Roku 2 XS Media Streamer
Price: $99 At A Glance: Vastly improved picture quality • More responsive, motion-sensitive, Bluetooth remote • Tiny footprint • Wide variety of content providers
Roku has released its newest generation of media streamers, including the top-of-the-line Roku 2 XS player. Perhaps you haven't given Roku much thought as a serious addition to your home theater. Its earlier models gave more attention to the quantity of media-streaming partners than to the quality of the pictures they were streaming. The Roku 2 XS may change your mind as it changed mine.
The Roku 2 XS has been completely redesigned from previous generations, shrinking to the size of a hockey puck. It looks so different, in fact, that the entire line of products has been dubbed "Roku 2." But what it lost in size, it more than gained in performance. It can stream 1080p video and pass 5.1 surround sound, and it performs beautifully.
While the Roku 2 XS is even smaller than the diminutive second-generation Apple TV, it offers a much wider variety of content. Currently, there are over 400 channels of content available for Roku boxes, as opposed to about 10 for Apple TV, though anything you can get on the iPad 2 or iPhone 4S—which is a lot—can be mirrored to the Apple TV.
For those who want access to TV shows and movies, Roku continues to carry most of the streaming sites you will probably want: Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Crackle, and, of course, the channel that made Roku famous—Netflix. In 2008, the Roku box was known as the "Netflix Player," the first device other than a computer that could directly stream Netflix from the Internet. However, Roku does not carry Vudu.
If you'd like to get premium cable programming along with other TV shows and movies, you can add the Epix or HBO Go channels. To view these channels, you must subscribe to them through your cable or satellite provider.
But just because you get the channels on cable doesn't mean you can watch on your Roku. While you may be able to watch HBO Go on your computer or mobile device, some cable providers limit access via Roku. For example, Comcast subscribers cannot view HBO GO content on the Roku. Check the HBO Go and Epix websites for a list of participating providers.
Aside from video channels, Roku offers many popular music-streaming services, including MOG, Pandora, and rdio; news channels such as CNET, CNBC, and Wall Street Journal; and photo-sharing sites, including Flickr, Picassa, and a channel to view photos and videos from your Facebook feed. Also, many popular podcasts can be found in the TWiT, Revision 3, and MediaFly channels. For sports fans, there are the popular sports channels like NHL Game Center, NBA, and MLS, as well as specific channels to help coach viewers on how to play football or baseball.
While some channels are mainstream, such as those showing Disney videos and one dedicated to The X Factor reality TV show, some of the top-rated channels feature special interests for different religions, cultures, hobbies, and sports. The Mormon Channel and EWTN (the Global Catholic Channel) are among the first listed in the Top Rated category of the Roku Channel Store.
Most channels are free to download, but some cost 99 cents or more. Games like Pac-Man run $4.99. Some channels are free to download but require additional monthly subscriptions. Netflix, Hulu, and MOG each cost about $8 per month. Note that these subscriptions are not limited to watching on your Roku box—you can also stream content to other devices like smartphones, tablets, and computers.
Roku adds new channels at a faster pace than many other network media player makers. The newest channels include some video-arcade games, such as Pac-Man and Galaga. In fact, the Roku 2 XS now comes with a redesigned gaming remote control, which I'll discuss shortly.
It was big news when Roku partnered with Rovio to bring Angry Birds to the Roku box, where it can be played on a big-screen TV. While the Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii game consoles are adding more and more media streaming, the media-streaming Roku is now adding video games—albeit a simple game played on most computers and mobile devices.
The smaller case of the Roku 2 XS means that some connections found on the earlier XDS, such as component video and optical digital audio, had to be omitted. This new top-of-the-line model has only an HDMI output, an Ethernet port (not included on other new Roku models, which rely on WiFi), and a mini-jack that can be used with the included composite-plus-stereo-audio breakout cable.
The mini-jack makes it possible to connect older, standard-definition TVs that don't have HDMI inputs but do have composite-video and L/R analog audio inputs. Several of Roku's competitors, such as Apple TV and LG Smart Upgrader, only have an HDMI output and can connect only to HDTVs with HDMI inputs.
Interestingly, the other models in the Roku 2 line do not include an Ethernet port, relying entirely on WiFi to connect to the Internet. Still, you may want to use a wired Ethernet connection, since this is often reliably faster than WiFi, resulting in less buffering and the best video performance.
Like the earlier Roku XDS, the Roku 2 XS has a USB port, which offers the only way to stream your own media directly. The XS is not a DLNA-certified player and cannot find media saved to computers or media servers on your home network. Instead, you must copy the movies, music, or photos to a hard drive or flash drive that you can then connect to the Roku 2 XS.
To play media from a connected USB drive, you must first download and install the USB channel from the Photos and Videos category in the Roku Channel Store. The Roku 2 XS is compatible with very few file formats—MPEG4 (H.264) and Matroska (.mkv) video (the latter added just this week with a firmware update) as well as JPG and PNG photos (no GIFs). If you download other high-definition video formats like AVI, you will need to use transcoding software such as Handbrake, Xilisoft, or Air Video on your computer to convert it to a compatible format. For Mac users, note that the Roku 2 will only accept USB drives that are PC formatted—FAT16, FAT32, HFS+, or NTFS. You can download software for your Mac that can read and create NTFS-formatted drives.
The connection panel also includes a MicroSD card slot, but this is only for additional channel and game storage. No media content can be played from a MicroSD card.
The new remote uses Bluetooth to communicate with the Roku box. Previous models' remotes used infrared (IR) and required a clear line of sight, and they were sometimes unresponsive even when pointed straight at the box. Because it uses Bluetooth, the remote is more accurate and doesn't require the box to "see" the remote, which means you can hide the box behind a TV or in a cabinet.