Editors' note: As of November 2013, the product reviewed here has been discontinued and replaced by a similar updated Roku LT model.
The Roku LT ($50) may be more than a year old, but it remains one of the home theater products we'd most recommend.
At half the price of many of its competitors, the Roku LT offers a huge array of streaming-media content, including Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Spotify, MLB.TV, Mog, Rdio, Vudu, and HBO Go, along with tons of additional niche channels. The Roku LT also continues to get major updates, like the recent Roku Search functionality, which manages cross-platform video search that's on par with Google TV.
The Roku LT has its flaws, but they're minor. It lacks the step-up features of
But for $50, it's hard to argue that there's a better value on the market, which is why the Roku LT earns our enthusiastic Editors' Choice Award for the second straight year.
Editors' note, January 22, 2013: The Roku LT was first reviewed on May 16, 2012. This review has been updated several times to include details on new features and channels that Roku has added since then.
Like the more expensive Roku 2 boxes, the Roku LT is very compact and just a little thicker than the Apple TV. There's nothing on the front, save for a small dim light that lets you know it's on. The LT has a distinctive purple color; if you want a more traditional black box, check out the nearly identical $60 Roku HD.
Around back are an HDMI output and standard AV outputs, the latter making it possible to use the Roku with older TVs. If you want additional connectivity -- like an Ethernet port, SD card slot, or USB port -- have a look at the step-up Roku 2 line of players. For most people, those features aren't needed for the core functionality of streaming video and music.
The LT has built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi for connecting to the Internet, although it's not dual-band like some of Roku's older boxes. Unfortunately, dual-band connectivity isn't available on any current Roku boxes except the Roku Streaming Stick, so most people can't upgrade for better network performance.
The remote is delightfully simple. There's a directional pad with an OK button in the center, and there are some basic playback buttons plus Home and Back. The asterisk button on the bottom generally brings up more options, although it's not always clear what you're going to get when you press it. The LT remote now also includes direct-access buttons for Netflix, Pandora, and Crackle, which is a nice touch, although Crackle strikes me as an odd third choice.
Setup is straightforward and relatively easy. The only real annoyance is that you'll need to create a Roku account, which involves entering your credit card information or linking to a PayPal account, so you can purchase premium channels. Virtually every major channel is free (or billed separately, through the channel provider), so the credit card step should really be optional.
You'll also need to link your Roku box to each individual streaming service, which generally involves entering an activation code on a Web site, so expect to spend some time in front of your TV with a laptop.
Content and user interface
The home screen has a basic interface, with a horizontal row of channels to choose from. The Roku LT comes preloaded with the most important channels: Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, and Pandora. The first three are an outstanding trio for cable-cutters, letting you mix and match subscription and pay-per-view content to catch up on your favorite TV shows.
The user interfaces for the major services are excellent and comparable to what you'd get using a more expensive device like the Sony PlayStation 3. Unlike with those very first Roku boxes, you can search through Netflix's streaming catalog, as well as browse titles that aren't in your instant queue. The new Rokus also support closed captioning for Netflix.
If you want more content, you'll go into the Channel Store. Here you'll find lots of excellent mainstream apps like HBO Go, MLB.TV, Vudu, NHL GameCenter, Epix, Crackle, Picasa, and Flickr, as well as more niche channels like TED Talks, Revision3, TWiT.TV, NASA, and CNET. On the audio side, there's also a full selection: Spotify, Pandora, TuneIn Radio, Slacker, Shoutcast, Mog, and Rdio, and, recently, Amazon Cloud Player.
You can see a full list of channels on Roku's Web site. The biggest omission remains YouTube, which is available on nearly all other mainstream streaming-video devices.
For 2013, Roku has already announced a slate of additional channels, including iHeartRadio, Dailymotion, and PBS. The company has also revealed plans to add a Time Warner Cable app, which will essentially allow the Roku to function as a makeshift cable box for existing Time Warner subscribers.
The Channel Store itself can be overwhelming, with the huge selection of channels presented as a seemingly never-ending grid. The lack of a search function can make it annoying to find a specific app, and even though there are filters, like "Most popular" and "Movies and TV," it's still easy to get a little lost as to what you're actually looking at. Luckily, once you add a channel it shows up on the home screen, and you can arrange home channels in whatever order you'd like. You can also add channels to your box using using Roku's Web interface, which thankfully has a search function.
There are also dozens of unofficial "private" channels built by third-party developers. These include everything from quasi-legal restreams of Web and international video channels to adult content. They're accessible using special codes available online. But parents need not fret: password controls are available to ensure that only the Roku account owner can add channels. And because you can add and delete channels as you see fit, you see only the programming you want. Just be aware that some of the private channels are unsupported, so they could be shut off without notice.
Rounding out the Roku LT's streaming functionality is one of its newest features: cross-platform search. If you know what you want to watch, but aren't sure what service it's available on, Roku Search combs through Netflix, Amazon Instant, Vudu, Hulu Plus, Crackle, and HBO Go, then lets you know whether it's available free for subscribers or for an additional pay-per-view fee. It works quite well overall, and you can even search for directors and actors, in addition to movie and TV show titles.
Play on Roku: AirPlay-lite
One of the Apple TV's consistent advantages over Roku's boxes has been AirPlay, which lets you wirelessly stream music, video, and photos from iOS devices and Macs. It works with the vast majority of third-party iOS apps, such as Spotify and Pandora, giving you nearly seamless access to all your phone and tablet content on your TV. It's a killer feature if you're invested in the iOS ecosystem.
The recently added Play on Roku feature addresses some of this functionality, but not all of it. Launch the Roku app available on iOS and Android, select "Play on Roku," and you can now stream music and photos directly to your Roku box. It works well, but the big catch is that Play on Roku only works for your own music and photos stored on your phone; you can't stream content from third-party apps like Spotify, the way you can with AirPlay. It also doesn't work with video, so there's no way to "push" a video captured on your phone to your TV. So overall, AirPlay still wins, although for many people this basic functionality might be enough.
It's also worth noting that advanced users looking to get their own media onto the Roku can download the Plex media server, and use the free Plex channel on Roku to access videos on their networked PC or Mac.
Image quality: Is 720p good enough?
While many of the missing features (Bluetooth, USB, Ethernet) of the Roku LT are easy to dismiss, videophiles may be particularly hesitant about its lack of 1080p output. That's understandable, even though in many cases the benefits of 1080p are minimal.
In our testing with the Roku LT we didn't find the lack of 1080p video to be noticeable, even for HD streams from Netflix, Amazon Instant, and Hulu Plus. Occasionally we'd notice some slight false contouring in the background, but it was minor even to our trained eyes. It's hard to imagine anyone complaining about how the BBC's "Sherlock" on Netflix looks on the Roku LT. Of course, excellent streaming-video image quality is dependent on the quality of your broadband connection as well as on the content itself.
The bottom line is that we don't think buyers should give weight to the lack of 1080p video much, if at all, when choosing a streaming-video box, unless planning to use it with a very large (60-plus inches) display.
The Roku LT succeeds because it strips away the features the Roku 2 boxes don't do well. The gaming features on the Roku 2 XS and the limited digital-media playback offered by the USB port are halfhearted at best. I'd rather save the extra money and still get access to all the great streaming content.
The toughest choice will likely be for those who own Apple devices: is it worth spending double to get the $100 Apple TV? You'll get better integration with other iOS devices and iTunes Store content, plus a slicker, more refined interface. The disadvantage is that you get considerably fewer content sources. The deciding factor is whether you envision yourself actually using Roku's additional channels -- if you're largely going to stick to Netflix and iTunes, go with the Apple TV for its AirPlay functionality.
But for anyone not committed to the Apple ecosystem, the Roku LT is easily the best streaming-box value and the option in Roku's lineup that we'd most recommend. Even better, it continues to get better every year.