As cool as it is, the Apple TV has a lot of limitations. Fortunately, it’s not the only digital media streamer on the market. Featuring 1080p and hundreds of content partners, Roku’s HD, XD, and XDS seem like the solution to the Apple blues.
Roku’s three identical-looking models have access to the same content and overall functionality is the same. The base model HD is 720p from HDMI, but still has wired and Wi-Fi and analog video outputs (composite only). For $20 more, the XD adds 1080p output and 802.11n. For an additional $20 the XDS adds in dual-band Wi-Fi, component video output, and a USB port to play back music, videos, and pictures
The price difference between the players is so slight, that I can’t see a reason for just getting the HD. Comparing the XD and XDS, for most people, will come down to the USB port. A significant feature, which we’ll get to in a moment.
For this review we picked the middle-of-the-line XD partially because the XDS seemed unnecessary, and partly because we had to buy our review sample and Gary’s cheap.
Setup is Apple-easy, with simple menus leading you through the few aspects of setup. One feature that’s not in the setup but is worth enabling is 5.1 audio output. Most streaming programs are 2.0, but this is slowly changing so it’s worth having this active.
I connected with Ethernet, even though the XD has Wi-Fi. I did this because where the Roku sits on my rack it has a line of site to my wireless router. So this would tell you zip about how it performs in your house, with your router and so on. Also, and this is largely personal preference, I like giving network streamers as much bandwidth potential as possible.
The remote is cheap-ish, but the buttons have a soft feel and overall it works just fine. Compared to the damn stylish metal remote that comes with the Apple TV, the Roku feels amateurish. But, it bounces off my screen so I don’t have to point the remote at the Roku in my rack behind me. This is more than I can say for the Apple remote.
The main Roku interface has “Channels” that represent different content partners. To start there’s Netflix, Amazon Video on Demand, and Hulu Plus. Additional Channels are downloadable via the Roku Channel Store. This is where Roku is definitely a step above the Apple TV. There are well over 100 different Channels available, ranging from sports content (NBA, UFC, NHL), to news, music (Pandora, SiriusXM), and lots more. Amusingly, in the Channel listing on the store when I was doing this review, these Channels were next to each other: PodNutz, Church on Video, TBN, Bikini Destinations. Amusing juxtapositions are amusing.
I couldn’t hope to review all of the available content, so I’ll focus on the big ones: Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and Pandora.
The Netflix interface is unique, not the boilerplate jobs found on nearly every Blu-ray player. It features big cover art and more importantly, the ability to search. There are a few things that are easier on the Apple TV’s implementation of Netflix, namely finding specific episodes of a TV show, but in all Roku’s interface is very good. Picture quality seems to be as good as the source material. If there was a difference in picture quality between the Roku and the ‘TV, I didn’t see it.
Even though Netflix announced they would soon be doing some content in 1080p, no specific programs have been announced. As nearly all streaming content is 720p, the 1080p nature of the XD (and XDS) is mostly optimistic. (Edit 3/25/11: My bad, turns out the 1080p is PS3-only at the moment and there is some content.)
Amazon Video on Demand is Roku’s access to current episodes and movies. Prices are largely better than iTunes, with some HD shows available for purchase for $0.99, as opposed to Apple’s rental at that price. Picture quality is quite good, and is unlikely different enough from iTunes to declare one better than the other in this regard.
If you sign up for Amazon Prime, you get access to “5,000 movies and TV shows.” If you’re already a subscriber to Prime, then this is a neat bonus. If you’re not, don’t waste your money for this (though the “free” 2-day shipping is cool).
Selection is very similar to Netflix, but the Netflix versions had less noise and seemed sharper. Worse, and this is a moronic oversight, in the Roku Amazon interface there’s no way to tell what movies are in HD until you play them (or go online, as they’re labeled as such on Amazon.com). All told, even for only $6.58 a month (billed yearly), I don’t see why someone would get this over Netflix, unless you buy a lot of stuff on Amazon.
Hulu Plus is the service where you get to pay a monthly fee for the privilege of watching shows with commercials. Ok, it’s not quite as bad as that, and if you really want to stop paying for cable it’s a pretty good deal. Image quality is decent, recent shows are in HD that is a little softer and nosier than what I get on my U-verse, but in all not bad. There is a fair amount of classic programming too, but I didn’t find anything that I wanted to watch so bad I couldn’t wait for a disc from Netflix.
The Pandora interface is spartan but attractive, with song info and the ability to thumbs up/down. There are several other Internet radio providers (though notably not Slacker), so if you do a lot of your music listening this way, the Roku offers a lot of options.
The real question, given the 1080p output, is where’s VUDU? You’d think this would be the most logical pairing in CE. Most likely this is due to the limited on-board storage of the Roku (i.e. none). Maybe in some future generation.
One major problem
In terms of hours of use, the vast majority of time spent using my Apple TV is having it stream music from my computer. Playing my music collection on my main audio system, and controlling the whole thing with my iPod touch is amazing. Sure there are other ways to do this, but none are as easy as the Apple TV. The Roku offers no such ability, which to me limits its use significantly. If you don’t think you’d use an Apple TV like this, then the Roku is fine. With my money, though, this one feature would drive me to the Apple.
The XDS’s USB media playback feature goes some way towards addressing this issue, but not entirely.
If you’re the adventurous type, there’s a 3rd party private (i.e. unsupported) Channel that should let you stream your own music. You can read about it on Roku’s forums. As it’s not a “real” Roku solution, and appears to be a bit of a hack, I didn’t review it.
Ok, two major problems.
You can’t turn it off. WTF? Even though it only draws a few watts, it’s still a power vampire. Not having at least a standby mode is inexcusable.
A word on bandwidth
With any streaming video you’re going to need an Internet connection fast enough. Most providers recommend at least a 2.5 mbps connection, but in reality you should have more than this, especially for HD. I had fairly regular buffering issues with AVoD, though I can’t say this was a Roku issue as Netflix was fine.
If you listen to the marketing, Roku’s advantage over the Apple TV is 1080p. This isn’t technically false, as the XD/XDS do have the ability to output 1080p. The reality is there’s not enough 1080p content for this to be relevant. Maybe in the future, but we’re not reviewing this in the future (or are we?!? mind… BLOWN!).
So it comes down to what the Roku can do now. Netflix is a wash, Amazon Video on Demand is the equal to the iTunes store, and in some ways better. Hulu Plus is definitely great if your goal is to free yourself from cable. The other available content is cool, but in my book, it doesn’t offset the inability to stream music from my computer to my audio system. For my money, I’d get an Apple TV, but if someone was to pick the Roku instead, I certainly couldn’t say they chose poorly.
HDGuru.com awards the Roku XD Digital Media Receiver: $79.99 a ♥♥♥ (out of five hearts) rating.
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