Roku has always been one of my favorite media players simply because it is easy to use and has features that users want to see in a streaming media product. There is no need to have a PC connected or a server running on another system. All you need is the Roku unit, broadband internet service, and a display. There are many media players currently on the market, but few seem to offer an effective user interface with the simplicity of the Roku design. The latest generation of Roku players look and feel similar to previous generations, but with more features included in the basic model than ever before. The new line of Roku Media Players have a lower profile design (approximately 5"W x 5"D x
1"H) and weighs just over 7 ounces. The player comes with an IR remote control (with two AAA batteries), composite (red/white/yellow) A/V cable, power adapter, Getting Started guide, 30-day money back guarantee, and a one year warranty. The company currently has three models which have slightly varying features from one another.
Roku's three media players include the HD, XD, and XD|S, priced at $59.99, $79.99 and $99.99 respectively. As of this writing, the XD and XD|S models are available with free shipping when ordered online at the Roku website. All of the players support standard and high definition video (composite and HDMI video connectors) and feature wired and WiFi (b/n) connectivity. The XD model provides additional 1080p capability, extended-range Wireless-N (b/g/n compatible) WiFi and an enhanced IR remote with an Instant Replay feature. Finally, the XD|S model (being reviewed here) includes everything the XD model has to offer, yet also features a dual-band N (the latest) wireless link, a toslink digital output, analog component video outputs and a side USB port for playing music, photos, and videos. It should be noted that the basic model offers most of what users will want in a media player unless the more advance features are desired. In any case, the players are reasonably priced to fit everybody's budget.
back of the Roku XD|S Media Player comes with composite video and stereo audio output jacks for older analog TVs. An HDMI digital connector that supports both audio and video is also provided for newer displays. A standard RJ-45 connector for wired ethernet along with a digital optical
(toslink), and component video (with optional cable) output jack are provided. Wireless connectivity is also a feature of this unit. Input power comes from the universal AC power adapter.
The Roku XD|S Media Player remote is simple in design, yet offers users a fully functional
design for accessing and controlling the video content. The remote has a good
feel with large buttons and operates on a pair of standard and easily replaceable "AAA"
batteries. The Home button on the top of the remote takes the user to the
main menu. Navigation buttons and a Select button are used to control
the menu system. The bottom three buttons (play/pause, forward and backwards)
control the playback of the video being watched. There are three forward speeds
and three backward speeds. The left and right navigation buttons also scan forward
and backwards. When scanning through movies and TV episodes, a special
screen appears with segmented clips of the content being played with a time
bar below it. This is similar to selecting tracks on a DVD or Blu-ray disc and allows the user
to see past and future scenes. Roku has added a new pair of buttons for Instant Replay that jumps back a few seconds and an Information button that provides details on any of Roku channels. This new remote keeps all the great features Roku has had with their previous generation media players. There is no backlighting, but the button are few and easy to remember. The remote can be operated with a single hand (unlike some small remotes I have used) and the buttons have a soft tactile feel rather than a "did I actually press the button" feel. It is one of the best compact remotes I have used from any manufacturer.
The Settings menu is used to configure the unit with user preferences. The sub-menus
are for Network configuration (Wired or Wireless), Display type
(4:3 Standard, 16:9 Anamorphic, 720p, or 1080p HDTV), Audio Mode (Stereo or 5.1), Sound Effects (Low, Medium, High, Off), Screen Saver (5 min, 10 min, 30 min, Off), Time Setting (Home screen clock and Time zone), Netflix Settings (Activate/Deactivate account), Player Info, and Factory Reset. When
configuring the media player for streaming content, the user can select between
wired or wireless connectivity using the Choose
Wireless Network screen. Our tests were run with a wired connection to ensure consistently high
bandwidth with our FIOS provider. The video quality indicator displayed on the TV screen showed that we
had a good high speed connection. We also tested the WiFi link and it too did very well even on high definition material with no dropouts.
The Roku media players offer a wide selection of content including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Crackle, Pandora, NHL GameCenter LIVE®, Roku Newscaster, UFC, CNET, NBA Gametime, MP3tunes, and MOG. As of this writing the Roku website has over 100 free channels available and 50 premium channels.
Before channels show up in the main menu of the Roku, the user must select the desired channels in the Channel Store. Several categories group the channels to make it easier choose. The groups include My Channels, Featured, New, Most Popular, Top Rated, Movies & TV, Web TV & Special Interests, Music, Sports, International, News & Podcasts, Religion & Spirituality, Photos & Video, and Games & Screensaver. The Roku lineup continues to grow.
Pressing the Home button on the remote takes the user to the top menu screen. This is where the user can select any of the available video channels or the Setting menu. We do not subscribe to any of the other premium services except for Netflix, so this is where our focus will be. It should be noted that there are a few free services that are great. The first being Pandora, which offers free internet radio. Users can set up favorite stations based on an artist, which provides similar music from that era. Skipping through songs is limited per hour as is the total amount of music you can listen to over a period of a month. However, users can subscribe to Pandora for $36 a year for premium service.
Another free favorite is Flixster, which provides full-length previews of the latest movies in theaters and on DVD and Blu-ray. Some of the sample video clips are available in high definition and look fantastic. Movies also have ratings that are provided by Rotten Tomatoes to help you gauge how good a movie is before you rent or buy it. It is also a great resource if you are planning to go to the movies.
Most users who buy the Roku media players are primarily interested in the Netflix streaming. The latest generation of media players have a nice user interface that is easy to navigate through. The picture quality is outstanding and the menu is relatively fast compared to the older generation units. Users can view their Instant Queue and are also provided with recommended content based on viewing habits. The search feature allows users to quickly find content that is available for streaming by typing in the movie name. Earlier Roku media players required the user to add the movie to the Instant Queue before it would show up on the screen. This new capability makes it even easier to watch the content you desire without the hassle of having to use a computer.
One of our main focuses is on picture quality. As more and more users use high definition displays, it becomes important that Roku keeps up with the high definition content available from Netflix. The video quality of high definition material was very good on the Roku media player. While certainly not up to what I have seen on Blu-ray, the Roku unit does quite well with very satisfying resolution and minimal motion artifacts. Since our internet provider (Verizon FIOS) offers high bandwidth (20Mb/20Mb), we seldom saw any dropouts on content. However, your mileage may vary depending on your network speed.
Roku XD|S Media Player is one of the best streaming units we have used to date mainly because of its reliability and ease of use. We have had this unit installed into our system for more than 6 months now and performance has been excellent. The XD|S Media Player has all the interfaces one may need, including dual-band Wireless N for high performance connectivity. Add 1080p video capability and you have a state-of-the-art media player that makes watching movies fun and simple.