CNET logo Why You Can Trust CNET

Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement

Roku Player review: Roku Player

Roku Player

John Falcone Senior Editorial Director, Shopping
John P. Falcone is the senior director of commerce content at CNET, where he coordinates coverage of the site's buying recommendations alongside the CNET Advice team (where he previously headed the consumer electronics reviews section). He's been a CNET editor since 2003.
Expertise Over 20 years experience in electronics and gadget reviews and analysis, and consumer shopping advice Credentials
  • Self-taught tinkerer, informal IT and gadget consultant to friends and family (with several self-built gaming PCs under his belt)
John Falcone
10 min read


Roku Player

The Good

Affordable sub-$130 price tag; streams a variety of Internet video and audio services, including Netflix, Amazon, Pandora, Major League Baseball games, and Mediafly podcasts; dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi; works with all TVs; upgradable firmware allows for periodic update of content and features; good HD video quality (on channels and programming that support it).

The Bad

Ever cheaper Blu-ray players offer many of the same Internet viewing options plus disc playback; video quality varies from channel to channel, depending upon provider and source material; setup and content queues usually require at least some PC interaction; yet another box under the TV; no centralized way to access and manipulate channel providers.

The Bottom Line

New content channels and faster Wi-Fi make the Roku HD XR Player a good choice for anyone who wants a quick and easy way to add Netflix--and a variety of other Internet media channels--to any TV.

Editors' note: As of September 23, 2010, this product has been discontinued and replaced by the similar Roku XDS.

Originally introduced in May 2008 as the "Netflix Player," Roku's little video-streaming box had one mission: allow Netflix subscribers to view that company's small stable of on-demand videos on their TVs. The box worked well enough, and as the year progressed, subsequent software updates and--most importantly--expanded program offerings and more HD content made the $100 Roku Netflix Player an even better deal than when it was initially launched.

Eighteen months later, the Roku Player is now a family of products with programming choices that go far beyond just Netflix. In addition to the original $100 product (now dubbed the Roku HD Player), there's a step-down entry-level model that loses the HD video output--the $80 Roku SD Player--and the step-up Roku HD XR Player reviewed here. This $130 model adds state of the art dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi and a USB port for future expansion. More importantly, though, is a November 2009 software update delivers upwards of a dozen programming channels to all of the Roku boxes.

Panoply of content
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). As of November 2009, there are 12 "channels" to choose from.

Netflix (paid subscription): Access approximately 12,000 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, which costs as little as $9 per month. Some content is available in HD. You create an instant viewing queue with your PC's Web browser, and those titles are then accessible on the Roku.

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 $2 to $4 (rentals) to $6 to $15 (purchases). Titles can be queued up via a Web browser, or you can search via an on-screen keyboard and/or lists of hot titles. Some content is available in HD.

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).

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. While 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.

Flickr (free): Photos on Yahoo's Flickr service can be accessed onscreen via the Roku.

Revision3 (free): The full range of programs from this tech-centric video provider--including Tekzilla and Diggnation--is available on the Roku.

TWiT (free): Similar to Revision3, Leo Laporte's TWiT is a provider of techie video and audio programming, including the eponymous This Week in Tech show.

Blip.tv (free): Blip.tv aggregates and distributes a variety of independent Web video programs.

FrameChannel (free):Like Flickr, FrameChannel (which is used on some digital photo frames) allows you to access and share photos you've uploaded to the Web.

Motionbox (free): Motionbox is a YouTube-like site that lets you access home movies you've uploaded.

MobileTribe (paid subscription): MobileTribe aggregates information from a variety of your existing social network accounts, including Facebook, MySpace, and Plaxo.

The Roku Channel Store allows you to surface or hide the exact channels you wish to see on the main menu.

The box
The Roku HD XR Player looks all but identical to the other two models in the Roku Player line. Measuring 1.75 inches tall by 5.25 inches wide by 5.25 inches deep, the box is slightly smaller than your typical cable modem, but instead of having just an Ethernet port on the back, it's equipped with all manner of audio and video outputs: HDMI, component video, S-Video, and composite video ports, as well as digital optical or the standard red/white analog stereo outputs. (The HDMI and digital audio connections support stereo and surround sound.)

For optimal video quality, you'll want to stick with HDMI or component video. However, you will have to supply those cables since the Netflix Player includes only a standard composite AV cable in the box. We were happy to see the presence of composite and S-Video jacks, as well an aspect ratio (standard or wide-screen) toggle, which lets the Netflix Player connect to any old TV, not just HD sets. (Apple TV and the upcoming Boxee Box can only connect to HDTVs.) Note, however, that the Roku's HD output is limited to 720p, not 1080i or 1080p. That doesn't impact image quality so much (this is Web video, after all), but some older HDTVs can't accept a 720p signal, so you'll be forced to ratchet down to the standard-def "anamorphic" mode.

The XR box adds a USB port on the rear. For now it's dormant, but Roku's hinted that a future firmware upgrade may allow it to stream media from an attached storage device. The XR box also adds dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi, which means it offers the capability for faster, smoother wireless networking (if you're connecting to a similarly speedy 11n router) than the Roku HD and SD boxes, which are limited to the older, slower 802.11g standard. With the USB port currently unused, the only reason to spring for the HD XR over the HD is the faster 802.11n wireless, but to us it's worth the slight premium now that N routers are becoming commonplace.

The remote is about as simple as it gets: in addition to a five-way directional pad, play/pause, fast-forward, and rewind keys, there's a "home" button that takes you back to the main screen's list of available channels. The remote works well enough, and since it's a standard infrared model you can easily program its functions into any worthwhile universal remote. (Roku has slightly modified the unit from its earlier models so it's easier to change the batteries.) You can also use an iPod Touch or iPhone as a remote via Wi-Fi with the DVPRemote app (currently 99 cents) or Rokumote app (currently free).

Once you have your AV cables connected from the Roku to the TV, you plug the AC adapter into the box, wait a few seconds for the box to start up, and make your way through the simple setup wizard using the included remote. You're given the choice to connect to your home network via a wired or wireless connection and can fairly easily switch from one connection to another if your wireless connection is spotty. If you have a secure wireless network (WEP, WPA, WPA2), you simply key in your security key via an onscreen virtual keyboard.

One slight annoyance: channels need to be individually linked to separate provider accounts using your PC's Web browser.

Once you're online, you use your PC's Web browser to create a Roku account at the company's Web site (just an e-mail address and a password is needed). That in turn allows you to link the Roku Player (or players) to the account by typing in a code that the Player displays onscreen. You then have access (on the Player) to the Roku Channel Store--think of it as an App Store for content. The Store allows you to add and remove channels on the fly, as you see fit. So, you can only add the channels you want, and the others remain hidden from view. (You can set a PIN code to avoid the possibility of other viewers--such as children--manipulating the channels in your absence.)

Adding, removing, or readding a channel is quick and easy. However, most channels need to be "activated" by setting up an account on the provider's Web site and then linking the account to the Roku box by typing in a randomly generated code that appears on the screen. It's easy and straightforward enough, but you'll need to repeat the process for most of the channels you set up. We'd like to see Roku have an online account aggregation page on its Web site (similar to Logitech's Squeezebox) that ties all of the accounts together in one convenient location.

Using the Roku Player
After you've set up the channels of your choice, you can dive in and start to enjoy them. Most of the channels follow the same general interface. You use the five-way directional pad on the remote to move between horizontal lists of program choices (such as cover art on Netflix and Amazon). Clicking the up arrow usually takes you to a parent "folder" in that channel; further clicks up will eventually bring you to the channel's main screen, and then back to the Roku's home screen. It's all fairly intuitive and straightforward.

When choosing a program, such as a Netflix movie, there's a load time of between 6 to 15 seconds while the box begins the streaming process (the same delay occurs when you resume from a pause, fast-forward, or rewind). Fast-forwarding and rewinding lets you navigate a progress bar along the total time of a video at multiple speeds. Netflix and Amazon add thumbnails to that process, making it easier to find the specific scene you're looking for. It's not quite as convenient as jumping through tracks on a DVD, but considering you're navigating a stream (not a full digital download), it's pretty smooth.

The Roku automatically adjusts signal quality according to the speed of your broadband connection on a four-level scale; we always got the top-tier speed on a cable modem connection. The resulting image, however, can vary widely depending on the source encoding. Many of the video podcasts on Mediafly, for instance, are low-resolution YouTube-esque videos that don't look very good blown up on a large-screen TV. Some videos can exhibit occasional strobing or stuttering artifacts on panning shots as well, when the frame rate drops below 24 frames per second.

This frame from an episode of "Lost" shows the excellent level of detail you can get from HD programming on Netflix.

At the other end of the spectrum is the HD content on Netflix and Amazon (some, not all, of the movies and TV shows on those channels are available in high-def). By and large, they look excellent. The quality generally isn't Blu-ray level, but most HD offerings seem to meet or exceed DVD video quality. To our eyes, shows like "Lost" (currently available on Netflix in HD) look about as good as they do on cable or satellite TV.

Audio quality is likewise very good. Most programs are in stereo, but some of the content on Amazon is in Dolby Digital surround (which means that other program providers could add surround support in the future as well).

Final thoughts
To date, the Roku Player does not offer content from YouTube or Hulu. The former is curious, since YouTube is available on a wide range of other devices, but its absence here is hardly a deal-killer--we find that most YouTube videos don't suit the lean-back experience of TV viewing. And while Hulu would be a slam-dunk, that service isn't natively supported on any home video device because of Hulu's own intransigence (its major media content partners prefer to remain only on the PC).

Similarly, it's slightly annoying that the Netflix interface on the Xbox 360 offers a few additional programming lists to choose from--new releases and what's hot in specific genres. We'd like to see those options added to the Roku interface, along with the capability to search the Netflix catalog and manipulate the queue onscreen. (The Amazon channel, for instance, has both of those options.)

Those are relatively minor quibbles, however. The bigger issue may be that the Roku Players no longer have an exclusive lock on much of the most desirable premium content--specifically, Netflix and Amazon. Netflix is embedded into many Blu-ray players and home theater systems, TVs, and the Xbox 360 and PS3 game consoles. Amazon Video-on-Demand is similarly available on a growing number of devices. Consumers who already own one of those devices--or have them on the shopping list--may want to think twice about the Roku, especially considering that it can't play DVDs or Blu-ray Discs.

On the other hand, the Roku offers the advantage of built-in Wi-Fi (most sub-$200 Netflix-enabled Blu-ray players--and the Xbox 360--are Ethernet-only or require an add-on Wi-Fi adapter), easy setup, and a demonstrated history of expanding its program offerings. Also, the Roku Players don't require an additional fee above and beyond the Netflix subscription; compare that to the Xbox 360, which needs a $50 per year Xbox Live subscription to activate its Netflix streaming functionality.

At the end of the day, any doubts about the Roku Player are erased by its low price. For an up-front investment of $130 (or $100, for the "classic" Roku model), the Roku Player delivers a wealth of on-demand Web media content to your TV. Programming options are flexible and growing. We currently think Netflix, Amazon, Pandora, and Mediafly are the key draws, but the Roku Channel Store leaves the decision up to you.


Roku Player

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 8