With so many streaming services battling over our hard-earned pounds, it’s refreshing to see one that’s actually free. The Roku Channel, which launched in the UK three years after its US counterpart, offers movies, TV shows and kids content -all without having to pay or even create an account.
There are caveats, though – The Roku Channel is ad-supported, so you get advert breaks while you’re watching. Its interface is limited (when compared to the big competitors), content is far from being top tier – and, you need a Roku device to watch it. (Or NOW TV / Sky Q).
So, does the cost outweigh the problems, and is The Roku Channel good enough as something you don’t have to pay for? In this review, I’ll take a look at the content, the interface – and whether this new (in the UK) service is worth your time.
Quick Look – The Roku Channel
Who is it for: People looking for some casual content to watch without having to pay for another subscription.
- A decent catalogue of 10,000+ pieces of content
- It’s free
- Advert load is moderate (up to 8 minutes/hour)
- The interface is clean and easy to use (but not perfect)
- Most of the content is old and/or obscure
- No “Watchlist” feature
- Subtitles only available in some titles
- Video quality is lower than HD in some of the content
It’s often said that “You can’t beat free” – and indeed, The Roku Channel delivers a generally positive experience with a decent library of content. But the interface still needs some work, and most of the content is far from top-tier.
Table of Contents
What Is The Roku Channel?
While Roku itself might not be as known in the UK as it is in the US, they’re one of the leading manufacturers of streaming devices across the pond, with three of their popular devices being sold in the UK – the Roku Express, Roku Premiere and Roku Streaming Stick+.
The Roku Channel, which launched in the US back in 2017, is a free (ad-supported) streaming VOD service from Roku, that’s available on every Roku device.
On April 2020, The Roku Channel finally launched in the UK, with some differences from its American brother. On Day 1, the service offered 10,000+ pieces of content – TV shows, movies, documentaries and kids content. (But they apparently count individual episodes to get at the 10,000 number, so the selection isn’t as vast as it might sound at first).
The Roku Channel doesn’t require a subscription (or even a separate login) and is instead ad-based.
Roku promises a “better” ad-experience with a reduced advert load. As part of that, there are no pre-roll adverts (so you can jump straight into the content), a total of up to 8 minutes of adverts per hour (and less than that on kids programmes), and a “Frequency Cap” which will prevent the same advert from showing up more than once over half an hour.
How Do I Get The Roku Channel?
You can do that directly on the Roku device (by going to Add Channels and looking for The Roku Channel), or online by logging into your account on Roku’s website, and adding the channel directly from The Channel Store.
Normally, new channels are added to the bottom of your Channels list on the Roku. Cheekily, The Roku Channel is added near the top – but you can still move it around, like you can with every channel on the homescreen.
In the US, The Roku Channel can also be watched on the Roku smartphone app, and directly on Roku’s website – but in the UK, you can only watch it on your Roku device, for now.
Uniquely in the UK, however, The Roku Channel is also available on NOW TV and on Sky Q boxes.
What Can I Watch on The Roku Channel?
As you might expect from a free channel, the content you’ll find on The Roku Channel is not exactly top-tier. Most of it is pretty old (some considered “Classic”, but some just… old), with a lot of movies you’ve never heard of, and TV programmes you’ve seen on almost every other streaming service over the years (though not necessarily for free).
Still, there are some gems to be found, especially if you’re a fan of specific niches.
Horror fans, for example, will find several classic movies such as Children of The Corn from 1984, a few John Carpenter films, and… Candyman 3. Why 3? Where did 1 and 2 go? Who knows.
There are also dedicated categories for Westerns and War Movies, football documentaries and a lot of Home and Garden programmes.
There are several “classic” British TV programmes as well. The thing is, you’ve probably seen most of them before – but if you haven’t, getting them here, for free, is nice.
So you can rewatch all seasons of Skins, the teen drama from 2007 (so yes, I had a blast rewatching Maxxie’s dance routine from the beginning of Episode 1, Season 2). And you can get to know ITV’s The Commander, a popular crime drama from 2003.
And if you’re a Gordon Ramsay fan, you can find his American Hell’s Kitchen series, and the British version of Kitchen Nightmares, as well as a few others. At this point, it seems like Ramsay is The King Of Streaming – as his programmes are now available on almost every streaming service known to man.
Titles in the “Kids and Family” section include Bob the Builder, Teletubbies, Oddbods, Bernard, Ryan’s World Specials, Fireman Sam and Baby Einstein Classics, as well as classic films that are suitable for kids/teens, like the Ernest series.
If this list sounds a bit eclectic – it’s because it is. Getting content for an ad-supported channel isn’t always easy, which is why so much of it is old (some already in the public domain), and has been available on other streaming services or free broadcast channels in the past.
Roku are planning to add more content every month (while also removing some every month), with more content partners expected to be added in the future.
In the US, The Roku Channel also features premium streaming channels that you can subscribe to directly (similar to Amazon Prime Video Channels), such as HBO and Starz. In the UK, premium paid channels will not be part of the service – for now, at least.
Using The Roku Channel
The Roku Channel will look familiar to anyone who’s ever used Netflix or one of the other modern streaming services. You get rows of movies/programmes, divided into different content categories, as well as a “Continue Watching” row.
However, for some reason, there’s no Watchlist feature – a glaring omission which makes it hard to mark things you would want to watch in the future.
Currently, the only way to do that, is to actually start watching something – at which point it’ll show up on your “Continue Watching” list. That’s an unnecessarily complicated way to remember what you want to watch – and we hope they add a Watchlist in the future.
There were some bugs when I tested the channel – the interface would occasionally slow down and stutter, and while watching a show, it would sometimes jump back a few seconds, re-playing a few seconds and messing up the sync. Hopefully, these are early-day bugs which will be fixed soon.
Title pages let you choose which episode/season to watch, but are also a bit inconsistent, with some showing you a short synopsis of the movie/programme, and some that do not. Other than that, the title pages don’t have a lot of information – they don’t tell you what the video quality is going to be (I noticed content that seemed to be HD, and content that felt very much like SD).
In addition, as with many UK streaming services, there are issues with subtitles/close captions. Some programmes/movies have subtitles, and some do not. It’s totally random, and unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing which title would have subtitles until you actually start playing it – an icon on the title page would have been nice.
The Roku Channel’s Adverts
As someone who hates watching anything with adverts (which is why I very rarely watch any live TV), the adverts on The Roku Channel are not too bad. At launch, there was a very small number of adverts anyway – but that may change in the future.
When you start playing a title, you can pause and see where the advert breaks are going to be. I had instances where those breaks were skipped (because there were no adverts), and instances when an advert did play.
Roku are promising not to show more than 8 minutes of adverts per hour, plus you won’t see the same advert more than once every 30 minutes. And, there are no pre-rolls, so I was able to casually jump between programmes and start watching.
For now, at least, the experience is quite smooth, despite the adverts. Once the channel gets more popular, and there are indeed 8 minutes of adverts every hour, I might get tired of it – but that’s the “cost” of watching free content.
The Bottom Line: Is The Roku Channel Worth Your Time?
It’s hard to talk about a channel’s worth when it’s free (ignoring the cost of the physical Roku device, of course). But with so many channels and streaming services vying for our attention these days, your time is also a currency – so should you bother with The Roku Channel?
Granted, it’s not going to replace your Netflix subscription (nor is it trying to), or even something like BBC iPlayer.
With content from years ago, and no original productions at all, The Roku Channel is mostly suited for “casual” viewers, who are looking to re-watch something they loved in the past, or to find something good that they might have missed – while they’re waiting for a new series to start on Netflix/Disney+/Prime Video.
I did find myself loading it here and there, and it did help pass the time, and I might find a series or two to binge-watch on it at some point – and even the adverts aren’t that bad.
So if you set your expectations right, and aren’t looking for anything too flashy – The Roku Channel is a nice free addition to your streaming entertainment bag.