New Roku XDS Media Streamer: Modest Upgrades
At a Glance
When Roku came out with its first high-def media streamers, I was so impressed that I bought one after returning my review unit. Roku's new high-end model, the Roku XDS ($100, as of December 1, 2010), is significantly smaller than its predecessor, and sports several new features including 1080p support, a USB port for playing content on a connected flash or hard drive, dual-band Wi-Fi, and an improved remote.
What keeps Roku at the top of the streamer heap, however, is its unparalleled and easy-to-access lineup of Internet media, both free and paid--and this is available on all Roku models. So while the Roku XDS is a great product for newcomers to streaming media, owners of the previous-generation model have little reason to upgrade.
The basics of the new Roku streamer haven't changed: It's a small box that connects to your home network (via either ethernet or Wi-Fi) and your TV, and streams some 100 channels of Internet content, including the Hulu Plus, Netflix, and Amazon on-demand video services; Major League Baseball broadcasts; Pandora, Shoutcast, and other Internet radio services; and Flickr, Picasa, and Facebook photo-sharing sites. You don't have to pay for a Roku subscription, but you are responsible for maintaining your accounts on all for-pay services.
You add and remove channels through the Roku channel store, which requires setting up an account on Roku's Web site and associating it with your unit (a process similar to setting up a Netflix on-demand account for any device that supports the service). In addition to the services Roku has officially partnered with, you can add so-called private channels, which require typing in a code provided by whoever is offering access to the channel. For example, you can add YouTube as a private channel--but it's not something that Roku promotes or documents. You have to Google "Roku and YouTube" to find sites with instructions and the code. The process feels sneaky and bizarre, but it works, and this YouTube access is a great plus for all Roku owners.
However, as good as Roku is for Internet content, it still can't stream media from within your LAN--and the XDS's support for playback of media on a connected USB drive is extremely limited.
At $100, the XDS costs less than the high-def unit I bought last year, and is almost half the size (Roku accurately describes it as sandwich-sized), while adding the 1080p support and dual-band Wi-Fi (the older HD player that I own tops out at 720p and only supports Wi-Fi on the 2.4GHz band).
But having a smaller set-top box isn't that important to me--after all, it's not like a cell phone that I carry on my person, and Roku's claim that it's now easier to take the unit with you doesn't resonate, since the old unit wasn't exactly huge and weighty.
The new features do have several gotchas. For starters, 1080p support is less useful than it sounds: Very little 1080p Internet media is available for streaming at this time, and even if you find 1080p content, according to Roku, you'll need 5-mbps Internet service to stream 1080p content via the box.
Roku provided links to some 1080p videos on Vimeo, and they looked good on my 1080p set, but the feature would be a lot more compelling if it could offer content that I'd otherwise have to get on a Blu-ray Disc drive--big-screen movies or TV shows, for example. I also verified the need for good broadband by attempting to stream the 1080p clips with my service throttled down to less than 1.5 mbps: In one case, the audio didn't play, and in another, I didn't see the video at all.
The USB port for sideloaded content requires setting up a private channel in the Roku Channel Store. But in my tests, this was also disappointing because it supports only video in the .mp4 and .m4v formats (Roku has since added .mov support), .mp3 audio files, and .jpg and .png still images. I would have liked to see .avi video support included, at the very least.
Dual-band Wi-Fi, on the other hand, should be very useful to people who can't network a Roku using ethernet and are in an environment where lots of neighbors are using 2.4GHz Wi-Fi, which can make smooth video-streaming problematic if not impossible. You will, of course, need a 5GHz 802.11n router to take advantage of 5GHz 802.11n's ability to support many more simultaneous users. However, I still recommend using HomePlug AV powerline or other wired networking technology (such as the newer MOCA) rather than depending on any wireless hookup for media streaming.
The XDS also offers an optical audio output for users who are depending on the unit's component video hookup but want superior digital audio quality. Most HDTV owners, however, will likely use the HDMI output, which also handles the digital audio.
The redesigned remote has a convenient instant replay button to show the previous seven seconds of video, and an information button that brings up channel info and is also accessible to channel store programmers for additional features. The new remote is skinnier than the original Roku remote, and about the height of an iPhone.
The refreshed Roku line includes two other models. The $80 Roku XD has everything the XDS has except for the USB, component video, and optical audio ports, and dual-band Wi-Fi capability--it supports only 2.4GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi. The $60 Roku HD dispenses, as well, with 1080p support (it supports only 720p output), does not support 802.11n Wi-Fi, and has the original remote.
Bottom line: Roku makes exceptionally easy-to-use media streamers at reasonable prices, with the best Internet video offerings around. I would have been more excited to see the addition of meaningful support for sideloaded content and the ability to stream media within my network--say, from a PC or network-attached storage device. But if Internet content (rather than your own content) is your priority, then Roku is a great choice.