Updated: March 15, 2013
HD/XD/XDS Series of Roku Players
Reviewing the new line of Roku Digital Media Players
Have you noticed? A new revolution is taking place in the world of TV entertainment. It is no longer satellite or cable - these services are losing ground. Instead, the hot new trend is that of streaming full-screen video straight from the Internet on your HDTV.
And if this is what you are after, the all-new line of Roku digital video players should definitely be at the top of your list. The new Roku box is better than ever, and the new HD/XD/XDS Roku players are extremely affordable, easy-to-use, and support superior programming choice - providing a lot more for your dollar than most TV subscriptions from network providers.
In particular, the XDS Roku box is our number one wireless media player of choice thanks to its excellent streaming performance. But still, it is not the perfect TV streaming box. Read here to discover more.
Editor's Update March 15, 2013: For information on the latest Roku players, please refer to both our Wireless Media Players Roundup page, and our review of the Roku 3 — the latest Roku iteration for 2013.
Definitely the best wireless streaming player presently available on the market...
It serves more than 750 channels; that's more content than anyone else. Performance is super-fast, and there is also a superb user interface. Other features include dual-band Wi-Fi operation, and an innovative remote control that includes a headphone jack for private listening!
More information in our Roku review here.
2010 Roku Players... better than ever!
Way back in 2008, the original Roku player did prove to be a big hit. It was one of the very first video streaming little inexpensive boxes selling for less $100 that enabled users to view a vast range of movies and TV shows without being tied up to a PC. It was the only Netflix-compatible player on the market at the time. In addition, its Netflix/Amazon VoD content bundle meant that the first Roku box did deliver more for your dollar than most satellite and cable TV subscriptions. Since then a lot has changed and by autumn 2010, the Roku box was replaced by three new players.
At the entry-level, one finds the Roku HD; this is an updated version of the original Roku box designed to support the ever expanding array of new Internet streaming services. Next in line is the Roku XD and its rebadged Netgear Roku NTV250; the XD adds 1080p playback and wireless N support. At the top, one finds the Roku XD|S ($99) with the main upgrade being the presence of dual-band wireless N technology and USB playback support.
XD|S 1080p Roku Player
This little video box is capable of streaming 1080p HD video from Netflix, Amazon VoD, and more.
It is easy to set up, comes with extensive connectivity options, and uses dual-band wireless-N technology for the best video streaming performance.
The Roku Player Design
From the outside, all three Roku players look the same; a small black box measuring 1.1 inches by 4.9 inches by 4.9 inches; the only differentiating factor is the model logo on top of the unit.
All Roku models come with Ethernet and Wi-Fi network connectivity, apart from a complete suite of audio and video interconnects. In this respect, the new Roku players are better than most other streaming boxes - including the new Apple TV; the latter comes with HDMI and optical audio outputs only - meaning you cannot use the Apple TV with older non-HDTVs. Instead, the composite audio/video output present on the Roku player means you can connect the Roku box even with older TV sets.
The Roku XD|S player adds a component video output (via a breakout cable) supporting up to 720p, and a USB port on the side which can be used for USB drives and external Hard Drives to view MP4, JPG and listen to MP3 files; note however that you need to activate USB support by adding the 'Private Channel' called 'USB Media Browser' to your Channel Store list. One other external difference between the three Roku models is that XD and XDS Roku players come with an 'enhanced' remote that offers additional buttons (instant replay, back, and info) to the already functional though simple remote found on the HD box.
Mentioning the remote, it is interesting that you can also use your iPod Touch or iPhone as a remote once you download the free Rokumote app. This app works over Wi-Fi instead of infrared - thus rendering for a faster overall player response.
Otherwise, remaining differences are internal and relate to the supported functionality. While all Roku players come with wireless connectivity supporting WEP, WPA and WPA2 security protocols, the Roku HD model handles only 802.11g while the XD and XD|S support up to 802.11n. This means that handling of HD content with the entry-level Roku player may turn out to be problematic even under medium network traffic. Admittedly, even 802.11n operation in the 2.4GHz band is at times an issue when streaming HD content due to the increasing number of neighboring networks using wireless N technology. It is here that the XD|S advantage comes in as it can handle dual-band wireless N (2.4GHz or 5GHz) operation for the best HD video streaming performance. Just keep in mind however that you will need a suitable dual-band router or wireless AP.
One other difference we have already highlighted earlier on relates to 720p and 1080p HD support. While both the XD and XD|S Roku players support HD video, the Roku HD output supports 720p HD only. This in our opinion is not much of an issue and it would be extremely hard if not impossible for one to notice any difference even on an average size 50-inch HDTV especially when considering that here we are dealing with broadcast TV content; as further explained in our guide to HDTV Formats, these never deliver the full image resolution supported by the 1080p standard due to bandwidth issues.
The Roku Player in Use
The Roku digital video player is simple to setup and is characterized by an easy-to-use interface - one that has been tweaked for the better over the previous Roku box. Irrespective of the Roku model, the Roku box is basically a plug and play wireless digital media player. Once plugged in and start-up complete, all you have to do is just navigate your way through the easy-to-follow wizard-driven setup menu.
Setting up your Roku Player requires access to a PC to setup your Roku account; in addition, with certain content providers e.g. Netflix, you will also need to use your PC to link - in this case - your Netflix account to your Roku box via the Netflix's Web site.
Once setup is complete, navigating the channels is easy; you just use the five-way directional pad on the remote; once you choose a program, load time can extend up to around 15 seconds. This represents a significant improvement over the almost one minute you had to wait with certain content over the older Roku box.
The Roku offers one of the most impressive and complete lineups of online content you will ever come across - with more than 100 different program options from services such as Netflix, huluPLUS, amazon video-on-demand, Pandora internet radio, MBL, NBA and NHL GameCenter for sport events, IMAX mobo, and much more.
OK, you will not get access to Apple's iTunes store and strange as it may seen, to YouTube movies as well. And for those looking for a way to stream multimedia content from their PCs, the Roku is not DLNA-enabled. But it definitely offers the vastest range of online streaming content you can dream of.
The Roku automatically adjusts signal quality according to the speed of your broadband connection on a four-level scale. Take note however that end image quality is also heavily dependent on your program source.
Quality of HD content exceeds that of DVD video and in our opinion is close to and with certain content on par with HD programs on satellite and cable TV. In a similar manner, quality of fast moving program content - like when watching sports events - is also very good with a relatively solid picture and hardly any visible compression artifacts, in particular blocking; the latter may presents itself when fast moving parts of the image degenerate into unnatural blocks of content as a result of high compression in digital content transmission.
Navigating through a program stream is quite smooth though not as convenient as when skipping tracks through a DVD.
Sound quality is equally very good - with most content available in stereo though video-on-demand content come in Dolby Digital surround.
Which Roku Player is right for you?
This depends on what are your requirements. If neighboring wireless networks are not an issue and your wireless home network traffic is low, then probably, the cheaper Roku HD player would suffice - after all, from a content perspective, the three models have access to the same program options.
However, we still say that if the Roku is for you, opt at least for the XD model and not for the Roku HD. This is not because of the supported 1080p resolution of the XD, but simply because for an extra $10 more, you can jump onto the superior wireless N technology; the latter is more suitable for streaming of HD video programming.
If on the other hand, your wireless router supports dual-band operation, or you have a dual-radio wireless AP, then the XD|S is the one to go for.
But there is another reason why you may have to opt for the more expensive Roku XD|S player. Strange as it may seem, this is the only Roku player that comes with USB support - a feature we feel should have been available on the other Roku players as well. Even more strange is that you have to activate the USB port as already indicated above. But in any case, USB support is available. This means that if you want to connect a USB drive to view MP4, JPG and listen to MP3 files, you need the premium Roku player.
Concluding Remark: Is the Roku the perfect video streaming box?
Definitely, content is the name of the game here and the new Roku players do not disappoint. In this respect, these little video streaming boxes represent our preferred choice of Internet streaming digital video players. They offer a lot more streaming program content than any Internet-enabled HDTV or Blu-ray player, and even more so than any of the latest video streaming boxes including the new Apple TV. Despite the latter solid interface and streaming performance, content accessible via the Apple TV is nowhere close to what you find on the Roku, with the Apple TV main target being the 'iworld' user.
But the new line of Roku players still do not represent the perfect solution. These Roku players miss on one very important feature many planning to stream full screen video to their HDTV would be looking for, and that is DLNA support as already pointed out earlier on in this review.
This means that these little Roku boxes cannot be used to stream multimedia files from networked PCs straight onto your HDTV. The irony is that the Roku has the necessary built-in hardware to support DLNA functionality. In fact, some unofficial hacks seem have managed to enable this feature; but you would not get any support from Roku for this.
Is this a deal-breaker? It depends. We still say that the new line of Roku players offer a lot more for your money than any other Internet streaming box and your satellite or cable TV subscription.
The bottom line: If you still do not have an Internet-enabled HDTV or Blu-ray player, or simply want to join the latest trend of streaming full-screen video to your TV, the new Roku players - starting at just $69 - are in our opinion the best line of Internet TV streaming boxes you can buy.
Extensive content, ease of use, and solid streaming performance especially with the XD and XD|S models, is what you get with the new Roku player bundle.
Search for the latest Roku Players at amazon.com