Roku Player review: Roku Player

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.