Editors' note: As of July 2011, this product has been discontinued and replaced by the Roku 2 XS.
It seems hard to believe now that Netflix streaming video is available on nearly any Internet-connected home video product, but back in the spring of 2008, the only Netflix-compatible device was a tiny streaming media box called the Roku Player. In the two years since its release, a series of firmware upgrades has expanded the program offerings on the Roku, even as the company added a new generation of products. The fall 2010 lineup comes in good, better, and best versions: the $69.99 Roku HD, $79.99 Roku XD, and the $99.99 Roku XDS (reviewed here). (Note: The Netgear Roku Player NTV250 is just a rebadged version of the Roku XD.)
In its latest incarnation, the company has made its little black box even smaller, while retaining the same onscreen look and feel as well as "channel" options. Roku currently offers one of the strongest lists of online content providers: Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Video on Demand are the big headliners, with plenty of other video providers (Vimeo, Flixster, Blip.tv, Break.com, Revision3), audio services (Pandora, MP3tunes, MOG), photo services (Flickr, SmugMug, Facebook) and live sports providers (MLB.TV, NHL GameCenter, UFC). There are dozens more, though many are, admittedly, aiming for niche audiences.
We looked at the Roku XDS when it was first released in September 2010. At the time, we liked what we saw, but ultimately it was little different from the previous incarnation of the Roku box. Moreover, we were anticipating the release of several major competitors in the upcoming weeks: the $99 Apple TV, the $199 Boxee Box, and a slate of Google TV products ($299 and up). Now that we've had a chance to test all of those products, we've looped back to the Roku. Yes, it's still largely the same box--albeit with the notable addition of Hulu Plus to its channel list. But Roku is now a better deal than ever, especially when compared with its aforementioned competitors. In fact, we think it's the best sub-$100 streaming media box you can buy. Read on to find out why.
From the front, all the 2010 Roku models look the same, with each lightweight unit measuring 1.1 inches high by 4.9 inches wide by 4.9 inches deep. And each one offers wired (Ethernet) and wireless (Wi-Fi) network connectivity, plus HDMI and composite AV video outputs (for HDTVs and standard TVs, respectively). Internally, the big difference involves the flavor of Wi-Fi you get: The base Roku HD model has 802.11g whereas the Roku XD has faster 802.11n. Step up to the XDS and you get dual-band 802.11n. Additionally, the XD and XDS come with "enhanced" remotes that offer three additional buttons (instant replay, back, and info).
For what it's worth, the XD and XDS also support 1080p video output, while the entry-level Roku HD does 720p video. We think that's not a big deal considering there's almost nothing in the way of true 1080p streaming video, so you'll have a hard time telling the difference between the resolutions, both of which are characterized as HD. Of course, you'll need an HDTV to view Roku's HD video output and you'll also need to supply your own HDMI cable since the box ships with only a standard composite (red, white, yellow) AV cable. However, it is worth pointing out that at least the Roku HD does connect to standard-definition TVs-- Apple TV, Boxee, and the Logitech Revue (Google TV) are designed to be used only with HDMI-equipped HDTVs.
The Roku XDS includes a USB port (which, once activated, will be used for viewing USB-based media). It also offers an optical audio output and support for component video (via a breakout cable)--both of which are useful for connecting to non-HDMI TVs and home audio systems.
Which model is right for you will probably depend on your existing network setup and the type of TV you plan on connecting to your Roku box. For a lot of people the $69.99 model will work fine if their router is nearby. But the higher-speed 802.11n networking capabilities of the two high-end models will be enticing to many. (We'd bite the bullet and get the XDS.)
Panoply of content
Setting up your Roku Player is pretty straightforward, but you will be asked to set up a Roku account on your computer during the setup process that allows you to link multiple Roku boxes to the account (if you have more than one) and access the Roku Channel Store. And if you're planning on streaming Netflix content, you'll also have to go through the two-step process of linking your Netflix account to your Roku box via Netflix's Web site.
All of the programming on the Roku Player is available a la carte via the Roku Channel Store (see the setup section below for details), with more than 100 channels to choose from. A handful are quite good; many however, you'll find you can live without. (The full list is available at Roku's Web site.)
Some of the most notable channels are:
Netflix (paid subscription): Access thousands of movies and TV shows on-demand. The service is available to all Netflix subscribers on plans that allow one disc or more at a time; alternately, Netflix now offers a streaming-only plan for $8 per month. An increasing amount of the content is available in HD. The updated Netflix interface now supports searching and instant queue additions, which makes things even more convenient.
Amazon Video-on-Demand (pay-per-view): Amazon offers 40,000-plus movies and TV shows for sale or rent a la carte, for anywhere from 99 cents to $4 for rentals and from $6 to $15 for purchases. Much of the content is available in HD.
Hulu Plus (paid subscription): Unlike the Hulu.com Web site, Hulu Plus isn't free, and it doesn't have access to any current cable channel shows. But for $8 a month, you get on-demand access to full seasons of most current shows on ABC, Fox, and NBC, plus a sizeable archive of older shows and even some movies.
MLB.TV (paid subscription): MLB.TV enables access to live and prerecorded Major League Baseball games--with the major caveat that it only works for out-of-area teams. You can choose the home or away video feed, which is available in standard or high-def (bandwidth permitting).
NHL GameCenter (paid subscription): The hockey version of the MLB service described above. It provides live and recorded out-of-area pro hockey games, available on-demand.
Pandora (free): The popular, free, streaming-audio service is available through the Roku Player. "Stations" you set up in advance can be accessed onscreen, and songs can be skipped or voted as "thumbs up" or "thumbs down."
Mediafly (free): The online content aggregator allows you to access a wide variety of audio and video broadcasts from pros and amateurs. Popular programs are instantly accessible via genre, and Mediafly subscribers can line up customized feeds as well. Though the programs are ostensibly "podcasts," Mediafly content includes some full-length TV programming as well, such as news and public affairs shows from NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, ABC, and CBS. (Note: CNET's parent company is CBS.)
Flickr (free): Photos on Yahoo's Flickr service can be accessed onscreen via the Roku.