Roku emerged in 2008 as one of the first set-top boxes to enable streaming internet content on a TV. Originally dominating the Netflix streaming market, the Roku is now up against some fierce competition like the Logitech Revue with Google TV and Apple TV creeping into the picture.
With extremely competitive pricing and new features added regularly, the Roku is powering forward as one of the most reasonably priced and user friendly options for streaming content. Offering free apps like Pandora and Facebook, one-time payment options like Amazon TV shows and movies, and subscription based channels like Netflix or Hulu Plus, the Roku has something for everyone at a reasonable price.
The Roku box is available in three flavours: the Roku HD with a 720p output and built-in wireless for $59.99, the Roku XD with 1080p HD video and extended-range wireless, $79.99, and the Roku XDS with 1080p support, a USB port for local media, optical and Component outputs as well as dual-band wireless for even more range, $99.99.
All three of the devices are based on the same form factor, a 12.7cm black box with Wi-Fi or Ethernet connectivity. The HD and XD versions designed for streaming only and have HDMI and Composite outputs, while the XDS has HDMI, Composite, Component, a USB port for local media and optical audio ports. For purposes of this review, Pocket-lint got hands on the high-end Roku XDS.
The Roku responds to commands from a battery powered remote control (both batteries and the remote are included), which for the XD and XDS has added features like an instant replay button and an info button.
What stands out about the Roku is the completely idiot-proof set-up and connection screens. After plugging in the power source and connecting the Roku to the back of your TV using the included RCA cables, the Roku literally walks you through the set-up, which makes connecting to the Internet simple. The Roku also comes with a short four-fold picture user manual for added set-up help.
The initial set-up requires entering your credit card or PayPal information online for all future paid purchases, just in case you stray from the Roku’s free offerings. If you choose to open a channel that requires login credentials like Facebook or Hulu, the Roku will force you to turn on your computer and enter additional codes for verification online. Yes, it might be easier to enter login credentials directly through the Roku, but it does get around that problem of having to use multipress entry on the remote. On the bright side, once you’ve entered the codes online you are logged into that particular channel and will not be asked to do that again.
Once you’re connected to the Internet, the Roku brings you to a main screen with choices like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon and the Roku Channel Store. All Roku channels are housed in the Channel Store where you can skim through offerings and “add the channel”. Once you add a channel, you can access it from the main screen. The offerings on the Roku are diverse, ranging from streaming movie and TV content providers like Hulu Plus to Netflix, to websites like Facebook and Pandora, to more obscure games, weather, and sports channels including MLB.tv. You can even access your favourite podcasts.
The user interface is extremely easy to use and makes for simple surfing using the Roku. The remote control is also intuitive, making the experience simple and enjoyable.
Once you’re in an application, you have the choice to access free, paid, and subscription-based content some (but not all) of which is in 1080p. The XD and XDS have the added ability to play 1080p video available through the Channel Store as well as from files on a USB drive. Playing 1080p content in general is flawless but playing the same 1080p content from a USB drive is a little buggy and clearly a work in progress.
There have also been rumours swirling that Roku will add DNLA streaming support in the future so users can interconnect their TVs, PCs, and smartphones for a centralised TV viewing and media streaming experience.
Overall, the Roku rocked our world. Set-up was simple and navigating through the interface was a breeze.With the advent of similar products at similar price points like Apple TV and LG’s Smart TV Upgrader, Roku really needs to make next-gen upgrades like DLNA compatibility features as soon as they can. That and perfecting 1080p local playback should be top items on Roku’s to-do list.