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The Roku Channel Review: Do You Need More Than This Free Service?

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We know, we know. Like it wasn’t hard enough keeping up with on-demand versus live and TV providers versus streaming platforms. Now along comes The Roku Channel.

The iconic hardware company apparently read the definition of “TV channel” from the dictionary and ripped it out, crumpled it up, and tossed it out the window. Then it created The Roku Channel, which, despite the name, is actually a big collection of TV and movies, some of it in the form of live channels and some on-demand, most of it free. And you don’t even need a Roku device to watch it!

The Roku Channel Overview

ProsCons
✔ Free❌ Ads
✔ Huge selection❌ Meh video quality
✔ No account needed❌ Older content

It would be better named The All-You-Can-Watch-Free-Buffet-Of-TV-and-Movies, but that’s not as marketable. And since they already spent all that money on branding, I guess we’re stuck with The Roku Channel (TRC). Whatever you call it, it’s still pretty cool. Did we mention it’s free?

The Roku Channel is basically Roku’s version of Pluto TV or Tubi. In fact, Roku partnered with Pluto and XUMO to provide more free live channels.

Like other free ad-supported services, there are many knock-offs of more popular mainstream cable channels (more detail in the “Content” section). It features lots of classics (people still love sitcoms from the 70s, 80s, and 90s). It also features the truly off-beat (an endless supply of YouTube gamers and Troom Troom, “fun and easy DIY pranks and crafts”).

Account vs Non-account

As mentioned, you don’t need an account to watch TRC, but having one does add a few little fringe benefits. With an account, you can pause a program and resume it on a different device, save favorites, and get personalized recommendations based on what you watch. Accounts are free, so there’s really no downside to making one.

You should be aware if you make an account, you will be prompted to set a PIN, which you should do because the next screen will require you enter a payment method. You’re not being charged, but they want to make it convenient for you to impulse-subscribe to premium channels.

Content

TRC mixes live channels with on-demand content. The live stuff has a little red box that says “LIVE” on the thumbnail. For instance, if you search for “comedy,” some of the results that come up are:

  • A live Comedy Central channel (created for Pluto TV) that’s currently showing a marathon of Inside Amy Schumer (to be fair, all that’s currently showing on the main Comedy Central’s schedule is reruns of South Park and The Cleveland Show).
  • A live channel by Comedy Dynamics (the largest independent stand-up comedy producers/distributors).
  • All Star Comedy Jam (a 90-minute 2009 on-demand stand-up special presented by Shaq and Cedric the Entertainer).
  • Comedy Next Gen Nick Cody (one-hour on-demand stand-up special from Australian comedian Nick Cody).
  • The Comedy Shop (on-demand stand-up performances from the late 1970s).
  • Comedy Club Network (3 seasons of on-demand popular comedians’ early stand-up from 1987 to 1994 — routines by Drew Carey, Dave Chappelle, Tim Allen, and Adam Sandler, among many others).

In addition to the main search results (which return free content with the word “comedy” in the name), there’s a helpful link to the Comedy Zone, which has comedy TV and movie offerings broken down into rows with headings like “Movies,” “TV,” “Last Chance to Watch Free,” and then a row each for Virginia Madsen and Terry Crews, and one for “Made After 2010.”

Then, below that, you can find all the premium content you could watch for just a few more bucks, again, all titles with the word “comedy” in them.

On-demand

There is an impressive variety of stuff to watch here. Documentaries, Psychological Thrillers, Comedies, Action, Critically Acclaimed, Dramas, Legal Dramas, Crime, and Fantasy are just some of the genres available.

You can find TV shows and movies, old and new, blockbusters and micro-budget. And they definitely know who their competition is. One of the category-rows is “Not on Netflix,” and contains content that you can’t currently find on the King of On-Demand Streaming, like Eureka, House, Dance Moms, Degrassi: The Next Generation, Charmed, and the original Leave it to Beaver.

While Roku plans to create more original content, for now, the Roku Originals section is populated with programs from the short-lived Quibi platform. If you’ve never heard of Quibi, it was an attempt to create an app featuring original short-form videos designed to be watched on your mobile device. It flopped after five months. But some of the original content was good, or at least interesting, so Roku bought the lot of it, and now you can watch it free.

Roku swaps out content on TRC frequently, but at this moment, popular shows include:

  • Downton Abbey
  • Dennis the Menace (1959)
  • The Rifleman (1958)
  • Petticoat Junction (1963)
  • Father Knows Best (1954)
  • Rules of Engagement
  • McLeod’s Daughters
  • Hell on Wheels.

Some popular Movies:

  • Dead Presidents
  • Halloween
  • Concussion
  • God’s Compass
  • Belly
  • A Monster in Paris
  • Eve’s Bayou

Live Channels

Roku Channel on Android
Android phone running The Roku Channel.

The live channels on TRC fall into two broad categories. The first consist of channels that are free anyway (various digital news streams, YouTubers, Funny or Die, indie sci-fi on DUST, Fubo Sports Network). The second are one-note channels that show low-cost syndicated content binge-style (all the Pluto TV channels, any channel named for a TV show).

Let’s be clear, here, so there’s no unreasonable expectations: you’re not going to find A&E, Discovery, ESPN, Syfy, and so forth just hanging out on a free service. If you want the major pay channels, you have to, well, pay for them. There are low-cost ways to do that, which we’ll get into below.

TRC’s channels are many and varied. And (this cannot be stressed enough) free. Given the vast quantity and wide variety, anyone should be able to find something to watch.

Sports fans should note that while there are sports channels, major sports worldwide are licensed to networks and pay channels. You’re not going to find the NFL or the Premier League here. But you will find more than you might expect.

Premium subscriptions

The Roku Channel offers premium subscriptions as well. This is a mixture of bigger name stuff (Showtime, Hallmark) with some more niche offerings (BBC Select, ScreamBox). It’s similar to the premium offerings of Sling TV. Many are available for under $10/mo and some are even less than $5/mo.

One cool thing TRC does is have a whole section for premiums offering free trials. As of this writing, you can get 30 days free of Showtime, Epix, Hallmark Movies Now, Up Faith and Family, and more.

User Interface

TRC is available on these devices:

  • Roku
  • Mobile app for iOS and Android
  • The Roku Channel website on your web browser.

It is also available on Samsung Smart TVs and Amazon Fire TV, but be aware you can’t get the premium channels on these devices, only the ad-supported free content.

Navigation is functional and overall snappy. One issue is that the Live TV Guide is unavailable on mobile devices and web browsers. We haven’t checked on Samsung TVs but it is available on Amazon Fire TV devices. In fact, the interface on the Fire TV is almost identical to the interface on Roku.

The video quality isn’t great, but, yet again, it’s a free service, so you can’t really expect 4K. Even 1080p is pushing it. This is less of an issue with sitcoms or British dramas and much more of one with sports or nature documentaries.

Ads are typically the same or less than you would experience on an average broadcast or cable channel. The display shows you when in the playback commercials will happen, tracks which one you’re on in the corner, and lets you know how much time is left before returning to your program (so you know if you have time for a bathroom break or to grab some chips).

Alternatives

The Roku Channel is a well-designed system and it is especially convenient if you use a Roku device because it will already be installed. But there are other options.

Free Options

All free options are ad-based because the content has to be paid for one way or another.

  • Pluto TV: Owned by Paramount Global (formerly ViacomCBS) (MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, BET), it is very similar to The Roku Channel.
  • Tubi: Owned by Fox, similar to TRC and Pluto. Because it’s Fox, it does have some NFL, Fox Sports 1, MLB, Pac-12, Real Madrid, and other major sports.
  • Peacock: Owned by NBCUniversal (USA Network, Syfy, Bravo). Unlike Pluto and Tubi, Peacock allows you to remove the ads (from on-demand, not live content) by upgrading to a premium account for $4.99/mo. Most sports and WWE content is only available with the premium account. (Peacock review)
  • Plex: This is primarily media server software. It takes all the movies and TV shows you own and organizes them into an interface as slick as Netflix’s. But that’s not why it’s on this list. It’s here because it has over 50,000 on-demand titles of its own, plus the usual selection of free live channels.
  • XUMO: Originally by Panasonic and Viant and bought by Comcast in 2020, Peacock’s streaming step-sibling has a list of live channels that is fairly similar to the others, plus an on-demand section. Expect its programming to increasingly reflect its new NBCUniversal corporate overlords.
  • Airy TV: Like the others on this list, but with a twist: newcomer Airy invites you to use their tools to create your own ad-based channel. It sounds like they’re aiming for Pluto TV crossed with YouTube.

Pay options

Some things are worth paying for. Each of these services add substantial value.

  • SelectTV: Kind of like Plex, but for streaming services you pay for. Have you ever tried to find a movie but didn’t know if it was currently available on Prime Video, Netflix, Hulu, or HBO Max? What if you could get all your streaming services funneled into one interface? That’s SelectTV, and it will do that for you for $3.99/mo.
  • Frndly TV: Free stuff is great, but when you get tired of watching The Price is Right reruns, Married at First Sight marathons, and cringey YouTube amateurs (not to mention ads), check out Frndly. Over 30 channels including lots of family, classic TV, and informative stuff like Recipe.TV, plus culture and educational channels like A&E, History, and FYI Network. Starts at $6.99.
  • Philo: Frndly sounds good, but not enough channels? Then head on over to Philo. For $25/mo, you get 60+ channels, including a lot of the same channels Frndly carries, plus all the Discovery channels, a lot of Paramount Global favorites, and AMC. You also get features like DVR, on-demand, and the ability to watch on multiple screens. (Philo review)
The Roku Channel in a Web Browser
The Roku Channel displaying in a web browser on a PC.

Summary

The main takeaway is, you don’t have to pay for live (or on-demand) TV, as long as you are willing to

  1. Temper your expectations
  2. Lower your video quality standards
  3. Sit through advertisements.

If you want to watch the latest and greatest TV shows or the just-out movies with a high-definition picture and no ads, the free services are not where you’ll find that. When it comes to free stuff, The Roku Channel is as good as it gets.

FAQs

Is The Roku Channel free?

Yes, The Roku Channel is free! It’s 100% free. You don’t even have to make an account. There are premium channels available if you want to subscribe, with movies, drama, kids, British, and African-American-focused content. But those are optional. Roku does not, however, require you to list a valid payment method if you do make an account.

Is The Roku Channel available on Amazon Fire TV?

Yes, The Roku Channel is on Amazon Fire TV! Just search for “The Roku Channel” on your Fire TV device, or ask Alexa to “find The Roku Channel app.” After that, you can ask her to “find” or “open” The Roku Channel. You do not need a Roku account to watch. You should know you cannot get the Premium Channels on The Roku Channel on Fire TV, but all the free content is the same.

Is The Roku Channel safe?

The Roku Channel is 100% legal and safe. You won’t get in any trouble whatsoever for watching it. Everything you’re watching is fully licensed from its rights-holder. It’s “free” in the same way that broadcast networks are “free.” You’re paying with the time you spend with your eyeballs on advertisers’ commercials.

Ditch “Big Cable” Now — 3 Simple Steps to Cutting the Cord

  1. Pick the right streaming service
  2. Supercharge your internet provider
  3. Protect yourself and power your streaming with the best VPN.

That’s it — you’ll save money, gain control, and enjoy TV more!

Alanna Baker
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