Lately there has been much less reliance on watching television via a cable or satellite provider; and why wouldn’t there be? There is an abundance of free and inexpensive online content including shows and movies you would see on television as well as internet exclusive content. The only reason most haven’t canned their cable/satellite subscriptions already is because there isn’t an an easy and affordable way to access the plethora of internet content from their TV. Well there is an easy way, and one of the easiest and most attractive ways is with the Roku 2 XS. The Roku 2 XS delivers internet TV to any television in the house, and it couldn’t be easier. Unlock 350 entertainment channels, including hundreds of free movies, in full 1080p quality! Read on for our full review.
-Roku 2 XS Box
-A/V Composite Cable (Red/White/Yellow)
-Roku Motion Controlled Remote (with 2AA Batteries)
Our jaw dropped as we unboxed the Roku 2 XS; it’s truly amazing how small, and yet how capable, the device is. It fits in the palm of our hand, is not even an inch tall, and yet it manages to squeeze out full 1080P video with built in WiFi. Not only is Roku small, but it’s light too: just 85 grams. The entire device is glossy black except for a little purple “Roku” tag on the side and the purple ports in the back. The miniature device managed to squeeze an HDMI port, A/V port, Ethernet port, Micro-SD slot, and a DC power port onto the back of the device. It even has a USB port on the side. The bottom of the device is nice and grippy so it can hold it’s ground. There is a status LED light on the front of the device and that’s pretty much it; very simple and very small.
The included Roku remote control is bluetooth (3.0) and has built in motion sensing for playing games. The remote is quite similar in function and size to the WiiMote, just a bit shorter. It has 10 buttons on the face as well as arrow buttons. The remote’s face is glossy black and it has an adjustable purple wristband to keep you from flinging your remote at the TV.
Even though the Roku remote uses a bluetooth connection for reliable communication, the Roku box is compatible with various universal remotes through built in IR. Roku requires an internet connection, which can be accomplished through the built in 10/100 Base-T Ethernet Port or the built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi (compatible with 802.11b or g and supports WiFi security). Over composite cables Roku 2 XS can transmit 480i video, but over HDMI it can transmit 480p, 720p, and 1080p video. Over HDMI, Roku can transmit digital 5.1 surround sound.
The entire set-up is quite simple. Built-in WiFi means you really only need to connect two cables: the power adapter plugged into the wall, and [ideally] an HDMI cable (rather than composite) plugged into the TV. Unfortunately there is no HDMI cable included. The remote is paired from the get-go, so just configure the WiFi and create a Roku account. Creating the Roku account almost took longer than the installation itself. You cannot use the device without an account, and the account needs to be created from a computer. To make matters worse, you *need* to enter payment information to create an account, even if you don’t plan on making purchases. You can enter a credit card or use Paypal (though the website crashed when we tried to use Paypal). Once an account is created Roku automatically logs you in to the portal of apps.
Roku uses an “app” interface, where you’re greeted with a flow of apps, or “channels”, laid out left to right. Channels differ greatly in layout and functionality. They all run independently from each other, and cannot run in the background. Some of the default apps include Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Crackle, HBO Go, Pandora, Disney, CNET, Facebook, CNBC, EPIX, Fox News, and a free Angry Birds Game. From the Roku Channel Store app you can choose from hundreds of other apps organized by category. Alternatively, you can browse all of the apps from a computer and download them straight to your Roku box. RDIO has an app for streaming music from your RDIO account, and Picasa has an app for viewing photos and videos from your free Picasa web album. There are very specific channels like Speed Racer which only plays classic episodes of Speed Racer, and there are broader channels like Vimeo which plays all sorts of online videos. Crackle plays a ton of popular movies for free with less commercials than you’d see on TV.
There are a few similar set-top boxes out there, most notably the Apple TV and the Boxee Box. Both are a bit more polished than Roku’s interface, but all have pros and cons. Gaming is one of Roku’s competitive advantages. The Roku remote works well with similar sensitivity and functionality to the Wii Mote. The remote uses a gyro and is sensitive enough to work as a mouse by pointing at the screen, though the “mouse” is app dependent and we’ve only seen it in Angry Birds. Aside from Angry Birds and Pac Man, the games are a bit underwhelming; never-the-less there are more games always being added. Like the Boxee Box (and unlike Apple TV), the Roku uses an open interface where any website or company can create an app. Currently the Roku is one of the only devices that supports Amazon’s Instant Video streaming, which is free for all Amazon Prime subscribers.
Even if the interface is a bit slow and not super polished, the apps all work well and the streaming quality was usually great (dependent on the app). Netflix and Crackle streamed our HD content with next to no buffering. Between Hulu Plus, Netflix, Crackle, HBO Go, Epix, and Amazon you could definitely get away with cancelling your cable or satellite provider. Though most are paid services, each offers nearly limitless HD content with little or no ads. Netflix is even capable of streaming live sports. Unfortunately, Roku cannot easily stream video from your local network sharing; though it is capable of playing media over USB (by downloading the Roku USB Media Player Channel). Then again, there may be an app to handle local network streaming by the time you read this. It was also a bit unsettling to see YouTube, one of the largest internet video streaming hubs, is missing from Roku.
For $100, you can easily get your money’s worth out of the Roku 2 XS, and save a lot of money on your cable or satellite subscriptions. It also definitely helps if you are subscribed to one of the premium streaming apps. The setup was super easy and the interface itself is also very easy to use; and very user-friendly. The included bluetooth (RF) remote means you can make the device virtually invisible in any room. As compared to the Apple TV, which is also $99, the Roku is much more expandable with more free content and better “apps”. And in comparison to the Boxee Box, the Boxee Box is twice as expensive, but it has a much nicer and more usable interface that can even play music and videos in the background. That said, while Boxee Box offers most of the same apps as Roku, it’s not as small as the Roku XS, and it doesn’t offer Amazon’s Instant Video app or video games.
The Roku 2 XS is currently available for as little as $89.99 on Amazon.
The Good: Quick Setup, Easy to Use, 1080P Capable, Bluetooth Remote Has Perfect Communication, Amazon Instant Video, Free Shipping, 3rd Party Apps Offer Unlimited Expandability, Built-In USB, Ethernet, WiFi and Micro-SD, Price
The Bad: Credit Card Required to Use, Can’t Stream Content from Local network, HDMI and Ethernet Cord Not Included, Apps Can’t Run in Background, Roku Banner Ad Runs Constantly on Home Screen, Boring Interface
“High-speed Internet connection with a speed of at least 1.2 Mbps (such as mid-level DSL). For HD video, 5 Mbps is recommended (if you’re not sure what your speed is, go to www.speedtest.net and run the simple test)”