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 step-down and step-up models to the lineup as well.
In its latest incarnation, the company has made its little black box even smaller, while retaining the same onscreen look and feel and "channel" options, currently headlined by Netflix, Amazon Video on Demand, Pandora, and MLB TV. The new box also comes in good, better, and best versions: the $59.99 Roku HD, the $79.99 Roku XD, and the $99.99 Roku XDS.
As noted, the big issue for Roku is that a lot of other players have moved into its space. It faces increased competition from networked Blu-ray players, TVs, and game consoles (PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii) that offer the most desirable premium content: specifically, Netflix and Amazon.
Also, Apple's newly redesigned $99 Apple TV is a clear alternative for iTunes users who want to stream their content (music and video) to their TVs. (Currently, Roku products don't support streaming PC-based media to your TV.) Apple TV offers Netflix, YouTube, and Internet radio, but no Pandora, MLB TV, or Vimeo (just to name a few of the many Roku channels).
So, is the Roku worth buying?