5 Tips and Tricks: USB Video on the Roku

Mari Silbey —  August 15, 2010 — 22 Comments

Roku XR USB channel

One of the big selling points for the XR version of the Roku is the addition of a USB port. And although there’s no official Roku support for USB video playback yet, there is a private USB channel available thanks to citizen-coder Nowhereman. (Submit your own channel in Roku’s developer contest by September 7th.) The channel is easy enough to set up with Nowhereman’s detailed instructions, but there are some quirks to watch for. If you want to try it out, arm yourself with a few tips and tricks first:

  1. Be prepared to convert video files for playback on the Roku, as the USB channel only supports MP4 video (plus MP3 audio, and PNG and JPG photos). Luckily, you can grab transcoding software for free off the Web. Try downloading the open-source HandBrake transcoder if you need format conversion.
  2. You can use a USB flash drive with the Roku’s port, but it likely won’t work if you try to hook up your 500 GB Western Digital external drive. Rule of thumb: if it needs to plug into the wall, it probably won’t work with the USB channel.
  3. Frame rate matters. Encode your video files at 29.97 frames per second rather than the standard 30 fps. Otherwise, be prepared for a lot of buffering.
  4. Bit rate matters. Encoding at a bit rate that’s too low will create blockiness in playback, particularly with action scenes. Start with a rate of 2.5 Megabits per second. The trade-off in file size is worth it.
  5. Get a bigger USB drive. It’s amazing how much space a movie can take up when you’re encoding at 2.5 Mbps. Luckily, thumb drives are pretty cheap these days. You can grab a 16 GB drive for a measly $25 or $30 on Amazon.

Need more help? Check out the Roku user forum. (And thanks to David for testing out the USB channel first in our house.)

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22 responses to 5 Tips and Tricks: USB Video on the Roku

  1. The codec and container limitations are the Roku hardware and API, not nowhereman’s skills fyi. :)

  2. FYI, the refurb HD version is at woot today for $60.

  3. oops, today being 8/16.

  4. Dave,

    I was just about to point out the same thing. You can’t blame nowhereman for the box’s limitations. ;-)

    The Roku DVP is an awesome, inexpensive little internet streamer, but really falls short when it comes to local streaming because of its extremely limited file container and codec support. While you can do local streaming with nowhereman’s USB channel or one of the several other private local network channels available, I certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone purchase a Roku if local streaming is in any way going to be a significant portion of what they want to do. There are just too many other STB’s out there that do it better and with less hassle.

  5. Agree with the comments by Chad. While the options to view content locally (USB and local streaming via a few different options) are good recent additions, they are far from easy or ideal and not intuitive for the vast majority of users.

    It seems to me Roku is quickly approaching the point where they have to decide what type of device they want. One that is low priced, focused on numerous channels/apps and limited support for local options; or a more robust device (improved hardware) that is higher priced but offers greater codec support, easier setup for local options and a more polished UI. Of course they could also do both. Maintain the current line of DVPs (the basic models) and introduce higher end box(es) in the $200 price range.

  6. “You can’t blame nowhereman for the box’s limitations”

    I don’t believe anybody was.

  7. While blame wasn’t explicitly laid on nowhereman, the lack of an explanation discussing where the limitations actually originate (the hardware/SDK), coupled with the following text in the article would seem to infer the limitations lay solely with the channel, which is of course, not the case.

    “…Be prepared to convert video files for playback on the Roku, as the USB channel only supports MP4 video (plus MP3 audio, and PNG and JPG photos)…”

    Without any text to the contrary, what are we supposed to deduce from this? Sometimes not saying something makes just as much a point as coming out and saying it directly.

  8. I think you’re supposed to deduce from that sentence that the channel doesn’t support MP4 video. That that sentence is then an accusation of blame is one you’re making yourself, not one in the article.

  9. The reason I mentioned it in comment #1 is to expand on Mari’s coverage by providing greater clarity to folks who are not as informed on Roku as we obviously are.

    But I’ve got a bigger hardware fish to fry myself, as Roku still doesn’t output 1080i content – meaning our bedroom television can’t receive HD via Roku (480p is the best I can do with Roku tethered my 720p set).

  10. I can see your point, Total, but what is the next logical question that will likely be asked by someone who is not familiar with the Roku? I imagine it would be something along the lines of “Why doesn’t the channel support other formats?”

    I suppose one could just as easily assume it was due to hardware limitations rather than poor software design, but why be so ambiguous about it? Just come out and say it. That’s all I was trying to get across. Maybe “blame” was a poor choice of words on my part. Either way, Dave’s first comment certainly clarified it, and with all this discussion, I’m sure everyone is well aware of it by now. ;-) I’ll leave it at that.

  11. @Chad If someone asks the question, then you answer it. Preemptively announcing that there’s “blame” being thrown around (which Dave Z did not do, by the way) was a bridge too far.

  12. Jeez people get a life. Quit your bitchin. Nobody is blaming anybody for anything. You guys are just looking for a fight

  13. Just an FYI but Roku Hired Nowhereman. They liked his work that much. He’s Now Working on their Official USB Channel which is probably based off this Channel of his.

  14. I found the update to be really easy. Added the channel and updated the patch, which didn’t even require a restart.

    I had no problem with JPGs and MP4s. But the Roku struggled a bit with WMV files. Maybe the next patch will do it.

    Definitely will need larger USB keys to play actual movies. Haven’t tried a USB harddrive yet though.

    Buddy – It was easy enough to install the Roku USB channel, including a minor software patch. It didn’t even require a restart.

    Interesting, I got the MP4 files and JPGs to play perfectly. The WMV seemed to choke a little. Maybe they’ll need to update the channel every so often.

    Buddy
    http://wordspicturesweb.com/?p=1296

  15. I just want to know. Can I download photo pictures onto my flash drive, plug it into the Roku usb and see these photo’s on my tv?

  16. Steve – absolutely. I’ve been viewing .jpg and .png files for a while now.

  17. I currently have a My Book one terabyte external hard drive connected to a Roku XDS through the USB port. It does see the drive and I can play both MP3 and video files off of it. There are two issues as I see it. It needs to support more formats and moving between directories is VERY slow. I can understand that it will be slow opening up a new directory but what I do not understand is why it takes so long to move back one directory. It can take up to a minute or two to go back one directory. Hope someone codes up a fix for this. In the past I have used a DVP5982 DVD player from Philips. It plays almost every format I have ever seen but it is not internet connected.

  18. I think people are missing the point of this article… I didn’t get the impression that ANYONE was pointing blame, at least not until people’s over-critical argumentative egos couldn’t resist themselves any longer. I personally found the information here to be a life-saver considering that I, personally, have spent several hours over this past weekend trying to figure out why the f%#k I kept running into problems with some file types. This article was one of only a couple that I was able to find that provided real explanation in terms of conversion container formats versus file extension limitations. some *.mp4 files worked while others did not, as did some *.asf files while others did not. The author deserves to be complimented NOT scrutinized as far as I am concerned. To the author, thank you for taking the time to extend your knowledge to others who may be experiencing a similar frustration, I really appreciate it. Kudos to you!

  19. I agree. Kudos to Nowhereman. Great Job.

  20. Interesting, I got the MP4 files and JPGs to play perfectly. The WMV seemed to choke a little. Maybe they’ll need to update the channel every so often.

  21. Can I tether thunderbolt Smart phone to Roku 2 sx and get tv on my motor home. Of cures I’ll subscribe to hulu or amazon.

  22. When will roku support wmv files or is there an update

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