Roku 2 XS
TV is changing, and it's happening quickly. As recently as 10 years ago, the idea of TV being delivered over the internet was a pipe dream. Now, we can watch near-broadcast quality video, streamed to us over the internet with a wait of just a few seconds.
This all has profound implications for the TV industry, but also for companies like Roku who have developed boxes to stop you watching broadcast TV, and switch instead to TV on demand, delivered over IP.
And Roku does all this with a tiny box, which costs a touch under £100 and could, in theory, deliver any movie or TV show you desire into your home at the press of a button. It all sounds impressive, but does the practice meet our expectations?
Tiny but mighty
The Roku 2 XS is the company's top-of-the-range box, but it's one of the smallest devices we've seen. Very much in keeping with Apple's tiny TV product, the Roku has just the connections you need, and nothing more.
Around the back, there's Ethernet, microSD, HDMI and a 3.5mm jack that can carry composite video to an older, non-HD TV. On the right side, there's a USB socket and on the left, a little purple tag that bears the name Roku. it's a bit different for a home cinema device.
The supplied remote is compact, and a little quirky too. It has a motion-detection system that can also be used for gaming, so there's a wrist loop to stop you chucking it at your TV during an Angry Birds session. Aside from that, the controller is quite simple, fits well in the hand and the buttons are all within easy reach.
You get a home button, which always takes you back to the main menu, and there's a back button that takes you back one step at a time. There's also a directional pad - the main interface between you and the box. An OK button is crucial too, and there are some playback controls, which we barely used.
One interesting feature of the Roku remote is that it uses RF instead of IR to control the box. This means that you don't need to point it at the box, and you can tuck the Roku away, and never look at it again but still happily control it.
Getting up and running isn't much hassle. Plug the box in, and soon you'll be looking at a configuration screen. Here you can select the type of network you're using, and if you're on Wi-FI, then you're able to select the correct network, and type in your network key. It's a simple process, and even though there is no physical keyboard, the remote makes light work of passwords. It's not a frustrating experience at all.
But things do take a turn for the more-complicated next. After getting online, you may be presented with the option to update your box. Again, this is very simple and is entirely automatic. Once you've done this, you'll need to sign up for a Roku account. This is done with a code, presented on your TV and then entered in to the Roku website. Again, it's easy and allows you to set up some Roku channels with very little effort.
Next comes the part we aren't so keen on. During set up you'll be asked to present credit card, or PayPal details in order to purchase movies and such. We didn't really want to buy movies, but there's no way out of this - you have to do it, and it doesn't sit well with us at all. The details are protected well enough, and a PIN can be set up to ensure that no one can buy things from the box without your say so, but even so we just find it a little unnecessary.
Home network streaming
One area in which the Roku isn't strong is streaming video from NAS devices or your PC or Mac. It's clearly not designed to operate in this manner, but we think that's a massive shame. Especially when you compare it to the likes of WD TV Live, which has both Netflix and iPlayer support, but can still happily stream videos from your home network. It's also a bit cheaper, at £77.
All is not lost, however, because it is possible to install an app on the Roku and your computer that allows the two to talk. It's only available as a developer application though, which means you have to search for "Plex" in the private apps box, but it is really no harder than this to get the Roku set up.
With all that done, your PC can send video to your Roku, and does so with magnificent style. It's not perfect though, and the image quality is not as good as you'd get from a WD or Popcorn Hour. Also, we had huge problems with Dolby Digital sound, which kept cutting out on us. But hopefully this system will improve. We have no idea why the Roku can't simply do this out of the box, over Windows network shares.
On the plus side, there is an official app that allows you to play video from a USB device. FAT 16, 32, NTFS and HFS+ devices are supported and we tested it on a file that caused our Popcorn Hour to spit its dummy, and it played perfectly. In some ways, that makes the lack of playback over the network even more annoying, as the device is so clearly capable.
Netflix is the shining star here
Really, if you're not a Netflix customer, there's no point considering a Roku. The movie and TV streaming service is really the best thing the Roku does, and it does it very well indeed. The HD-quality video is just superb, it comes pretty close to broadcast quality HD, if you have a good internet connection, and it's got Dolby Digital sound, which really makes a huge difference.
At the moment, there's no LoveFilm available here. Amazon, which owns LoveFilm does operate its own streaming service in the US, so there's a chance that we'll see either Amazon or LoveFilm launching some sort of service on the Roku soon.
Of course, there is some value in asking if users wouldn't be better served with another device for watching Netflix. The XBox 360, in its most basic form, with 4GB of storage, costs just £30 more than the Roku. And with that you get support for Sky Go, Netflix, Lovefilm, 4oD with BBC iPlayer on the way. Plus you get one of the best - if not THE best - games consoles on the planet. For £30 more.
The 360 is hardly small, even in its new slim configuration, but it's quieter than it used to be and looks really cool, and it has more to offer than almost any other media streamer. Of course, there is the small matter of the need to have an XBox Live membership, which costs £32 a year and the fact that it drinks power to consider. But even so, it's a hard call to make.
When you buy a Roku, what you're really doing is getting a Netflix streamer that does a few other nice bits and pieces. There's plenty of other useful content here, like BBC iPlayer and some fantastic video from the likes of TED and Revision3, but we can't see any of these selling the box. And at nearly £100, we do wonder if people looking to get Netflix might not be better off with the cheaper model.
There is plenty of scope here though. Games are entertaining enough with the motion-sensitive controller, and the amount of choice for internet video is only going to get better with each passing year.
We'd love to see Sky Go here, as well as ITV Player, 4oD and Demand 5 for more TV choice. We like Crackle too, but a premium movie selection would be nice. The requirement to provide credit card details implies this is on the way.
All in all, we like the Roku. Ignoring the price, and current selection, there's a lot of promise here and some lovely, well-designed hardware that is a pleasure to own. We hope the company is as keen on building the service in the UK as it is in the US.