Full Product Name, Model: Roku XDS
Manufacturer's URL: http://www.roku.com
Pros: Inexpensive; compact; streams movies and TV shows from Netflix and other services; works with 802.11b/g/n routers and offers extended-range wireless N; includes both HDMI and component connections; USB connection for external drives.
Cons: Can't access content stored on networked computers.
Roku is the little engine that could. While bigger names are trying to dominate the nascent but quickly growing set-top box market, bridging the gap between Internet and living room television, Roku has done so in a walk. It makes simple, inexpensive devices that stream Netflix and other online services to the TV. They're cheap enough to buy on a whim and easy enough for your mother to install.
To follow up its first boxes, Roku recently introduced an upgraded line of three new set-top devices. Knowing that something broken should never be fixed, the developers at Roku gave us slight modifications this time around. The changes they made, however, make the Roku more affordable, compact, and usable than ever.
There are three models of Roku to choose from: the Roku HD, Roku XD, and Roku XDS. Roku has dropped the entry-level price this time around, so the HD goes for only $59.99. It streams high-definition 720p video to any TV, whether standard or hi-def, and connects to 802.11b/g networks. It offers an HDMI port, which is a new addition for the lowest-priced model.
The Roku XD lists for $79.99 and adds in full 1080p high-definition video, as well as a remote with an instant replay button. This is also a new feature for Roku. The previous generation of devices only offered a remote that let the user scroll forward or back in a video. Having an easy method of jumping back 7 seconds is a big time-saver. This model also brings in 802.11n connectivity, a big help if you're trying to stream video.
Finally, the highest-priced model is the Roku XDS, which lists for $99.99. This is the model we tested. Buyers get all of the previous features, as well as dual-band wireless technology, for even more bandwidth. This model also adds component video and optical audio outputs, as well as a USB port. Owners can use that USB port to connect an external hard drive or view content stored to a compact flash drive.
Each of the three models is a slim black box, even smaller than the previous generation of Roku boxes. They measure less than five inches wide and are only one inch tall. As a rare design flourish, they each have a purple cloth tag sticking out from their left side bearing the name of the company.
Reading about how to set up a Roku device takes longer than actually setting up a Roku device. Since all three offer both HDMI and composite (red/yellow/white) ports, users can connect a Roku to any TV. Plug whichever cable you're using into the back of the device, and then into the back of your TV.
Power up the Roku and set your TV's source option to get content from the new device. You'll get instructions on-screen to select your home's wireless network. Roku boxes can also connect to a router with an Ethernet connection, but that probably doesn't matter much to Wi-Fi Planet readers.
Once you've connected to your network, you'll see Roku's main menu. While you might think of your Roku box purely as a tool for streaming Netflix content (TV shows and movies available for a low monthly subscription fee), the device can actually access and play a variety of video and audio services, some free and some paid. You'll need to select from the menu which channels you want available. Once you've selected your channels, you can go to them and start watching or listening. While Netflix is by far the most popular option for Roku owners, online music service Pandora is number two. Using Pandora, the Roku can stream any genre of music you want whenever you want. If you have a Netflix account, you'll get a code on the screen which you'll need to enter into the Netflix website. Once you do, your Netflix account will be linked to that Roku box and you'll be able to see any selections you've added to your Watch Instantly queue.
Roku advertises that you'll be watching streaming video five minutes after connecting your device, and it's true. If you're using Netflix, you can choose queued up movies or TV shows, or select from the Netflix catalog right from your set. After you select a title, it loads for about ten seconds before you can begin watching. We've tested the Roku XDS with many programs and it's rare for there to ever be a buffering issue. A few times the movie paused to buffer the stream, but that was the exception and it only happened at the start of a movie.
The new rewind button on the remote is a great addition, and makes it much easier when you've missed a line of dialogue. Scrolling backwards with the previous Roku models could be tedious, so we typically ignored the missed line. With the rewind button it's just one push to go back and hear it over again.
Simplicity is Roku's strength, but we couldn't help wishing for a few more features. Roku boxes can't connect to networked home computers, as set-top boxes from Apple or Western Digital can. We'd love the ability to stream content stored locally.
While Apple, Google, Boxee, and others offer higher-priced set-top devices that do more, the Roku is succeeding on price and ease. This new line of devices further satisfies fans and establishes Roku as the one to beat.
Troy is a senior associate editor at StreamingMedia.com and OnlineVideo.net, and is also a regular contributor to Computer Shopper and PCMag.com's blogs. He writes a weekly consumer technology column which is published in the Jersey Journal newspaper. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/TDreier.