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Summary:

Want to watch YouTube videos on your Roku digital media player? Or how about giving one to your parents for the holidays, and then sending them family photos straight to the TV? Check out our list of ten helpful tips every Roku owner should know about.

Roku XDS

Your Roku isn’t just for streaming hours and hours of Netflix entertainment. Did you know you can also use it to watch YouTube videos, check your Google Voice account and keep Mom happy? Check out all the details in our list of ten helpful tips and tricks every Roku owner should know about:

1. Get YouTube

Roku ships its media players without a YouTube channel, but there’s an easy way to get your YouTube fix on these boxes: Simply go to Roku.com and add it as a private channel (channel code B8VVK). Don’t know how to do that? Then read on for tip two.

Want to know how to use a Roku box to get rid of cable? Then check out my ebook Cut the Cord: All You Need to Know to Drop Cable.

2. Get other third-party channels

You guessed it; there are plenty of other private channels aside from YouTube available for Roku. Some of them are more experimental, while others don’t quite fit with the content officially available on Roku. Case in point: A few companies make premium adult material (read: porn) available through private channels. Others have hacked a screensaver displaying your Twitter feed, a Woot channel and a channel that gives you access to all the podcasts listed on iTunes. Check out the two lists maintained on Roku-Channels.com, as well as the Roku Yahoo Group to see what’s available.

Once one of the private channels has caught your interest, subscribe to it the following way: Go to Roku.com, log into your account (or sign up if you don’t have one yet, after which you’ll also need to register your device). Go to the Add Private Channel option, add the channel’s five letter code and click on Add Channel. The site will now tell you that your newly added channel will appear “within 24 hours,” but in most cases, it’s easy to get access right away: Just fire up your Roku box, enter the Channel Store, wait until everything loads, and then exit the channel store again. Scroll through your channels, and there it is: your new private channel.

3. Connect your hard drive

Roku’s XDS player features a USB port, and it can play content from both Flash and hard drives. Roku is slated to launch its official USB channel as early as next month. Until then, you’ll have to rely on a private channel (channel code KGULU). Results with this channel have been mixed, but things will hopefully improve once USB support is officially enabled.

4. Play content from your local network

Luckily, USB drives aren’t the only way to access local media. There are also a number of channels available that make it possible to stream videos and play music as well as photo slideshows straight from any computer in your network. One of the easiest approaches is Chaneru, which works in conjunction with software you install on your Windows PC or Mac. Chaneru automatically scans your iTunes library for music and even allows you protect certain folders with a pin number. Chaneru offers users a 30 day trial period, after which you’re charged a reasonable, one-time $10 charge, plus a processing fee. Chaneru can be found in the Roku App Store under Photos & Video.

Want more control over the way files are appearing on your Roku? Then take a look at Roksbox, which utilizes a web server on your computer to access local media. Sounds complicated, but it’s actually really simple, especially if you’re on a Mac. Just open your System Preferences > Sharing and enable Web Sharing. Now install the private Roksbox channel on your Roku (channel code P1KWQ). Roksbox offers a bunch of additional features to organize your media and display additional information about your videos and music files — so if you’re a serious data hoarder, take a look at this one.

5. Convert your videos for the Roku

Roku only plays a limited number of video formats out of the box, which means you may have to convert some of your media before playing it via USB drive or over your local network. The player is limited to MP4 and MOV files, and doesn’t play DivX, Xvid and similar formats. That means videos you recorded yourself with your Flip camera will work just fine, and you won’t have any trouble with podcasts downloaded via iTunes. However, some of your other downloaded media may require converting in order to optimize it for your Roku. There’s a number of tools available online to convert video files, but people on the Roku forums swear by Handbrake, and Roksbox has helpfully listed all the necessary settings on its site.

6. Watch live TV via Roku

Want to watch something that’s going on right now? Then install the Ustream channel (add it as a private channel with the channel code IN4DN), and you’ll have access to sports events, live concerts, CBS News and countless other live streams. Check out the Ustream blog for highlights.

7. Control your Roku with your cell phone

Don’t like to clutter your couch table with tons of remote controls? Then simply get a Roku remote control app for your cell phone. There are a number of free as well as paid apps available for iOS as well as Android devices. Personally, I use the free RoMote on Android, and it does the job just fine.

8. Play your music from the cloud

Here’s another way to get media onto your Roku: Simply upload your MP3s and video files at MP3Tunes.com and then install the MP3Tunes Roku channel (in the channel store under Music) to stream straight from MP3Tunes’ servers. MP3Tunes currently offers free 2GB accounts, and you can upgrade to a 50GB account for $4.95 per month. The company also occasionally invites users to free 10GB accounts, and everyone signing up via Roku is automatically entered to receive the free upgrade.

9. Send your family photos to your Mom’s Roku

Let’s say you give your Mom a Roku for the holidays. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could automatically update it with content so she can always see new family photos? Well, guess what? You can, thanks to a clever combination of Dropbox and Roksbox. Just install the Roksbox channel on her Roku as well as a Dropbox app on her PC. Then share a folder via Dropbox with her — and now every time you drag a photo into that shared folder in your local computer, it’s available on her Roku. Roskbox has all the details on its site.

10. Check Google Voice

This would be very cool, if it worked: A developer came up with a way to check your Google Voice account via Roku. I haven’t been able to log in, unfortunately, and others in the Roku forum report similar issues. However, it seems to be working for some, so it may be worth a try (channel code NXFBW).

Have some Roku tips of your own? Share them with us in the comments, or check out the following episode of our weekly show Cord Cutters to see some of these tips in action:

Related content on GigaOM Pro: (subscription required)


  1. While you’re getting other third-party channels (see #2 above), be sure to get KOLDCAST TV. It’s the only Roku channel that uses the same navigation/user interface as Netflix. It’s easy to discover new programming at KoldCast!

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  2. If you are tired of the flashing Roku screensaver waking your up in the middle of the night, check out my free mellow, psychedelic, “zen” screensaver for Roku, Ouroborialis, in the channel store, and while you are at it, check out Soundcloud Connect for Roku, a free app I wrote that lets you listen to the newest freshest music direct from thousands of new independant and musicians from across the globe, on your Roku. (Famous musicians too, but you’ve heard them already, right?)

    Make sure if you install a Roku Screensaver, that you enable it by going to the Roku Settings item and changing the screensaver settings.

    Coming soon: Soundcloud Connect is expanding to include many other incredible music services such as 8tracks, Jamendo, BandCamp, and Mixcloud, and will have a new name.

    – Joel

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  3. Got the boyfriend a Roku box for Christmas and I can’t wait to try out all these tips! This may just push us over the cord-cutting edge.

    Happy Holidays!

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  4. Soon to be an owner of a Roku XDS. Is there a way to stream content on your network such as a DVD playing on a computer in another room? Dont have a DVD player connected to TV, so for the occasions where I have a DVD vs using Netflix – would be great to just stream from a computer playing DVD on network vs get the wires out and plug laptop into TV. Definitely not a deal breaker, but would be a great bonus/feature that would seem easy to add on Roku.

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  5. @dp81 You should be able to do this with VLC, theoretically, but someone would have to create a Roku channel to receive it. If anyone knows of a hardware DVD/blu-ray device that can decode and stream over Ethernet, please let me know.

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  6. Also keep an eye out for the next Gabby Media Server.

    http://www.gabilan.com

    Plays networked audio and video very well, and the install is a little bit easier than roksbox.

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  7. Great article. I love my Roku. I would also recommend installing PlayON software http://www.playon.tv/playon on your computer if you have a PC and activating the PlayON channel on your Roku. Private channel code is PLAYON. PlayON acts as a media server and proxy for online content so you can access the online content usually blocked from Roku and other set top devices. They offers a 14 day trial and then a lifetime license for only $39.99. It comes standard with the following content – Hulu, Netflix, Comedy Central, MLB.tv, NHL.com, CBS.com, BET, ESPN.com, ESPN3, Nick, TV.com, NFL Rewind, SpikeTV, The Ultimate Fighter, TBS, PBS, PBS Kids, MTV and VEVO. You can add more via PlayOn scripts and plugins http://www.playon.tv/plugins and through their open source development new content is being added all the time.

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  8. Thanks for this great round up of tips. This is exactly what I was looking for today.

    I just picked up a Roku XDS and hope it lives up to the hype. We’ve cut out cable and are trying to get by with just Hulu Plus and Netflix.

    We’re experiencing fairly intermittent connectivity issues, but hopefully, that’s just the winter storm we’re dealing with right now.

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  9. Get more out of your Roku: http://t.co/0aGjShDc

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