Hands-on with the Roku Streaming Stick

Two years ago, my wife and I decided that we didn’t really watch enough TV to justify a cable subscription. With a baby in the house, we tended to have the music channels on more than anything else. A Pandora subscription (that I already had) was more than a suitable replacement and Netflix could provide enough video to keep us entertained. So I bought a Boxee Box and we cut the cord. The Boxee Box was more expensive than other options, but it had the ability to stream from local media, which I thought would be a critical feature. As it turns out, we never used that.

It wasn’t too long after we bought the Boxee Box that Boxee decided to go in a different direction. The Boxee continued to work, but no more updates were coming. This meant not getting Netflix profiles. It meant that some streaming websites (particularly ESPN) no longer worked in the browser. And as I discovered at the beginning of baseball season, it meant no more MLB.tv.

That was the last straw. Since Roku had recently released their streaming stick, I decided to order one. At $50, it was far less than I had paid for the Boxee Box, and it supported everything we used on Boxee, plus additional content. I was pretty excited when I set it up. The excitement didn’t last long. I apparently got a lemon. Fortunately, the Roku technical support folks were helpful, and I had a replacement unit sent. The replacement has worked well for the last two weeks.

There was no particular reason I went for the streaming stick over other form factors. My TV can’t provide power directly, so I still have to plug it in to the wall. But it was cheap and relatively novel, so I figured “why not?” The streaming stick is a little under-powered; it takes considerably longer for Netflix to load than the Boxee Box did. It also lacks the QWERTY keyboard that was an excellent (albeit un-lit) feature of the Boxee Box’s remote. However, that’s the sum of my dislikes.

Roku has a large variety of apps, but unlike the Boxee, they aren’t all pre-installed. That means you only have to wade through the apps you want to use. Unlike Boxee’s apps, there are more than two that we use on the Roku. PBS and PBS Kids were immediate additions, as was NASA TV (my daughter is really into space right now). Weather Underground’s app is nice, when we bother to use it. The Pandora and Netflix apps work quite well. And, of course, MLB.tv allows me to get my fix of Orioles baseball. Since we got the Roku, the Boxee Box has remained off. This means no more loud fan noises, no more sudden jumps in Netflix volume, and no more having to manually shut it off when the shutdown menu doesn’t work. Clearly the Roku streaming stick was the right decision.

Is Netflix streaming greener?

Last month, TreeHugger ran an article asking if Netflix streaming is greener than DVD-by-mail. The conclusion that the author presented is that DVD-by-mail is the greener option. I don’t necessarily disagree with the conclusion, but I have serious issues with the path to get there. Perhaps I’m judging it too harshly — it is, after all, a web article, not a scientific paper. It may be too much to ask for rigor in entertainment (Randall Munroe would agree, and I’m certainly guilty of hand-waving at times), but if we’re going to pretend to answer the question definitively, let’s put some effort into it.

The most obvious problem with the article is that “greener” is never defined. The author focuses on CO2 emissions, so I guess that’s the measure being used. While CO2 is valid, it’s hardly the only consideration in determining the environmental impact of Netflix. The DVDs must be manufactured and the shipping envelopes don’t get reused. For streaming, the hardware needs to be manufactured. These all require resources, both renewable and non-renewable. Even the CO2 emissions aren’t created equal if one considers the cost of extracting the oil needed to power the vehicles and the coal used to power the datacenters.

In “calculating” the CO2 output of streaming a Netflix movie, the author uses an entirely different kind of service and says that Netflix must generate more CO2 than that. That’s quite possible, but where’s the proof? In fact, a previous post by the same author says “[a]n even more efficient option is on-demand movies on cable, or movie downloading.” I’m now confused. Is streaming more efficient or is it a greater contributor to anthropogenic CO2 production?

It’s interesting and thought-provoking to ask if Netflix (or other similar services) is less-impactful in streaming or physical form. The article did a great service asking the question, but an incredible disservice in answering it. The answer is more complicated than a few quick calculations. It may prove that DVD-by-mail really is the “greener” option. I don’t know, but neither does Pablo Paster.