaming on the television.
Setup Plex for streaming local content
If you have a bevy of video content on a personal laptop or desktop computer, look into adding software called Plex Media Server to your computer as well as the official Plex application on the Roku hardware.
Using Plex Media Server, the Media Manager will allow you to add video files that can be shared with the Roku. When firing up the Plex channel on the Roku hardware, you will be able to view and play content shared with the device.
While the Plex software can automatically transcode video formats that aren’t supported by the Roku hardware, it’s best to utilize video formats like MP4 and MOV in order to get the fastest streaming experience. Using a free, open source solution like Handbrake is probably the simplest solution for converting video files into those streaming-friendly formats.
In addition to streaming video files stored on your home network, the Plex software also allows you to continue accessing certain private channels that were closed down or removed for any reason. For instance, my fiancé loves watching House Hunters and other shows on HGTV. While HGTV had the private Roku application removed during late 2011, we can still access HGTV video content on the Web using the channel within the Plex application. While the interface can be somewhat complex at times, the ability to continue watching that content is invaluable for our cord cutting lifestyle.
Use the Roku smartphone app to stream music and view photos
Available for free to iOS and Android smartphone owners, the official Roku app allows users to launch channels, utilize a touchscreen remote for navigation and install new applications that are publicly available on the Roku Channel Store. If you have multiple Roku devices within the home, you can also switch between hardware using the mobile application.
During September 2012, Roku added the ability to stream music as well as view photos stored on your mobile device. However, this feature is only available on the Roku 2 line as well as the Roku LT, HD and Streaming Stick.
More recently, Roku updated the Play on Roku feature to support music shuffle options as well as the ability to create playlists within the application. Within the mobile app, Roku has also included options to adjust the transition style and tweak the speed of the photo slideshows as well as stream a specific song from the mobile device during the slideshow.
Protect your Roku from unauthorized purchases
While the Roku doesn’t have universal parental controls, users do have the ability to restrict specific actions using a four digit PIN code. After logging into the user account on the Roku site, a custom four digit PIN can be selected within the menu.
In addition, the user can choose to specifically request the PIN before authorizing a purchase or even before installing any free application on the device.
By using this PIN, parents can avoid situations where a child may unknowingly purchase games like Angry Birds or You Don’t Know Jack. This only applies when attempting to add channels or games from the Roku device. Users can still add public and private channels through the Web portal without having to enter the four digit PIN number.
Pro Tip: Check the streaming bit rate for video troubleshooting
If you are having stuttering issues with high definition content being streamed over a wireless network, a great tool to measure the quality of the connection can be found within a menu that’s likely used by Roku developers. However, if you aren’t comfortable using more technical menus, it’s probably best to avoid the following method.
You can access this particular developer menu by pressing the Home button five times, Rewind button three times and the Fast Forward button two times with about a half second between each button press. Labeled “bit rate override” in the top right corner, look for the menu option regarding playback debugging and enable it.
When video loads in most applications, an overlay image will appear prior to the start of a video and tell the user the speed of the connection. This will give the user an idea of how strong the Wi-Fi signal is within the vicinity of the Roku box. Within the same “bit rate override” menu, the user can choose a minimum bit rate to play video, assuming it’s supported by the Wi-Fi connection and Internet speed. By default, the Roku will choose the best available bit rate. For more advanced hidden menu screens, users can find try the remote control button presses listed above.
All of the tips and tricks mentioned above will help you get the most out of your Roku hardware. If you have recently released Roku 2 hardware, familiarize yourself with the Universal Search function in order to search all installed applications for specific movies or television shows. Be sure to check out the Roku Channel Store every couple months to look for new applications. You can also check out the official Roku blog for content suggestions as well as announcements about new channels and revisions to the hardware.