Roku was the first to release a Netflix dedicated box in industry, the old Roku DVP released in 2008 so they should get a lot of credit for the media streaming revolution across the industry. Since then, the marketplace has drastically changed, although Netflix is still content king. However, many other Internet content providers offering media streamers implementation for set top boxes popped up, like Hulu/Hulu Plus, VUDU, Amazon Video on Demand, Blockbuster, etc.
Roku had to keep up with the innovation if they wanted to be a significant player and obviously succeeded. Most of the top successful are part of the Roku family and low prices combined with a very good selection of web clients kept them on top.
The object of today’s review is Roku XD Media Player, the mid-level player from the current Roku media players generation. Since the review will be oriented toward describing the streaming features, it can be applied equally well to the other models in the family: Roku HD and Roku XDS. Teh main differences between models is: XDS vs XD – the addition of dual channel wireless adapter, USB port and component video / optical audio outputs. Roku HD model lacks the instant replay feature the other more expensive models have and the output is limited at 720p instead of 1080p of its bigger brothers. Software wise though, they are identical.
2. Roku XD Unpacking
I ordered Roku XD from my faithful Amazon, taking advantage of no state taxes and got it two days later. A surprise, the box looks on the outside like a generic OEM package, no pictures, nothing. I guess it is to save costs and since you buy it online, it doesn’t really matters. I did not see the box on sale at any of the local brick and mortar stores like Best Buy.
What’s In the Box
I hoped there is a new trend to finally include HDMI cables in the package. In Roku XD situation, you only get the composite cable (the one with red/white for audio and yellow for video) so you’ll have to get your HDMI cable by yourself. Again, saving costs but annoying nonetheless. Beside the composite cables, there is the Roku box itself, the power adapter and the tiny remote control with batteries.
Design wise, the box is fairly non-describable, a small black plastic box similar in size with any other media streaming boxes on the market. The only distinctive marker is the purple Roku ribbon attached to box the box and the remote control. The design is certainly not as radical as the Boxee Box but fits easily into a small place and it is perfect for my bedroom.
The included remote control is tiny with a minimal layout. It lacks a power button so the Roku devices are designed to stay ON. This might be a good thing considering it takes a long time (around a minute to boot) and fortunately the box is very frugal in its power requirements. The box can be controlled by a Harmony remote but the codes are incomplete. The Roku device can only be found under DVD Players category in Harmony software and even then, there is no dedicated button for Home / back functionality so you’ll have to learn those by yourself. Not very hard but it somehow breaks the harmony of a Harmony remote ;).
5. Roku XD Tech Specs
- Product Dimensions: 4.9 x 4.9 x 1.2 inches ; 7.2 ounces
- HDMI / composite outputs
- Ethernet port
- WiFi adpter included (b/g/n compatible)
5.1 Firmware Update
As any respectable media streamer, first thing after it was powered on the first time was to check for software upgrades. It found one update, installed it, restarted it and proceeded without a hitch to settings menu.
5.2 User interface
The UI is simple with large icons filling the whole screen area. It is not really optimized for larger screens and easily more content could be added to take advantage of a larger real estate. This as also the case for the Boxee Box I reviewed not too long ago and I start wishing for dual layouts designed for both small screen TVs and larger sets as well. A prominent position holds the advertisment, so the box is not without ads.
The Roku boxes have two different UI layouts: One in the Channel Store where all the channels are presented as a table with individual rows being scrollable. After you created your own channel selection, all the channels are presented on one row and you can only scroll horizontally. There is no other way to get to certain channels other than multiple left/right clicks. I wish the same layout from the Channel Store would be also used on the Home page and allow navigation on both directions.
6. Channel Store
This availability of a large number of web clients is where Roku boxes are shining. The platform offers a SDK so anybody can start developing new channels and among the officially sanctioned channels you’ll find must haves like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Video on Demand, VUDU, Blockbuster, UFC, MLB.tv, Pandora, Facebook Photos, Flickr, etc. There is no other box currently on the market offering that many web clients. Boxee Box comes close but lacks for now must haves like Netflix, VUDU, Amazon, etc.
I will review Roku’s implementation of what I consider the most important web services today.
Roku was the first in industry to offer a dedicated Netflix implementation and the current client doesn’t disappoint. Roku’s Netflix client is fast, easy to navigate and supports all the modern features you would expect: Categories and Search. The setup is a breeze (you just need to add a short code to your Netflix account and several seconds later the box is activated and good to go).
The Netflix client also supports a feature unique to Roku boxes – instant replay thanks to a memory buffer present in last generation Roku boxes and a dedicated remote control button as well.
6.2 Hulu Plus
Roku is also one of the few for now boxes supporting Hulu Plus. The UI is similar with Hulu Plus on Playstation 3.
6.3 Amazon Video on Demand
Pandora has a simple interface, works well but the playing stops as soon as you leave the application. I wish it could work in parallel with browsing photos for example so you can listen music in background.
There are many popular web clients supported by Roku, included tens of clients requiring subscription. Among the free ones, I should mention TWIT TV, Mediafly, Blip.tv, Revision 3, Shoutcast, Flickr, Facebook Photos, Last.fm, etc.
7. Private channels
While Roku doesn’t have the resources to create channels for every content provider on the Internet, it offers a SDK which private developers can use to create their own clients. Using these channels users can get access to video podcasts, iTunes, CNN, YouTube and even local content stored on the network. To add a private channel you need to do the following:
1. Navigate to your Roku account (also be sure to log-in)
2. Add the channel code for the private channel desired.
3. Wait up to 24 hours or refresh faster by navigating to Channel Store on your Roku box
There are various lists containing private channels all over the Internet, here are the most popular (and stable) ones including their codes:
YouTube – B8VVK
POD TV – H9DWC
CNN – RBFA1
PlayOn – PLAYON (no local content though and you’ll need PlayOn with a premium license)
Archive.org – NMJS5
8. Local content
There are several ways to get local content (streamed from your home network) on Roku devices but it is not simple and requires trans-coding. You’ll need to install a private channel that supports it (Roksbox is one of them) and also a media server to perform the feeds and the transcoding. But more about that in a future article.
In terms of pure online content, there is no other box to offer Roku’s wide range of channels, especially at this price. If you don’t care too much about local content, Roku is the top choice and it offers all the must have channels today including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Video on Demand, VUDU, etc. The box is small, cheap and easy to install so one for every TV in your house is actually both cheap and recommended. If you think about cutting the cable cord and switching to online content only, a dual Netflix / Hulu Plus membership for under $20, occasional VUDU rentals and supplemented by YouTube, Revision 3, VIMEO and others is the best possible choice currently.
- best support for online streaming with the largest number of available web clients
- 1080p streaming
- low power
- no local content support (this may or may not affect you)
- not the fastest hardware available, sometimes slow to navigate