Roku and Roksbox/Acorn
I'll have to admit I was brought to love the Roku when a friend, who is about as un-technical as one can be, told me how great the Roku was. His daughter had given him one for Christmas and he loved it. "If he thinks it so great, I better look into it.", I thought. He was right.
The Roku is a little box that attaches to your TV. It offers channels you can subscribe to (some for money, some not) that will stream video to your TV. I thought it was pretty nifty. It supported both analog and digital TVs (now, only digital). It does not record - just plays. It supports Netflix and a mess of other things I was uninterested in.
One handy aspect of the Roku is its portability. It's a small box (4 inches square or so) and only requires a small power adapter and an cable to connect it to the TV. When we travel for longer periods of time and stay in one place, I throw the Roku gear in the bag and as long as the hotel has a semi-decent internet connection and an HD TV, we can continue to see shows we like, rather being subjected to the normal cable drivel.
The single best thing about the Roku is the Roksbox channel which gives you the ability to play your own videos/movies, music, and show your own photographs on your television screen. It's very easy to set up - all you need is a web server with your digital media on it (mine is a Mac mini with Apache). Now we can see our pictures and videos on our large screen (well, not large by YOUR standards) TV.
I have to admit, I did not initially appreciate the value of seeing our pictures on a large TV. In the past if I wanted to show some digital pictures, we'd crowd around a computer screen and pretend we could see. "Hey, isn't this great?", I'd think, but I was the only one thinking that. Shortly after setting up the Roku we had company come from out of town. Before they left I loaded all the pictures from visit on the web server and in no time we were watching them on our TV. It was obvious from the wide grins on everyone's faces, just how much difference watching on a large TV made - and they were right.
This experience made me start centralizing all our pictures and videos on the web server so we could watch them on the Roku. Sure, the digital TV had a USB slot, but the software was terribly limited and it quickly became clear that putting a computer **in** a TV is also a terrible idea because you have no flexibility in how it works and what it can do. An externally attached box like the Roku gets around that. Today there are plenty of competitors, free and not. The Roku is deliciously cheap, stable and with Roksbox does everything I want, at least for now. We never use any other channel on the Roku.
Another Roku app that has improved my TV watching time, namely Acorn. The Acorn folks provide a streaming service for 'the best of British TV'. Well, not quite all of the best, but plenty of it. What's missing are some of the BBC shows, like Downton Abbey and others, but there are plenty of shows we've found interesting. The price is right, $50 year (or $5/month). Acorn is another Roku channel, which is why it shows up on this page. Acorn finally released an IOS app and claim an Android is coming too. That's OK, the Roku is handy enough for us.