As cable prices continue to rise with the addition of HD and increased channel selection, consumers are left wondering if there is an alternative to the high cost of cable. While the selection of alternatives is increasing we are going to focus on and review one particular option, the Roku XDS box (equal to Roku 2 XS model).
What is the Roku?
The Roku box is a media streaming device for use on your existing TV. The Roku streams media from the internet via Roku channels which are very similar to apps for different providers such as Netflix, NHL, Pandora and so on. The Roku can also display your own personal media through a USB connection.
How Does the Roku Work?
In a nutshell, the Roku uses your existing high speed internet connection to stream media to your television. The connection can be hard wired via ethernet cable or wireless through your wireless router. Since Roku explains the setup and connection process more than adequately, we will refer inquiries about how it works to the Roku website: Roku: How It Works.
The Roku measures less than 5 inches in length and width and under 1.5 inches in height. Frankly its tiny, especially when compared to the typical satellite/cable boxes or receivers. With such small dimensions, the Roku can fit nearly anywhere inconspicuously which leaves the TV the only focal point in your media viewing area.
Setup for the Roku is nearly dummy proof. You simply connect it to your TV and plug it in. The Roku comes packaged with an HDMI cable for highest quality viewing experience, so no extra cords or cables to buy. Once everything is connected, the Roku goes through its initial setup stages, one of which is to register the product online. While registering online is nothing new to most of us, this is arguably the most cumbersome part of the setup simply because you need to copy the code displayed by Roku on your TV and enter into their online webpage. The process is not difficult by any means but it will require you to be online and setup the Roku simultaneously. One last item for the Roku during the setup stage is to download any software updates for the Roku box. That can take some time depending on how large the updates are but relatively speaking should take 10-20 minutes on a fast ethernet connection.
The Roku remote control is proportionally as small as the box itself. There are several buttons but for the most part it is a simple device. The remote is not a universal remote and at this time
we don’t know of any universal remotes that will operate the Roku, so you’ll need to use that remote exclusively for viewing on the Roku. EDIT: The Logitech Harmony works with Roku. Thanks to several of our readers for the information. We picked out two Logitech models if you’re looking to make a purchase, the Logitech Harmony 300 and the Logitech Harmony 650. There is also a Roku remote control app for your smartphones. Search your respective app stores for ‘Roku’ to find the app.
Once the Roku is setup, you are ready to personalize the box to your viewing interests. The onscreen menu is very simple. The Roku channels are lined horizontally across the screen and navigation is a simple left or right click of the remote. Initially, the ‘Channel Store’ is where to start. From there you can select the channels you want to add to your Roku box. Popular choices include the Netflix, NHL, Hulu Plus, Pandora and Roku Newscaster channels. Any channel that provides a service for a fee, such as Netflix where you pay a monthly fee will require a registration of your Roku box with that service. Registration takes place online and before each of those channels is accessed for the first time, a code will be given to you by the Roku for entering online. For quick viewing at the start, just add the Roku Newscaster channel, since that channel does not require a code, and view some of the news programs available through the Roku.
Using the Roku becomes second nature after a very short time. To start, you’ll need to select a channel from the home menu to view programs. Once a channel is selected, the channel interface will guide you through using the service. The Roku provides all the tools necessary to stream the content from the channels but ultimately the navigation and viewable content is determined by the channel provider. See Part II for more details on channel content and providers. We purchased two XDS units and tested them from different locations and distances to the wireless router. The reception is very similar to that of a laptop. The range will obviously degrade over greater distances and through multiple obstructions but all in all holds signal strength very well.
The interface is simple, lightweight and better than the interface we’ve seen on other devices. Particularly speaking, some of the Sony blu-ray interfaces are atrocious compared to the Roku. The Roku interface is quick, mainly because it is so simple but the reaction time of channels via the Roku is very fast with little delay between selection and access. The channels themselves have been developed intelligently to work well with the Roku and function with ease of use in mind. More on channels in Part II.
The on screen interface of the Roku is lightweight and makes viewing convenient. The remote is small and uncomplicated, making for an easy to learn control system and great usability. The Roku comes packaged with an HDMI cable, a significant plus for viewing. The remote control comes with batteries, which is a nice touch. The batteries last for quite a while and we have yet to change them in either device since their usage began 3 months ago. The Roku’s small size is ideal for those who want to hide away all the gadgets associated with the TV and just view the TV. The wireless setup is simple as long as you know your wireless password and the range is within acceptable limits.
The biggest con is that you don’t watch television shows or broadcasts on their scheduled air date (sports are accessible live). Having said that, it can also be seen as the biggest pro as it allows you to watch the shows and programs you enjoy on your own schedule. We noticed that, occasionally, after a software update the Roku would freeze and need to be reset. Not a huge inconvenience as reseting it means unplugging the box and replugging it in. Not altogether different from when a DVR or receiver acts up. If you don’t have a wireless network then you’ll need to use a cable which is likely to be inconvenient.
If you are interested in cutting the cable cord and aren’t concerned about seeing shows on their original air date, then the Roku is likely to fit your lifestyle. We found the Roku to be exactly as advertised. It delivers the content as expected and functions as good if not better than standard receivers or cable boxes. We reviewed their most expensive unit (XDS) at a cost of $99.99 USD and find that to be a bargain. The lesser versions at $79.99 and $59.99 are a steal. The XDS is currently available at the Roku website, at BJ’s and at Amazon.com. Since writing this review Roku has updated their models to the Roku 2. The XDS we reviewed is comparable to the new Roku XS version shown below.
Be sure to check out Part II of our Roku review, where we analyze the content/channel providers and give you the lowdown on which are making the grade and which need to step up. Here’s a sneak peak, Netflix and Hulu Plus are battling for position in online viewing and both are available on Roku but one is clearly outshining the other.
Have you cut the cable cord? Do you use the Roku or another media streaming device? Have questions on the Roku that we didn’t answer? Let us know in the comments section!