Roku 2 XS: Popular Web Streamer Adds Ability to Play Games
At a Glance
The latest version of the popular Roku media streamer adds Bluetooth support and a microSD card slot, allowing you to use the Roku2 for downloadable games. Out of the box, the Roku 2 XS ($100 as of August 27, 2011) lets you play Rovio's ubiquitous Angry Birds using nothing more than Roku’s newly enhanced, motion-sensing remote.
The $60 Roku 2 HD and the $80 Roku 2 XD ship with the old-style IR remote--but you can purchase the new remote (which includes a license for Angry Birds) later on.
Either way, Roku's core functionality--it streams an impressive array of Web media to your HDTV via home network’s Internet connection--remains its biggest selling point. With 250-plus channels of content optimized for viewing on a big screen (the Roku 2 HD supports 720p displays, while the XD and XS both support 1080p), Roku remains the most hassle-free and affordable means of bringing Internet content to your high-def set.
In my tests, getting the Roku2 XS up and running took less than 5 minutes with the help of the easy-to-follow printed guide. I started by connecting the black hockey-puck-size device--with a mobile processor inside, it's the smallest and most power-efficient Roku to date--to my HomePlug AV powerline switch using an ethernet cable (the XS is the only model that supports 10/100 ethernet as well as 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi; the other two support only Wi-Fi). I then hooked up the Roku to my HDTV set using an HDMI cable, and plugged it in to an electrical outlet. Regrettably, Roku provides only the AC adapter and a composite video cable (which produces significantly inferior images and audio); you have to provide the ethernet and HDMI cables.
There's no on/off switch: After you've connected everything, you simply turn the set on, and Roku's welcome screen appears and guides you through a startup routine. If you don’t already have a Roku account, you’ll be prompted to set one up on the company's website, supplying credit card information so you can later install a channel with paid content. You'll then link your Roku to that account by using a typed-in code, much as you would activate Netflix's on demand service on a TV or set-top box.
After that, you can start installing content channels, including the popular Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu Plus on-demand services (these are all premium channels that charge for content); Sony's relatively new Crackle service, which delivers ad-supported movies and TV; Pandora for Internet radio; and a slew of professional sports channels. Roku also delivers all sorts of free niche-interest content. Note, however, that while the Roku XS (and the Roku HD) can output video at 1080p, the actual content itself varies between 1080p and 720p, depending on what the particular provider supports.
One of the new additions here is the ability to play games. You install Angry Birds as a channel that downloads the software, which the Roku stores in its 256MB of internal memory; in case you eventually exhaust the internal storage, all three Roku units have a microSD card slot for expansion.
The new remote works somewhat similarly to a Nintendo Wii nunchuk controller: You gesture at the screen to move the cursor, and to play Angry Birds you wave the remote to position the slingshot that shoots the birds. The remote also has A and B buttons, presumably for games that Roku will offer going forward. By the holiday season, Roku expects to offer two to three dozen more games that take advantage of the enhanced remote's motion-sensing features.
I'm not convinced that gaming support adds a lot to the Roku. Most folks who care about this sort of thing probably already own a Wii (which also offers Netflix on demand) or other wireless-enabled game console. That said, I did enjoy the few minutes I spent fiddling with Angry Birds, though I felt a bit constrained by the restricted range of motion: I could get the slingshot to move only so far no matter how much I waved the Roku remote.
Gaming aside, the enhanced remote's use of Bluetooth instead of infrared is a notable improvement. With Bluetooth, you don't need to worry about maintaining line of sight between the remote and the Roku, which can be problematic owing to the complexities of many living-room setups and to the diminishing size of the Roku itself. But on the off chance that you don't care about line-of-sight issues and want to control the Roku with a universal remote, all Roku 2 models support both Bluetooth and IR control.
The Roku2 XS has a USB port so you can play DRM-free content of your own that's stored on a flash memory drive, though this functionality won't be enabled until Roku releases a firmware upgrade due in September. (The HD and XD models don't have a USB port at all.) File format support will be basic: MP4 video, AAC or MP3 audio, and JPG or PNG still images.
I was surprised at the lack of USB support at launch, given that the previous-generation Roku had a USB port across all three models. Roku’s previous implementation was less than satisfying; it remains to be seen what Roku does here with the latest models. Still missing from the personal content perspective is the ability to stream content stored elsewhere on your network--a PC hard drive or network-attached storage device. It's difficult to fathom why Roku has shied away from, say, DLNA support--although I suspect it may be to avoid troubling copyright issues with many of the content providers Roku works with. Also notably MIA is YouTube support, which at one point was available via a private channel but has since disappeared completely.
Finally, I'm disappointed that none of the new models support 5GHz Wi-Fi (the version of 802.11n that is backward-compatible with 802.11a). In crowded urban environments such as the downtown SanFrancisco neighborhood where I live, the 2.4GHz (802.11b/g/n) Wi-Fi spectrum is almost always overcrowded, and media streams frequently stutter, freeze, or stall completely. Unfortunately, the XS, XD, and HD support only 2.4GHz b/g/n spectrum.
Existing Roku owners have little reason to upgrade if they've been satisfied with their current version of the product--except for the games, the new content is available to all Rokus. But if you're looking for a way to stream Internet media to your HDTV that doesn't require technical expertise, Roku remains a great option. With this series, the Roku 2 XS is clearly superior to the lower-end models, if only for its Bluetooth remote and USB support.
I highly recommend paying extra for the XS and setting up a wired home network (perhaps using existing powerline or cable TV wiring) to ensure smooth streaming. Consider the lower-end models only if you've been happy with 2.4GHz Wi-Fi streaming in the past and have no interest in loading your own media onto a USB flash drive for playback on your set.