Roku HD-XR Excels at Streaming Media to Your TV
At a Glance
The Roku HD-XR does a superb job of delivering high-def video from Netflix, Amazon, MLB.TV, and several smaller services to your HDTV, either via ethernet or 802.11n Wi-Fi.
Streaming media players that relay Internet video content to TVs are becoming increasingly common--but ones that do it well and reliably for HDTV over a wireless network are less so. That's why the Roku HD-XR is a real gem: For $130 (as of 11/24/09), it delivers high-definition content from Netflix, Amazon, MLB (Major League Baseball) TV, and several other Internet services.
The HD-XR is basically an upgrade to the original $100 Roku Digital Media Player (now renamed the Roku HD) that we reviewed earlier this year: The main new feature is support for 802.11n wireless on either the 2.4GHz band or the less interference-prone 5GHz band (the original supported only 802.11 b/g). Also new, throughout the Roku line, is support for adding and removing services via the Roku Channel Store. This feature is standard on newer units and is available for older boxes via a firmware upgrade.
The new model looks pretty much like its predecessor, a compact black box (5 inches square and under 2 inches tall) with Roku's logo and a reset button on the front and the connectors on the back: HDMI, component, composite, S-video, and stereo and optical audio outputs; a 10/100 ethernet port; the AC adapter port; and a USB port that isn't currently supported.
A minor annoyance is that Roku provides only a composite video cable in the box; you're on your own for the required ethernet cable and the HDMI or component video cable needed for optimal HD support. (Roku does, however, offer a $20 HD cable package that includes HDMI, Toslink (digital audio), and component video cables.)
One of the Roku's charms is how easy it is to set up and use. Everything is controlled through the remote, which, like the box, is compact--about the same width but half the height of a typical TV controller. It has just a few buttons: A Home button that brings up the main screen, four wheel arrow buttons around a Select button for navigation, and buttons for pausing and playing video, fast forward and fast rewind.
Setup takes only a few minutes. Hook up the Roku to your TV (and audio system, if need be), and plug in the AC adapter to power on the device. This brings up a screen where you provide network setup information, specifying whether you're using a wireless or wired connection (the latter through the ethernet port). If you're using Wi-Fi, the Roku searches for and lists all available networks within range: choose the one you wish to join and enter its password. I had no trouble connecting to both my 5GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi network and later to a 2.4GHz Wi-Fi network. It also worked over a wired HomePlug AV powerline switch without problems.
During setup you also specify TV format. By default the Roku is set to stream in high-def, but you can also specify standard def in either a 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio.
Once the network is up and running, you must set up your accounts on the supported services, which requires an Internet-connected PC. With new units, you'll have to start by setting up an account on the Roku Channel Store, after which you can add the services you want. Older units, such as the one I tested, come with Netflix, Amazon, and MLB.TV preloaded and don't require a Roku Channel Store account--but you’ll need one if you want additional services.
At launch, the Channel Store lets you add up to 10 more services, but some of them don't offer video at all: Pandora, for example, is an Internet radio site, while Flickr and Facebook Photos let you view still images on those popular sites. The other services are generally less well known: blip.tv, FrameChannel, Mediafly, MobileTribe, Motionbox, Revision3, and TWiT.
For each service you wish to set up, you must create an account for that service and then link it to your specific Roku, either by typing a code generated by the Roku into the service's Web site, or getting a code from the Web site to type into the Roku using a software keyboard.
Linking my Netflix account to the Roku HD-XR took literally just a few seconds, after which I was presented with my "Watch Instantly" queue. Selecting a video initiated a few second's worth of buffering, after which I watched several videos in pretty flawless 720p high definition with good surround sound.
What impressed me most was how well the Roku worked with all three network connections I tried. I expected good performance with HomePlug AV and 802.11n on 5GHz, but in the past I've had incredible problems streaming music, let alone video, over 802.11n on the 2.4GHz band because my loft in downtown San Francisco is within range of some two dozen 2.4GHz networks. Yet the Roku worked almost as well on the 2.4GHz hookup as on the others, pausing the several videos I watched only once to adjust for bandwidth.
Also impressive are the Roku's fast-forward and rewind features. Instead of just showing a timeline, the Roku displays content thumbnails, making it supereasy to return or fast forward to a specific scene.
With new sets and Blu-ray players adding support for Netflix and the like, you might not need a Roku to get the content it supports, and I did wish it had more high-profile services--Hulu, Vudu, and YouTube aren't supported at this writing, although Roku doesn't rule out adding more channels to its store. But if you're a fan of the services it does offer, and aren't on the market for a set or player that will stream them to your HDTV, the Roku HD-XR offers a reasonably priced way to do the job reliably and well. It made a fan out of me.