The original Roku media streamer launched back in the spring of 2008 as the “Netflix Player,” piping online video to the television. In fact, the product was spun off from Netflix itself when Roku founder and CEO Anthony Wood returned home… with his Netflix project team and funding in tow. Since then, Netflix streaming has landed on dozens of connected devices, while Roku, Inc abandoned all prior product lines to bet the farm on the economically priced Roku Streaming Player. Now decked out with tons of video and audio “channels,” Roku’s fourth rev – the Roku 2 Streaming Player – has launched.
Roku 2 hardware is by far the most elegant they’ve ever produced… and how far its appearance has evolved from off-the-shelf components and generic look seen in the first generation Roku Netflix Player. The Roku 2 is quite compact and, in fact, will fit in the palm your hand. It doesn’t feel quite as solid as Apple TV, but it features a smaller footprint, more rounded corners, and clocks in slightly taller. But, at the end of the day, while Roku’s outward appearance may help move units in Best Buy, it’s the technological capabilities that folks should be interested in. And the Roku 2 line comes in three flavors…
The Roku 2 HD ($60), XD ($80), and XS ($100) all feature a new “blazing fast GPU”, high definition video playback, 802.11n, and Bluetooth. All units also include a microSD slot, which is how Roku will help customers overcome their ongoing “channel” memory limitation. Unfortunately, when it comes to connectivity, Roku has presumably made some cost cutting decisions resulting in the loss of component cable support, Ethernet (except the XS), and dual band wireless. Given my initial experiences with the new XS, this is unfortunate… as my wireless connection has dropped several times. And my prior XDS currently shows better wireless reception, picking up five networks whereas the XS only sees two. The higher end XS model incorporates USB support and bundles a new RF Bluetooth remote for gameplay, in additional to typical Channel navigation.
A significant hardware change from prior generations of Roku media streamers is the inclusion of that RF Bluetooth remote bundled with the Roku 2 XS. Not only do the directional buttons serve as a gamepad, along with requisite A/B buttons, the remote integrated some sort of gyroscopic, accelerometer, nuclear fusion functionality to provide “motion” control. In action, it’s eerily similar to Nintendo’s iconic Wiimote – minus the sensor bar. Unfortunately, this motion control is (currently?) limited to gameplay and doesn’t extend to the general Roku 2 interface. Related, I’ve confirmed the XS has retained it’s IR capabilities as it can be controlled by prior generation Roku remotes. Which is surely good news for those of you utilizing universal remotes. In terms of feel, the back of the remote has a matte finish and an ergonomic indentation, while the front features a glossy look. Weight and balance are fine, although I’d have preferred a slightly slimmer build and rounder edges on the top surface.
It’s my understanding that both the Roku 2 HD and XD models can be upgraded to support the gaming capabilities of the Roku 2 XS… once the gaming remote is offered as a $29 accessory down the road.
The Roku interface is relatively unchanged. Yet, there are visual enhancements throughout that potentially foreshadow a significantly richer experience on the horizon. Owners of earlier Roku hardware will immediately notice the animated 3D logo at boot, new vertical scrolling and updated graphics within the Settings menu, and just a sharper look all around. Of course, the main draw of Roku is their numerous “Channels” of content – which should hit 300 this year. Yet, as we all know, quantity doesn’t equal quality. And we’re still in need of a better way to display and filter premium content. Roku’s original launch partner Netflix has seen a significant channel update to now include support for 1080p video, 5.1 Dobly Digital Plus audio, and subtitles. Suggesting apps like UFC, that have had live streaming issues, may continue to see improvement based upon Roku’s refreshed hardware platform.
Roku clearly intends to expand their footprint by offering casual gaming apps, in conjunction with the new RF Bluetooth remote. And they’ve launched with a heavyweight from the mobile space in bringing Angry Birds to the big screen for the first time. Unfortunately, it’s the only currently available premium game… and without taking upon yourself to expand storage with a microSD card, the Roku 2 lineup only provides enough storage for 4 titles. Beyond that, I’m pleasantly surprised with the execution and, given one child’s reaction, they may be onto something. Although Roku will never separate me, or my Kinect-addicted niece and nephew, from the Xbox 360.
Angry Birds graphics and gameplay on Roku seem quite similar to my limited iPhone and Android app experiences. Using the directional pad, you can zoom in and out (up and down) or shift the level left or right (using the respective buttons). To launch your birds at their piggy targets, hold down the OK button and physically manipulate the remote to set the projectile’s direction… then let go of the OK button to fire. Check out a video demo here.
Local Media Playback
Native local media playback, via USB-connected drives or network connections, continues to be a Roku pain point. For some. While the new Roku hardware seems more capable, the are no significant updates to local media playback at this time – suggesting “channels” remain Roku’s top priority. So the technically savvy with significant local content should look to Boxee or the WDTV Live Plus to handle a broad range of containers, codecs, bitrates, and resolutions… in addition to solid online content partners of their own.
At $60, the Roku 2 HD is a solid upgrade over its predecessor and, by far, provides the cheapest and easiest way to bring Netflix instant streaming to any television. Cheap enough that you might even buy several to sprinkle throughout your home. All the additional free channels, including Pandora, Facebook, and Chow, are gravy. And if you happen to be a fan of various pro sports leagues (MLB, NBA, NHL, MLS) and are willing to pay their for their respective subscriptions, the Roku HD is a no brainer to beam over-the-top video content. Assuming you can look past the missing Ethernet and component connectivity.
Now the Roku 2 XD ($80) ups the resolution of the HD from 720p to 1080p. And that’s it. However, there’s not enough 1080p content currently available to bother with at this time… especially as we’ve yet to see a solid qualitative analysis of the extremely limited offerings. So I’d say skip this model entirely. In fact, Roku, Inc should have done the same.
At the high end, we have the Roku 2 XS ($100) – which folks may want to look at closely if they need Ethernet connectivity and hold out hope for additional USB media support. Of course, Roku’s primary pitch at this tier is casual gaming along with the impressive little “motion” RF Bluetooth remote control. Currently, the only available game is Angry Birds (free!)… but Roku hopes to have “dramatically” more games available by Christmas, offered “in the $5 range.” If that appeals to you, in addition to all the other streaming channels, and Roku delivers as promised, the XS is a good buy. However, at this price point there are several other compelling options including the $99 Apple TV and a number of connected Blu-ray players. Not to mention those aforementioned local media limitations, which could push someone towards towards the WDTV Live Plus.