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Roku XDS Review: The Streaming TV Device that Could

Roku XD|S
Roku made a name for itself back in 2008, when it launched the world's first standalone box designed to stream movies from the then-new Netflix Instant Play library. At the time, the Roku was a compelling device, but was regarded by many as a novelty. It was, in fact, a one-trick pony. It couldn't pump out high definition images, and many Americans didn't have access to the speedy connections necessary for smooth video playback. Clearly, though, Roku was on to something. Traditional, disc-based media appears to be on its way out (as evidenced by the death of HD-DVD and by lackluster Blu-Ray sales), and everyone from Google to Apple is trying to break in to the TV-based streaming media market that Roku helped to put on the map. With bigger, better-funded competitors breathing down its neck, Roku has unleashed a new line of set-top boxes with prices low enough to spark the interest of even the most budget-conscious among us. The flagship Roku XDS -- the most expensive of the line -- retails for an affordable $99.99. We spent some serious time getting acquainted with the device, so read on to see if the company can swim with the big fish, or if it will simply sink in a pool of new competitors.

Hardware

Roku Hardware
We're not going to lie, the Roku isn't the prettiest of the new batch of streaming media boxes. It's not as slick and tiny as the new Apple TV (photographed on top of the Roku in the above photo), nor as unique as the Boxee Box, but it's far from ugly. Its completely inconspicuous appearance isn't bad, either, especially if you're trying to blend the Roku into your existing home theater set up. The one distinctive touch, the purple fabric tag that adorns both the box and the remote, is actually handy for opening the battery compartment, and makes the device feel more like a personal accessory than most consumer electronics do. The remote itself isn't as spartan as the Apple TV's, but it lacks a full QWERTY keypad that would make searching for videos a more pleasurable experience.

The box draws a minuscule 6 watts during use, meaning that, if you left a Roku playing video 24 hours a day, it would add less than $1 per month to your electric bill (depending on where you live). You can't actually turn off the box, but, despite its constant draw of electricity, it's completely silent due to the fanless design. The Roku XDS can pump out high-def 1080p images and 5.1 surround sound via HDMI or component video cables and its optical audio port. The cheaper XD can still push 1080p, but loses the component and optical connections, while the budget-friendly baby brother of the line, HD, drops to only 720p.

Set up is simple. To get started you'll need a TV (practically any one manufactured after 1995 should do) and broadband Internet. Connect the Roku with HDMI or composite cables for HD TVs, or with the RCA connections for standard-def televisions. Plug in the AC adapter, and follow the clear on-screen instructions for getting connected. If you plug in an Ethernet cable, Roku will connect automatically. If you plan to use Wi-Fi, you'll have to choose your network and enter your key using an on-screen keyboard. You'll need to have a computer on hand to set up your Roku account, but, if you can connect a cable box and sign up for Facebook, setting up a Roku shouldn't pose a problem.

Software

Roku Home Screen
The Roku interface is the very definition of simplicity. Though not always a smooth experience, navigating the menus and channels is quick and easy to figure out. The XDS takes an inordinately long time to boot to the home screen, but, once running, it's responsive enough. There is the occasional hiccup, but performance is certainly acceptable.

The Roku XDS is equipped with a USB port for playing back locally-stored media. Enabling that ability requires adding a beta "private" channel from Roku, and codec support is limited to MP4 video files, MP3 audio, and JPEG or PNG images. While these format limitations shouldn't pose a problem for playing back music or displaying photos from a USB drive, you may have trouble getting video files to work.

While Roku's simplicity is its strongest feature, its hands-off design often gets in the way. Adding your accounts at Netflix, Amazon and other websites requires that you use a PC to enter authorization codes on the respective sites. Plus, adding private channels requires a visit to the Roku site, and it can take over 24 hours for them to appear in your channels list. Even manually refreshing your channels by opening and then exiting the channel store doesn't always work; if you have any problems, there is little to do besides unplug the unit to reboot.

Content

Roku Netflix
Roku made a splash when it was first released, thanks to its Netflix-streaming capabilities that are still the box's strongest feature. Though far from comprehensive, Netflix Instant Streaming offers an impressive library of new, classic and obscure movies and television shows. You can also purchase Roku-ready content from Amazon's Video on Demand store for more current television shows. Amazon offers a catalog comparable to iTunes, but at a distinctly better value thanks to its $0.99 purchase price (not rental) for HD TV. What may ultimately make Roku the streaming box to beat, however, will be the inclusion of Hulu. Though not available yet, Roku will soon offer Hulu Plus subscribers the ability to stream the site's practically bottomless archives of movies and TV shows, including many current shows like 'Glee,' 'The Simpsons,' '30 Rock' and 'The Office,' the very day after new episodes air.

Roku also offers access to Vimeo and Revision3 (where you'll find geeky content like 'The Ben Heck Show'), as well as streaming music sites like Pandora and MOG. Sports fans aren't left completely out in the cold either. If you're willing to spring for a pricey MLB.tv subscription, you can watch out-of-market games live or on demand, and local games shortly after they have ended. A UFC channel offers live and archived fights, as well as interviews with fighters and other video content. And the Roku Newscaster, which actually contains several different channels, offers a wealth of content from sources like CNN, NBC, ESPN, Fox, NPR and the BBC. The only glaring omission is YouTube, which can only be added through unofficial means.

Wrap up

Though not perfect, the Roku is nothing short of a pleasure to use. The device has its quirks, but it excels at pushing Web-based content to your TV without any hassle. We wish there was more 1080p content available (as the only official source we found was Vimeo), and we'd also appreciate better codec support for local media, but it's hard to beat this combination of low price and great selection.

If you've already purchased a sizable library of content from iTunes, you'd be better off going with Apple TV (though it won't match the value offered by Amazon, and doesn't offer access to Hulu or MLB.tv). Once the $10-a-month Hulu Plus service launches, the Roku will actually make a compelling alternative to traditional cable or satellite. You'll miss out on some content from premium cable channels and live sports, but the combined $19 cost for a Netflix and Hulu subscription is hard to ignore when you look at your cable bill. Even if you don't want to ditch your cable box, the Roku is difficult to resist for Netflix addicts. If you're willing to settle for 720p content, don't need component or optical connections and don't care about local media playback, the price is only $59.99 for the more simplified Roku HD. But even at $99.99 the Roku XDS offers incredible value.

Tags: features, internet, netflix, review, reviews, roku, roku XDS, RokuXds, streaming media, streaming video, StreamingMedia, StreamingVideo, top

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