Reviewing on the Roku

A couple of years ago, I wrote about my experiences with and the PS3, giving a pretty glowing review to the ability to watch baseball on my TV using that system as the intermediary. Interestingly, that post remains one of the most widely read things ever published on FanGraphs, so there’s clearly a pretty decent segment of the population that is interested in this topic. So, today, I’m writing something of a follow-up, because while I still use the PS3 to watch, it’s no longer my preferred option.

About a month ago, we acquired a second television to go in our basement (commence jokes… now), and so I was looking for a low cost yet effective solution for getting onto that TV. I had looked at some TVs that came with a built-in app, but the cost difference between buying a “smart TV” that had internet connectivity seemed to far outweigh the alternative — buying a dumb TV and just hooking a Roku up to it, effectively making it a smart TV. Instead of dropping $1,000 on a TV with the internet built in, I paid half that for the TV and another $90 for a Roku 2 XS.

My only regret is that I didn’t get a Roku sooner.

The experience of watching through the PS3 was generally pretty great once I actually got it loaded. That was the one thing that really held it back, though — getting it started. Pretty frequently, I’d be working on something with the TV off, and then Twitter would proceed to tell me that someone was doing something pretty awesome in a game, and that we should all turn it on and watch it. Unfortunately, it takes a good couple of minutes between the time you grab the PS3 controller, turn it on, login, boot up the app, login again, pick the game you want to watch, and then get the game to load.

The Roku eliminates this problem, and as a result, makes it far easier to just throw a game on at a moment’s notice. Because the thing is just an internet streamer and requires hardly any power, it is always on — it doesn’t even have an off switch. It just hangs out in the background, waiting for you to do something with it, and it responds nearly instantaneously. Now, when Twitter tells me that someone is throwing a no-hitter or there’s a high leverage situation in a meaningful game, all I have to do is turn the TV on, hit the one button that does everything three or four times, and within about 30 seconds, I’ve got the game on.

Maybe shaving 60-90 seconds off boot time doesn’t sound like a big deal, and maybe this is more of a sad commentary about the motivations that drive decision making, but I’ve found that the difference in getting to an actual game on a Roku versus on a PS3 actually makes a huge difference in how likely I am to turn the game on, and thus, my usage of has gone way up since acquiring a Roku. Before, the cost of getting into the app was high enough that I’d generally only do it if I was vested in watching a significant part of the game – now, the Roku lets me treat it like I’m channel surfing, just coasting in and out of one game or another depending on the circumstance.

The low barrier to entry is a huge plus for the Roku, but to be honest, I had concerns about how good the quality was going to be, especially because there are no fiber network options (like FIOS or U-Verse) available in my area, so our internet connection is fine but not spectacular. The PS3 is essentially a computer in a box, not that different from the size and scope of a modern desktop tower, while the Roku fits in the palm of your hand and weighs about three ounces. I was worried that a little plastic box with few pieces of hardware inside would struggle to match the video quality of the PS3, and the fact that it was intended for the basement meant that it would have to attach to the network via wi-fi rather than a wired connection. I went in expecting a lower video resolution and more buffering — instead, I think the picture quality is even more reliably great and the video almost never buffers. It’s actually even better in these regards than the heavier, larger, more expensive PS3.

That same lower barrier to getting into the internet applications means that I’ve also been more willing to explore the other options it comes with, even though my wife and I don’t watch a lot of TV. We have noticed, however, that instead of turning on the cable box, we’re more likely to just throw on an episode of Mythbusters on Netflix (yes, my wife likes Mythbusters – there’s a reason I married her), and we used the Pandora app to toss on some music in the background when we were having people over the other night. These are things we wouldn’t have done with the PS3, simply because of the time it takes to get into the system and get everything going.

Yes, the PS3 has a blu-ray player (and plays games, of course, which is important to those of you who want to use it for its original intended purpose), so for some folks, using it as your media streaming box is probably the best option. It was my primary way of watching for several years and I loved it. But, now, having one TV hooked up to the Roku and another to the PS3, the Roku is the clear winner for most of what we do. If you just want a fairly inexpensive easy solution to get on your TV, the Roku gets a hearty recommendation from me.

Maybe “smart TVs” will see their price crash through the floor in a couple of years, and the native apps will be as good as what Roku has built into their box, making it an irrelevant product, but given the current options on the market, I’d say that a cheaper dumb TV and a Roku make for the best baseball watching combination I’ve found yet. on the Roku gets my enthusiastic approval.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.