Roku XD|S Review: 30 Days Hands-On with Roku's Top of the Line Streamer

It may be hard to believe, but not long ago, Roku was the only device that could stream TV shows and movies from Netflix. Unlike today, where just about every single device under the sun, from game consoles to mobile phones, help ensure that Netflix streaming accounts for a huge chunk of all web traffic.

Roku was the initial hardware partner for Netflix Instant Watch. Since their very first model, most people have always praised their easy-to-use, no frills approach. Last year when Apple launched their new Apple TV box at $99, interest in Roku's players surged. Thanks to a little healthy competition, today you can get a Roku streamer starting at $60, with their most feature-packed model topping out at just $99.

Roku XD|S Review Beauty Shot

So how does the XD|S stand up in 2011? I've gone hands on for for a whole month to find out just that.

The Roku Lineup

Roku's lineup of set-top streaming boxes consists of three different models, the Roku HD, the XD, and the XD|S. The Roku HD, their base model, is 720p capable and includes 802.11g wireless capability. The XD adds 1080p support, a slightly better remote, and 802.11n support. The XD|S is Roku's current top-of-the line set top streamer, adding component video and optical outputs, dual-band wireless networking, and USB playback support.

Out of the Box

The XD|S arrived in an efficiently small brown box, asking me if I was "ready to Roku." Fortunately for them, I was.

Greeting you upon opening the box is photo of the XD|S screaming, "Hi!" Underneath you'll find the Roku itself, a composite A/V cable, power cord, manual, and a card with legal mumbo-jumbo. The lack of a wired Ethernet cable is forgivable, given that Wi-Fi networking is integrated, but not including HDMI or component video only ensures many users will get a poor out of the box experience.

The component video port, exclusive to the XD|S, is also somewhat controversial in my opinion. Not only has Roku opted to offer the component connection in the form of a four conductor mini-plug, but they've pinned it in a way that makes the cable practically proprietary. Personally, I would have preferred to see the composite A/V connection given mini-plug duties and the XD|S get standard component jacks.

Roku XD|S Back

Furthermore, doing a bit more digging I have to question the usefulness of the component cable in general. According to the technical specifications and a sea of users in the Roku Support forums, the component connection lacks 1080i capabilities. A lot of TVs out there, one of mine included, that only provide component video connections for HD aren't 720p friendly. Sadly, that meant no HD streaming at all on my big 55" CRT rear-pro... the TV I really wanted to use it on.

The box itself is smaller than I expected, measuring in at a hair under five inches across and back, and just a touch over an inch tall. It's sports your typical black, understated electronics look, which I personally prefer. The only unique design element is the distinctive purple tag with the Roku logo sticking out the side.

On the back, you'll find composite video and analog audio jacks, HDMI, Ethernet, optical audio, component video mini-plug, and power ports. On the right side is a single USB port that lets you plug in and play audio, video, and photos from a USB flash drive or external hard disk.

The remote is an equally simplistic twelve button affair. All of the buttons are self-explanatory, except the star key, which serves as the button to call up the options menu for various elements.

Roku XD|S Remote Control

The remote is comfortable to hold and easy to use. At the bottom is another purple tag like the one on the side of the box itself, which served to both mesmerize my two year old toddler and provide access to the battery compartment by giving it a yank.

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The Set Up

Setting up the Roku was just as easy as any other set-top streamer. Upon startup, you'll be treated to a simple step-by-step wizard helping you find your Internet connection (you'll need to have your wireless encryption key at the ready if you're using Wi-Fi), choosing your display type, etc.

A little further in the process, you'll be forced to set up a Roku user account and provide a credit card for billing (for content that isn't free). There you'll also be given the option to block purchases completely or set it to prompt for a PIN, that way little Jimmy can't go crazy in the Amazon store.

Once you tie your Roku box to your Roku Account (an easy 'type in the code you see on the screen' affair), you'll be all set.

The Channels

The Roku, like many other devices these days, is a platform that supports development and expansion. Developers can build and support channels, which are distributed through the Roku Channel Store (one of the default apps on the device). These applications interact with web sites and other services to stream content to the Roku box. Roku pre-installs Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon, and the USB Channel (on only on the XD|S), which are the major services people are looking for.

Those, however, are only the tip of the iceberg. Inside the Channel Store, you'll find applications supporting a wide variety of online content... over 100 in total as of this writing. All the major freebies are there: Pandora, Revision 3, TWiT, CNET, Vimeo, Break, and a bunch more.

You'll also find a fair amount of premium content, like, NHL Game Center, and a host of others. Most of these aren't free, with each having their own subscription plans.

Clearly, Roku has done a fantastic job lining up support.

What you can do with Roku isn't just limited to streaming audio or video. For example, there's a Facebook Channel that lets you hook into your Facebook account to view photos from your friends and family. You'll find similar Channels for Picasa and Flickr, too.

Surprisingly enough, you'll also be able to download and play simple games. Don't expect iPhone caliber 3D titles, but simple games like Video Poker and Connect 4 are present and accounted for if you want to kill a few minutes while your spouse gets up for a bathroom break.

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Roku XD|S Hands On Impressions

There's a lot to love about the Roku XD|S, but it's a device that can quickly disappoint if you don't know what you're getting when you make the plunge. In other words, you have to understand what the Roku is, and what it isn't.

Let's start with what it isn't.

Most importantly, the Roku is not a local digital media playback device, and is not really intended for people with a large cache of local video content. Sure, it will play select formats from a local drive, but it won't connect to and stream from a local network storage device or PC (without involving some third party software, but more on this in another article). It also lacks any resemblance of DLNA, which means you simply can't throw media at it from your phone or computer like you can do with an iPhone and Apple TV.

Roku XD|S USB Jack

On the USB support specifically, it does support the most common video formats people would create today, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will play what you've got sitting around on your hard drive. On the video front, you've got support for h.264 in MP4, MKV (kudos there), and MOV, as well as WMV9/VC-1. Forget DivX, XviD, those M-JPG files your digital camera spat out, and a whole host of others. Even the files it supports are spotty when it comes to playback. For example, it would play h.264 MP4 files encoded in Handbrake just fine, but it choked trying to play an h.264 MP4 file created on my Windows Phone.

Audio support within video can be tricky, too. Roku can handle Dolby Digital in MP4 (kudos there, too), MOV, and MKV, but will only pass it off over optical or HDMI. If you're using the stereo outputs, you're hosed if the file container doesn't include a stereo track for backup. DTS is handled in MKV files, but again, only as a pass-thru.

It can be used as a photo viewer in a pinch. It reads and displays images in both PNG and JPG formats (that's 99% of most people's needs). When hooked up via HDMI to an HDTV, the image quality is quite respectable at anything over 720p. Images are passable from the composite jack, but it's hardly a photo-quality experience.

Now, let's talk about what it is.

The Roku XD|S is your TV's gateway to Internet content. To put it simply, there aren't many set-top streamers I've found that offers access to the variety of Internet services that Roku does, but practically none that do it in such way that virtually anyone can enjoy it.

From both a quantity and quality perspective, I found the variety of Channels available satisfying. Sure, there's a great deal of content offered that doesn't interest me, but that doesn't take the fun out of installing a Channel and seeing what it offered (uninstalling channels is just as easy as installing them, thankfully).

Most of the major services are present and accounted for, like Netflix and Hulu Plus. Blockbuster On Demand and Vudu were the only two absent that I really noticed... not that anyone else will.

I was initially surprised to see that YouTube wasn't a supported video service, but it turns out there is a private beta channel available if you add it through the Roku website. Once that was done, I could search and stream from YouTube easily enough.

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Use and Navigation

Booting up the Roku takes forever, but unless you're moving it around your house it will always remain on and ready to go. Navigating the interface is relatively snappy, although there are noticeable pauses when launching a channel or returning to the home screen.

The Roku interface is super simple. Across the home screen are your installed Channels. Left or right navigates through your Channels, OK selects one. Within the channel, you can browse and play whatever content it offers, be it music, video, photos or games.

Many channels may require you to log in to a service, like Hulu Plus or one of the sports networks. You'll find typing in long e-mail addresses and passwords a bit painful after a while, but thankfully you only need to do each premium channel once.

I won't dive too deep into all of the various applications, but the Netflix application is the primary application many will spend the majority of their time in, so it's worth touching on. Although the interface isn't quite as flashy as what the XBOX 360 uses, for example, the Netflix app here is quite good. Videos start promptly, search is present, images and episode information loads quickly, etc. Throughout my extended testing, I never experienced a single issue. My only complaint is that the if you're browsing down through the various categories Netflix throws at you, you won't wrap once you hit the bottom. This forces you to scroll all the way back up to get return to the top. It's a minor gripe, but a gripe nonetheless.

While most channels I played with all performed amicably (the Hulu Plus app in particular was nice), another gripe is that all the Channel Apps work differently. It can be a bit disorienting switching from Channel to Channel, as things like where to search for content and how to play items wildly differs. A consistent UI construct might have been a little bit easier for the novice market, but thankfully most apps are pretty easy to figure out after a few minutes.

Video Performance

The Roku XD|S supports SD and HD video resolutions including 1080p, a selling feature Roku has over Apple TV. 1080p content, however, is still difficult to find. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and most other sources stream at 720p.

Nonetheless, video quality thus far has been excellent, but the overall quality expectedly varies with the source. Content from Netflix and other premier sources all looked really good, especially in HD. 1080p content from Vimeo looked particularly sharp.

Power Consumption

There is no standby or power button on the Roku XD|S, but I wouldn't worry too much about power consumption. Roku claims the XD|S chews a miserly 4 watts at idle, with a peak of 6 during operation. Testing power draw with a Kill-a-Watt meter showed similar results for peak power consumption, but mine was idling at 5 watts instead of 4. Even at its max, the monthly operational cost is about $0.50 based on electricity rates in my area.

For comparison, the XBOX 360 S costs approximately 15 to 20 times as much to operate per hour.

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The Roku streamers have come a long way in a few years. What started as a product solely designed to stream from Netflix has evolved into a platform that can deliver some of the best content on the web. I like to give credit where credit is due, and Roku deserves some accolades for being the first.

Today, the Roku XD|S is the perfect solution for the type of person who loves to stream off the web, but doesn't have a large local library of random video files. That's a lot of people. It's also great for anyone looking to add Netflix/Hulu/IPTV services to a secondary TV. Compared to the others out there, the Roku's content support, without having to have a PC running something like PlayOn, is far superior. It's local playback capabilities aren't useless by any means, but hardly enough to compete with the likes of Netgear, Western Digital, and the countless others that pull content from network shares.

In all honesty, Roku's XD is the most practical buy, but I'd argue that Roku's XD|S is a better value. Most won't need the dual-band Wi-Fi (but it never hurts), component video, or optical connections, but the USB support (as limited as it may be) can be useful for showing images and videos on your TV if you don't already have something for that purpose. Given that these will often be used on secondary TVs, away from the living room set with its own built in smart features or connected game console, I suspect this will often be the case. Besides, it's only twenty bucks more.

As I look toward the future, Roku's got some serious competition to do battle with. On one hand, the need for set-top boxes to do streaming is diminishing as TVs get smarter. Nearly every manufacturer has a variety of "Smart TVs" in their 2011 lineup, all of which offer online streaming from a variety of sources. Some even offer full development platforms where developers can create and submit applications that run right on the TV.

The set-top space is also crowded with competition. Companies like Boxee, for example, have really come into their own over the last year. Not only are they starting to get many of the same content offerings, but they're offering a hardware platform that better supports local streaming and media playback.

Another competitor, Apple, has their own streamer box in the market. The Apple TV is far more limited in functionality at the moment, offering only Netflix and their own iTunes store for online content, but Apple's got a knack for starting simple and adding major improvements over time. The insides of Apple TV are pretty powerful, and if Apple turns it into another iOS application platform (like the iPhone and iPad), it could very quickly turn into a "do everything" set-top solution.

As long as Roku continues to refine their product with new features (DLNA support would be a good start) and be a platform with online content people want to watch, a Roku streamer like the XD|S would be a good addition to just about every set in the home. Heck, at $99 a box, someone could even do just that... assuming they don't run out of bandwidth first.

I've enjoyed my time with the Roku XD|S. If you're looking for a way to get the online content and services you love to your TV screen, you'll enjoy it, too.


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