November 2018 Issue  Volume 19  Number 11

Product Reviews and Guides

Roku Sticks, Players, and TVs: Access to Multimedia Streaming Devices Part 1

Editor's Note: This is the first in a multi-part series of articles that will describe and evaluate the accessibility of streaming entertainment devices and associated services. For these reviews, hardware and software provided by the services was used to access several popular entertainment channels. The evaluation includes the accessibility of the services and devices themselves, as well as audio description offerings for the channels used in the tests.

Roku is a popular streaming service that offers several hardware devices you can connect to a television, and even Roku-branded TVs with the Roku software built in. When the Roku hardware is connected, or a Roku TV turned on, you interact with a Roku interface that features channels for many popular entertainment services. You can use a provided Roku remote, or the Roku mobile app to control the device and some Roku devices support voice search. Roku includes a spoken interface called Audio Guide, which you enable by pressing the remote's star (*) button four times in quick succession.

Roku Hardware

Roku sells streaming sticks that connect directly to an HDMI port on your TV or entertainment system, as well as players (small boxes) that you can connect to a TV via an HDMI cable. All Roku devices include Wi-Fi, or you can connect a Roku player to Ethernet. Some devices support 4K video; you can save some money if you don't need a high-resolution picture. Each device comes with a small remote that has easy-to-use tactile buttons. Most Roku sticks and players support voice search, but the Roku Express and the Express+ (which connect to older TVs via composite cabling) do not. Some Roku-enabled TVs also do not support voice search. Before you choose a Roku device, be sure it includes voice search support if that's important to you. All current Roku devices support the Audio Guide screen reader, though Rokus with older software do not. Roku Streaming Stick, Roku Streaming Stick+, Roku Express, Roku Express+, Roku Premiere, Roku Premiere+, Roku Ultra, and Roku TV all include the Audio Guide.

Roku remotes fit in the palm of your hand. All buttons are fully tactile, and all remotes, though the number of buttons varies slightly by device, are laid out in a similar way. At the top is a Power button. On the next row, you'll find Back and Home buttons. Below is a set of directional controls, with an OK button in the center. Next come buttons for refreshing the device, and the Star button, which is used in channel setup, and to enable/disable the audio guide feature. If your device supports voice search, the button to activate it is located in this area. Below are buttons for Rewind, Play and Fast Forward. At the bottom of the remote are buttons mapped to popular channels like Netflix, Amazon Video, and others. On the side of the remote are up and down Volume buttons, and a Mute button.

Roku Setup and Configuration

I used a Roku Streaming Stick for this review. I also have a TCL Roku television, which I will refer to in cases where its behavior differs from that of the Streaming Stick.

When you unbox a new Roku device, first connected it to your TV or to a receiver or other device with an HDMI input. You can get a free HDMI extender cable from Roku if you need one. You'll also need to connect the device to power.

To configure your device with Audio Guide speech, press the star button on the remote four times in quick succession. Be sure the correct input on your TV or entertainment system is selected, so you will be able to hear Roku's speech through your speakers or TV.

Like most electronics setup interfaces, Roku walks you through the process with a series of screens, each of which includes menus or an onscreen keyboard. You'll first need to set the language you want, which will also set the language used by Audio Guide.

Next, choose your wireless network. When I moved to the Password screen for my Wi-Fi network, Audio Guide stopped speaking, so I wasn't able to use the onscreen keyboard with speech. This seems to have been a glitch, though a very inconvenient one. Next, Roku looked for a software update, analyzed my HDMI connection, and asked me to calibrate the remote by pointing it at the Roku device. The HDMI analysis resulted in a circular process that I couldn't exit by following Audio Guide directions. Sighted assistance was needed to locate the button that exited that screen.

Next, you'll need a computer or mobile device to authenticate the Roku device and to create or log into a Roku account. I created a Roku account using my computer. That's probably the easiest way to get started for a new Roku user. Then, all you have to do is authenticate your device to the account you already have.

When you get to the authentication step, Audio Guide will read the needed URL and the authentication code. The authentication site includes a CAPTCHA with an audio option. I used an iPad with VoiceOver to work in the browser, but when I attempted to use the audio version of the CAPTCHA, it wasn't possible to complete the step until I turned VoiceOver off and back on.

When you've finished setup, Roku presents a grid of channels. The device adds several popular ones to the screen, plus any you have associated with your account already. You can, of course, move and remove channels. Next to the channel grid is a menu of options. You can search for movies or shows, add more channels, and open Settings, among other things. Use the remote's navigation buttons to move through the grid and menu. Audio Guide reads everything on the main Roku screen.

Adding Channels to a Roku Device

With Roku set up, you can search for and add channels using Audio Guide. You can also connect to your Roku account from the company's website and manage your channels from there. Either way, channels you add to one Roku device will be available on any other Rokus associated with your account.

Navigate to a channel and press the OK button to open it. The accessibility of individual channels depends on the content developer, as you'll see later in this article. Same goes for signing into accounts for streaming services. Some channels are accessible, some are not.

You can get around potential issues connecting channels to your accounts by adding accounts via the Roku website. This won't help if the channel itself, like Hulu, is largely inaccessible with Audio Guide.

To remove an unused channel from the device, press the star button on the remote to reach a menu of options.

Roku Navigation and Search

The left side of the Roku screen consists of a menu of options that organize programming not by channel, but by category. You can search (by voice or onscreen) for movies, shows, actors, or directors. A feature called My Feed allows you to add favorite shows and get updates when new episodes come out, or when a program becomes available on a service you use. Everything in the menus is accessible via Audio Guide. If your Roku supports voice search you can press a button on the remote, or in the Roku mobile app, then speak your request. Roku will return the items that match, and you can navigate to the one you want. Audio Guide will read search results. At that point, Roku will show you which service or services offer the program you've chosen, and what it will cost you to buy or rent it. Then Roku takes you to the channel app for the service, and your accessibility experience will be dependent on the app developer.

To search by voice, you'll need to hold the button down as you speak. In my tests, Roku sometimes had difficulty hearing my requests, even though I spoke clearly and held the remote near my face. Activating voice search with Audio Guide turned on also meant that I needed to wait until Audio Guide had finished speaking before issuing my search request, or the device would not hear or understand my speech.

The Roku Audio Guide

As mentioned earlier, Audio Guide is available throughout the Roku interface, by which I mean the home screen, and any features that are not a part of individual channels. Channel vendors have done a varyingly good job of implementing speech within their channel apps. But just being available may not be enough.

Audio Guide itself is quite limited. There's only one voice available (my Roku Streaming Stick has a robotic female voice; my TCL Roku TV has a robotic male voice) and there are four speech rate settings. The voices are indistinct at low or moderate volume, especially when compared with voices supplied by other streaming providers. On the TV, volume for Audio Guide speech can be Low, Medium, or High. And that's it for Audio Guide customization.

Low Vision Considerations

Roku's interface, both during the install process and on the home screen, features light text over a dark background. The background uses gradients, which means that contrast is lower in some areas of the screen than others. That's particularly noticeable during the set-up process. The text is fairly large, but it's not possible to adjust its size.

You can choose one of many themes for your Roku home screen, meaning that the background can feature images or a color. On my Roku TV, the device sometimes overrides my theme choice on holidays. It's festive, but not low-vision friendly.

Popular Services and Roku

In each article in this series, we will evaluate the accessibility of popular entertainment services on the platform being discussed. We'll look at Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, and ESPN.

The Netflix app, which has its own shortcut key on the remotes for both the Roku Streaming Stick and TCL TV, fully supports Audio Guide, and you can turn Netflix audio description on or off. Netflix support for the Roku Audio Guide is the best available in any app I tested. Audio Guide reads and counts buttons as well as program synopses. When you're watching a show, navigation controls are fully accessible, too.

Like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video's channel is accessible with Audio Guide. And because the Prime Video channel gives you access to channels from other vendors that are available to Prime Video users, this Roku channel is more like a full-on service than a single source of content. It's possible that you'll find that channels that aren't accessible directly via Roku can be viewed from within the Prime Video app and navigated with Audio Guide.

YouTube has its own Roku channel, from which you can watch videos uploaded to the service or subscribe to YouTube Red, a paid service that includes lots of TV shows. Audio Guide does not speak any navigation or content elements in the YouTube channel.

Our fourth channel spotlight is ESPN, the sports network. ESPN is partially accessible to Audio Guide. You can navigate through features programs and even play them, but you won't hear the channel's menu items or be able to authenticate your device without assistance, since nothing on the authentication screen is spoken.

The Bottom Line

Roku's primary advantages are low cost and variety of content. You can get a Roku stick for as little as $30. In addition to channels for leading services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, HBO, Google Play and others, Roku has its own channel, with lots of movies and TV shows you can stream. This programming includes ads, but it's free to watch. You'll also find channels from lesser-known, and non-commercial services that include Described and Captioned Media Programs (DCMP).

As described earlier, though, Audio Guide is a poor screen reader that isn't supported by all of the apps you might want to use, so Roku is not a great primary entertainment choice for people with blindness or low vision.

This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.

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