More channels than you can shake a remote at
In the video streaming wars, Roku is a bit like Switzerland. Where iOS and Android devotees have Apple TV and Chromecast to deliver music, movies and photos to their HDTVs, Roku walks freely between both camps in the name of neutral entertainment. While you won’t be able to stream your iTunes or Google Play purchases out of the box, Roku’s diverse library still covers an enormous array of genres to fit every taste, from instructional podcasts to the latest Hollywood hits. But with more than 1,500 channels, it can be difficult to navigate them all. That’s why we’ve narrowed the list down to 20 you absolutely need to install.
Amazon Instant Video
If you’re a Prime member, you may have been bummed to learn that neither Apple TV nor Chromecast officially supports Amazon Instant Video. But Roku saves the day, offering a native channel that features a fully searchable library of every video in the store. You can rent or buy more than 150,000 videos with just a few clicks, or watch the 40,000 that are included with a $99/year Prime subscription—it’s especially strong in children’s programming, and there’s plenty for adults and some strong original shows too.
While Amazon Prime members can stream entire seasons of Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, and True Blood, HBO cable subscribers can access the holy grail with HBO Go. You’ll need to check to see if your cable operator is supported, and just because HBO Go works on your mobile device doesn’t mean your cable provider supports the service on Roku—cough, cough, Comcast. But anyway, once you’re signed in you’ll be able to enjoy everything in the HBO vault and even stream live episodes as they air.
Die-hard TV fans will have the hardest time cutting the cable, but the Hulu Plus Roku channel definitely makes it easier. Where other streaming services make you wait months or even years before you can start binge-watching the shows you’ve been missing out on, Hulu Plus subscribers get access to current episodes of popular shows like Blue Bloods, Community, The Daily Show, and The Bachelorette, as well as a slew of cult classics and masterpieces cancelled before their time. And all it’ll cost you is $8 a month.
If that’s too rich, you can still see the smaller amount of offerings from free Hulu on your Roku if you purchase the PlayOn server software and install the private PlayOn Roku channel, but we had some frustrating issues with PlayOn during our recent test.
Crackle’s Roku channel might not have the expansive catalog of Netflix or Hulu Plus, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. Original shows like Sequestered and the complete run of Glenn Close’s award-winning turn in Damages make it a must-have channel, but what really puts it over the top is Seinfeld. Not only is there a rotating library of full episodes for your viewing pleasure, it’s also the only place to watch Jerry’s hilarious Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. And, yadda, yadda, yadda, it’s free.
You might wonder why you need a dedicated Roku channel when you can just flip to ESPN on cable, but Watch ESPN offers much more than live sports. Instead of waiting for the next SportsCenter to see highlights and scores, the Watch ESPN channel is a one-stop source for everything sports, letting you quickly switch between all six of the ESPN networks and providing clips of the day’s highlights on demand. A lot of the programming in this channel requires a cable subscription from a supported provider, but even cord-cutters can see some of it for free.
We were worried about Netflix for a while there, but the original all-you-can-watch subscription streaming service has come on strong lately. Even if its library still leaves much to be desired, the ability to binge-watch watch full seasons of its hit originals like the Emmy-nominated House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black is well worth $8 a month. Navigation is simple and streaming is practically instant—but all you’ll care about is how quickly you can scrub backward to rewatch Kevin Spacey’s epic monologues.
Pandora through my headphones is fantastic, but few things are better than having a personalized radio station play on my TV’s speakers while I make dinner. Whether you have a free account or a $5/month Pandora One subscription, all of your custom channels will be synced to your Roku, and you can create as many new ones as you’d like. We love the QuickMix mode that lets us shuffle songs across all of our stations, but my favorite feature of the Roku app is the floating album art screensaver.
PBS always seems to know how to keep our kids entertained, whether they’re watching Sesame Street or Super Why. The PBS Kids channel on Roku is as cool as it gets, with more than 1,000 totally free videos from all of their favorite shows. Navigation is so simple even your toddler could figure it out, and a constantly rotating schedule will make sure she never gets bored—even if she’s happiest when rewatching the same Curious George episode 20 times in a row.
Even without direct access to the sizable iTunes and Google Play stores, Roku offers plenty of ways to watch the latest movies available for streaming. Vudu just happens to one-up its competitors with a focus on picture quality. Each purchase or rental has three options to choose from: SD, HD, and HDX. Rental and purchase prices are pretty much what you’d find on Google Play or iTunes, but if you choose Vudu’s stunning 1080p HD, 24-frames-per-second format it’ll feel like you’ve paid a whole lot more. Vudu results show up in Roku's unified search feature, so if a movie you particularly want to see isn't available for free streaming, Vudu often has your back.
If your enjoy shows like Family Guy and Hell’s Kitchen, you’ll flip over Roku’s Fox NOW channel. If you miss anything that’s aired on the network, you can stream it the next day. And even if your cable provider isn’t among the (surprisingly small) list of supported ones, you’ll still be able to access a decent rotating catalogue of free content. You’ll have to deal with some funky ad placement, but it’s a small price to pay for having Jack Bauer and Homer Simpson at your beck and call.
If you’re old enough to remember when MTV played music videos, you might be pleasantly surprised to learn that music videos are still being made—they’re just destined for places like Vevo. Chock full of music videos (new and old), plus concerts and artist showcases, the totally free, ad-supported service is everything you used to love about MTV before Teen Mom and Jersey Shore took over.
The Internet has an endless array of content for geeks and gamers, but few outlets are more entertaining and compelling than Revision3. A wide variety of its original programming is available right on your Roku, turning its popular website into a bona fide TV channel complete with fresh, HD shows that rivals most cable networks. And it won’t cost you anything to watch.
One of Roku's brand-newest channels, NFL Now is a must for gridiron fans. The free tier requires you to log in with an NFL.com account, but you don't need to have a cable or satellite subscription, and you get plenty of video highlights of your favorite team. Bumping up to the $2/month NFL Plus tier opens up the huge NFL Films archive, while also killing ads and serving up highlights even faster. It's especially great for fantasy owners, since you can get updates on how your roster of players performs. Until we can subscribe to a season of actual football games, NFL Now can really scratch the itch.
The Cult Movie Network
Sometimes you just want to watch a bad movie. And The Cult Movie Network has hundreds. For just $3 a month or $35 a year, you get full access to a library of eclectic indie movies you’re not going to find on Netflix or Vudu. Horror movies and kung fu flicks are particularly well represented, spanning several decades—you won’t find any Academy Award winners of course, but if you’re looking for a cheap thrill after a night of partying with your friends, this is the channel to turn to.
I love Flixster on my iPhone and Galaxy Tab, but on my Roku it’s indispensable. Whenever I want to check out the latest hot trailer or just see what’s coming out in the theaters this week, Flixter’s awesome gallery of movie posters can tell me everything I need to know, from Rotten Tomatoes scores to cast and crew. It’s all neatly organized and built for casual browsing, and everything streams quickly and crisply. And while I’m in the mood for a good movie, I can access any of the ones in my UltraViolet account.
Anime fans will be able to find a handful of movies and shows on Netflix, but the motherlode is on Crunchyroll. It has a decent free library of ad-supported videos, but if you pony up $7 a month, you’ll also get access to its massive collection of HD shows and movies straight from Japan. And for those who need to stay current, Crunchyroll even simulcasts the newest videos just 60 short minutes after they premiere. Arigatou, Roku.
Who wouldn’t love to travel the globe attending TED events? But until you have unlimited time and money, you can settle for the videos available online. Thankfully, the dedicated Roku channel does an exemplary job collecting them all and delivering them right to your TV screen. Even without an advanced search field, you’ll be sure to find plenty of free content to keep you engaged and entertained.
We live in a 24-hour information cycle thanks to all-day new networks like Fox News and CNN, but Dishworld takes it a step further. The international TV service offers subscriptions in 15 languages ranging from Arabic to Vietnamese, but even if you’re not bilingual, you’ll get 13 English-speaking channels included with every package. It’s not just news, either, there’s also movies, including Bollywood hits, and sports like cricket and cycling. You can try out the service for $15 a month for the first three months (afterwards it’ll cost you $35 every 39 days), but if you want to watch the world on your Roku, it’s worth every penny.
What about all the movies already on your computer, all those DVDs you’ve been backing up for years (for personal use of course)? No problem, just get Plex. Once you install the free media streamer on your computer or NAS, it’s a snap to stream all of those to your big-screen TV, and they’ll be gorgeously organized too. The Roku channel has a free 30-day trial, then it’s a one-time fee of $5. Optionally springing $30 a year for the premium Plex Pass plan unlocks a slew of features, including high-definition trailers, interviews, and extra goodies for every movie in your library. (Plex Pass also comes with one free app, so you could skip paying $5 for the Roku app, or grab one of the mobile apps, which usually cost $5 as well.) Now if only Roku would give Plex a pass on the cookie-cutter interface.
You Don't Know Jack
Games are kind of hit or miss on Roku. Touchscreen games don’t always translate onto the big screen, and playing with the Roku remote can feel a little clunky. But not this game. You Don’t Know Jack is in a class by itself. If you’re not already a fan of the irreverent trivia game, it won’t take long before you’re hooked on host Cookie Masterson’s witticisms and the Jack Attack. It doesn’t have multiplayer support, which is a bummer, but even so it’s $5 you won’t regret spending.