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.
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.
That's only the tip of the iceberg. Other channels include AlloyTV, Baeble Music, Blip.tv, Break.com, Chow, Crackle, Facebook Photos, Flixster, FrameChannel, Jaman, MobileTribe, MOG, MP3tunes, NASA TV, Picasa Web Albums, SHOUTcast Internet Radio, Vimeo, and Whiskey Media. There are dozens more (more than 100 and counting), though many others are so niche-oriented (read: obscure) that you've likely never heard of them. (Check out roku-channels.com for a full list of public and private Roku channels.)
Roku has also added some recent "unofficial" channels built by third-party developers using standard Web tools. These include such premium brands as Last.fm (free) and Sirius XM (paid subscription required). It's great to see them, but just be aware that the respective service providers could pull them from the channel store if and when they so choose.
There are also a handful of so-called "private" channels that can be accessed using special codes. But because you can add and delete channels as you see fit (more on that below), you see only the programming you want.
Using your Roku player
Since its release two years ago, Roku has continued to tweak the user interface, and most people should find it clean, simple, and straightforward to navigate. 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 enhanced remote included with the XDS and XD adds "instant replay," "back" (return to previous menu), and "info" buttons.
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 made the remote a little sleeker than previous models, with a matte finish instead a glossy one, and Roku branding that appears on a cloth tag sticking out from the remote (some people may not like the tag, but we didn't mind it). 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). Because the app works over Wi-Fi instead of infrared, we found that it actually worked better than the included remote--or at least made the box respond more quickly to our commands.
After you've set up the channels of your choice, you can dive in and 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. Thanks to a recent firmware update, you can also change the order that the channels appear on the home screen.
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 when the frame rate drops below 24 frames per second.
At the other end of the spectrum is the HD content on Netflix and Amazon (some, but 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. We were also impressed by MLB TV. In general, the picture quality of the games we watched is quite solid.
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).
What won't you find on Roku? The short answer--when compared with similar products--is "not much." We were surprised that YouTube isn't officially available on Roku (it is accessible via a private channel hack, if you so choose). And some people may lament the lack of Vudu, but the presence of Amazon's video store more than makes up for it (Amazon has most of the movies you'll find on Vudu, plus a much more comprehensive selection of TV episodes).
Like all non-Apple products, don't expect to find access to the iTunes Store on Roku. Nor can you stream iTunes downloads to the Roku box. And while that makes sense for copy-protected video, it does point out one of the Roku's only real frustrations: unlike many competing products, the Roku can't access other digital media on your home network (DLNA servers, etc.). Nor can you plug in a USB drive and access digital music, video, or photos. (Both can be done with unofficial hacks, but neither is officially supported.) It's not a deal-breaker, but the Roku hardware seems to have the capabilities, so it's frustrating that it's not available--especially when many Blu-ray players are starting to offer these sorts of functions. We may see them in a future firmware update, but don't look for them (without a private channel hack) on the current software version.
Roku's current incarnation now offers the widest array of streaming content to date, and one of the better Netflix experiences out there. The question is: at just $99, is it worth buying?
The short answer: it depends. If you already have an older Roku model, the new one offers only a handful of improvements. Likewise, if you have a good Blu-ray player, a Net-connected TV, a PlayStation 3, or an Xbox 360, you'll already have access to many (but probably not all) of Roku's mainstream content providers--Netflix, Vudu, and Pandora are widely supported, for example.
Of course, if you don't already own one of those devices, it's a different story. The Roku XDS is more affordable than all of them, and it's got built-in Wi-Fi--something you won't find on entry-level Blu-ray players and even many Net-enabled TVs.
How about Roku's streaming media peers? Google TV is three times as expensive, and currently offers far less content (thanks to media companies blocking its built-in browser). Boxee is twice as expensive, and has yet to enable its Netflix and Vudu apps.
Apple TV is the same price, but it's very much targeted at users who wish to stay within the "iUniverse" of products. If you own an iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch, and you enjoy buying and renting content from iTunes, it's good--great, even. But otherwise, it offers only Netflix, YouTube, Flickr, and Internet radio content you can get on Roku or countless other devices. (The AirPlay feature is a cool addition for streaming audio from an iOS device, but in its current form, it's not a game changer.) Yes, Apple TV's user interface is far slicker than that of the Roku--but Roku's utilitarian interface is good enough, and it provides a gateway to far more content options.
Put another way, even with the increased competition--most notably in the Apple realm--and despite some shortcomings, the Roku Player's simplicity, affordable price, and superior programming selection make it the go-to choice for buyers looking for a sub-$100 solution for accessing the increasingly attractive panoply of online streaming media services.