Roku Digital Video Player
At a Glance
The Roku Digital Video Player, Roku's newly updated version of last year's Netflix Player, is a welcome arrival. Whereas its predecessor could stream video only from Netflix, the new model can stream video from Amazon Video on Demand, as well.
Don't be surprised if the $100 Roku Digital Video Player looks familiar. The hardware it uses is identical to the hardware on the older Netflix Player. Last year, Roku set a goal of expanding its streaming video functionality to include other services; the renamed Digital Video Player achieves that goal. Meanwhile, the competition has heated up, as Blu-ray players (such as the LG Electronics BD300 and the Samsung BD-P2500) and Tivo DVRs now possess similar streaming capability.
Compact enough to fit in harmoniously with other gadgets in your living room, the Digital Video Player is a plain, black, 5-inch-square box that stands just 2 inches tall. The device sits between your television and your Internet connection. At the back, you'll find wired ethernet, plus HDMI, composite, component, and S-Video ports, and SPDIF and analog stereo audio.
The installation screen warns that setup may take 3 minutes--and possibly longer if you aren't by your computer. The process of associating the box with my Amazon account took less than 30 seconds; bizarrely, however, when I later tried to purchase something, I had to go online and set up a five-number PIN. Though my Amazon streaming was ready to rock sooner than my Netflix streaming, it would have been simpler to make the PIN process part of the initial setup process. To activate the Netflix account, I had to log into my Netflix account on my PC, enter an activation code provided by the box, and then return to the unit.
Entering an access code isn't the only step that requires you to have powered up your PC: Roku says that it made a conscious decision to keep the Netflix Player as simple as possible by allowing users only to browse titles in their Netflix Instant Queue (Netflix currently offers more than10,000 movie and television titles for immediate viewing). Consequently this TV companion is likely to provide less of an impulse experience than, say, the Apple TV (which lets you browse options directly from the device) or even a cable service on-demand system such as Comcast's.
The counterpoint--and Roku's reasoning--holds that Netflix users are regularly in their accounts, browsing for titles to add to their disc delivery queue. Using the Instant Queue (the theory goes) is simply an elegant extension of that activity, and it keeps the amount of on-unit navigation required down to a manageable minimum.
For regular users of Netflix's service, the Roku Netflix Player makes sense. Beyond the $100 cost of the box--a far more casual purchase than the Apple TV or Vudu--you'll have to subscribe to one of Netflix's four plans (the first plan that makes sense for this box is the $9 plan for access to one DVD at a time and unlimited hours of "instant" viewing on your PC or through your box).
With the Amazon Video on Demand capabilities, the situation is quite different: Once you have your purchase PIN in place, you never have to use a PC again. Instead, you can browse through categories for purchase or rental; content is divided between 'Movies' and 'Television', and then further subdivided by category and availability. You scroll through choices by moving horizontally through cover-art thumbnails of titles. I found that I could complete my transactions directly on-screen, without ever leaving my couch--a huge boon (or hazard) for impulse buying. Nevertheless, navigating among options proved to be a bit daunting, considering that I had no way of searching content from my couch, and Amazon makes some 40,000 titles available to search through.
Once you've selected a title for purchase, it goes into your Amazon Video on Demand Library, stored in the cloud on Amazon's servers. Rentals are priced at from $2 to $4 and are available for streaming via the Roku Digital Video Player, or from your PC for 24 hours from the moment you purchase a title. Purchased video costs $2 for a TV episode, up to $15 for a movie, and more for full TV seasons; you can access video from your Video Library for streaming playback online via a connected device or a PC, or you can download it to two locations and up to two portable devices, per Amazon's purchase terms.
Simplicity is an ongoing theme with the Roku Digital Video Player. The software interface remains simple and straightforward, and navigating through my choices was easy: The left-right directional arrows let me scroll swiftly through options. The device's settings are buried, but you won't need these often; if you ever do, you'll have to find the settings menu (accessible only if you press the up arrow, as subtly shown on the screen).
The remote control fit comfortably in my hand, and it contains a minimal number of keys: a Home button to return you to the main screen, a five-way navigation system (four directional arrows and a Select button), and three buttons beneath that for Rewind, Play/Pause, and Fast Forward.
The player has 256MB of RAM, and stores its software in ROM. It can perform some video scaling, too: According to Roku, the box receives the VC-1-encoded Windows Media file from Netflix (in 480i or 720p form), decrypts and decodes the file, and then scales it so that the image fills the screen from top to bottom or from side to side, as needed. Amazon's content is 480i H.264 video, encoded at 1.2 mbps.
Netflix has four quality settings for every Instant film, and those settings--each at a different bit rate--represent different quality options that the service can deliver, depending on your network bandwidth. Roku recommends that users have at least a 1.5-mbps connection; movies average a bit rate of 2.2 mbps. The player uses algorithms to analyze the available bandwidth and the film's bit rate, and then it adjusts the playback quality accordingly.
Similarly Amazon has varying quality settings and adjusts the bit rate based on available bandwidth; the minimum bandwidth that Amazon recommends is 500 kbps.
Video quality depends on many variables, including your local Internet connection and your television. I found the image quality underwhelming--though not much worse than I get through my digital cable connection at home. Over a wired connection, the image quality on the movies I tested for both Netflix and Amazon was passable for the most part: I saw minimal artifacts, but the image looked flat, and colors were muted. On an HDTV, some standard-definition content looked downright blurry: For example, the opening credits for some films and TV shows were difficult to read. Clearly, I wasn't watching Blu-ray-quality 1080p images with the depth and detail I've become accustomed to seeing in high-def.
Still, the image quality was better than I had expected, considering that the Roku was outputting at 480p to a 50-inch Pioneer plasma television; and it was better than many full-screen streaming experiences I've had--included with Netflix--on a PC. By default, Roku outputs content at a 4:3 aspect ratio. Roku says that when you change the display setting to wide-screen 16:9, the player outputs anamorphic 4:3 content, so your TV can stretch the image properly.
The Amazon content did noticeably well on a standard-definition television shows. Dark content on Battlestar Galactica showed macro-blocking and artifacts; but at other points, content looked surprisingly clear and sharp--certainly better than video delivered through my cable connection.
Like Netflix content, Amazon content is easy to navigate through, thanks to thumbnails that mimic fast-forward chapter marks on a DVD. For example, Netflix took still frames every 10 seconds of every video it offers; and when you play back a movie, the device buffers not only the film but also the JPEGs. When I fast-forwarded through a film, I could quickly scan frames (JPEGs) to find my desired spot; then I waited 20 to 30 seconds (depending on the connection speed) for the playback to reset to that spot and catch up.
My experience was similar with the Amazon content: It took about 50 seconds to prep a 44-minute episode; and if I repositioned the video, it needed about 30 seconds to recalibrate the location.
At $100, the Roku Digital Video Player is an easy, relatively inexpensive way to add video streaming to your living room, den, or bedroom. The support for Amazon Video on Demand widens the appeal of this box from its Netflix-only days, if you have bandwidth to spare and don't mind watching variable-quality images. A bonus: Roku has shown itself willing to push major upgrades to existing customers, so the box you buy isn't stagnant (Roku is offering the Amazon upgrade to existing customers as an over-the-air software update).