This holiday season, consumers will be confronted by a perfect storm of new and improved digital media set top boxes for the living room, all aimed at the next big supposed market. Of course, high tech companies have been plying this mythical market for years, and it has yet to materialize. Two obvious examples are Microsoft's Windows Media Center and Apple's Apple TV, both of which are excellent but failed to excite consumers in any meaningful way.
Allow me to ruin the surprise: There are no winners here, no one product or company that's going to dominate the market for these devices, assuming it materializes in the first place. But that isn't stopping the industry from trying again, for the umpteenth time. This year's crop is particularly impressive. We've got Microsoft's new Xbox 360 S, suddenly silent and reliable, and capable of living room duty for the first time ever. Apple's new Apple TV, which arrives here in just a few days. The upcoming Boxee Box from DLINK. Google TV, from multiple hardware makers. And, among others, this week's entry, the Roku Player.
The current Roku Player devices represent the second generation of these players, and there are now three models. I recently purchased the high-end XD|S model, but this is my third Roku player, and I've always found them to be decent solutions. The new players appear to continue that tradition.
So what are they? The Roku Players started life as the "Netflix box," which was never the official name but was originally all they were about. They were, and are, very small, very light, completely silent boxes that you attach to your TV, to your network, and, over the Internet, to a variety of online services so you can enjoy digital media content. In the early days, it was just Netflix, but the Roku Players have steadily increased the number of content providers with which they are compatible, and today you also gain access to Amazon Video on Demand, MLB.TV (Major League Baseball broadcasts), TWiT.tv, Vimeo, Ultimate Fighting Championship, Pandora (music), MP3 Tunes (music), RadioTime (music), Facebook Photos (pictures), Flickr (pictures), SmugMug (pictures), and much more.
OK, the Roku Player is still primarily about Netflix. And that's just fine: While there are and will be no winners in the 2010 Set-Top Box Wars (tm), there has quite definitely already been a winner in the digital media online services wars, and that's Netflix. Today, Netflix is about as ubiquitous as an online service can be: You can access Netflix On Demand via the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3, the Nintendo Wii, WD TV Live Plus HD, various Blu-Ray players, several HDTVs, TiVo, iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, and of course the original Netflix partner, the Roku Players. Make no mistake: There's Netflix and there's everything else.
As the original Netflix solution, the Roku Players are a perennial favorite. And as noted previously, there are now three versions of the player, and they are all nicely priced. At the low-end is the Roku HD, which costs just $60 and provides 720p HD playback, built-in wired Ethernet networking, and HDMI output. Move up to the Roku XD, for just $80, and you add 1080p HD support, instant replay, and Wireless-N networking. And for $100, you get the full meal deal, the Roku XD|S. This little puppy features dual-band wireless networking, component video and optical audio output (in addition to HDMI), and a USB port for future expansion (which I'll describe in just a moment). I got the XD|S, primarily for that USB port.
The new Roku Player devices.
Setting up a Roku Player is as easy as ever, especially for those who have HDTVs. The basic set up requires just an HDMI out to the TV and the power cable, and you can use the built-in wireless for connectivity, which has always worked well enough in my experience. Or you can optionally go Ethernet for a faster, more stable connection, which can be advantageous since the Roku boxes have no real onboard storage and everything must stream live over the Internet. (I do use the wired connection personally.)
Once you've plugged in a few cables, you get your first hints of trouble: The Roku Player has a nice, simple UI, but it takes a long, long time to boot up, and the performance of that UI isn't particularly snappy. Also weird is that most of the services you connect to--Netflix, Amazon On Demand, etc.--each requires you to browse to the provider's web site on your PC and then type in an access code to connect the service to your particular device. It's more than a bit ponderous, especially if you have multiple services to which to connect.
From the perspective of Netflix, at least, the Roku Player is a first class player and appears to work identically to what's available on the Xbox 360. (For now. A pending software update for the Xbox 360 will offer Netflix searching, which will be a welcome improvement.) You get access to your instant queue of course, but also a number of other lists that are based on what you've watched and your preferences. We also used the Amazon On Demand stuff over the weekend to catch up on some new TV show debuts we missed last week. Even the SD stuff looked great.
The new Netflix experience.
What's missing, for now at least, is any way to play back local content. This is where competition like the WD TV line shines, of course, and Roku is addressing that in the XD|S with the addition of a USB port. As it stands right now, the USB port is useless, but Roku says that it will enable hard disk-based video playback via a software update in November. I'm eager to see that, but even better would be a way to access content over the network. I have a ton of TV shows and movies on my home server, and if the performance was there, the Roku box would be an ideal way to access it from the HDTV.
Also missing are support for two important online services, You Tube and Hulu. Given the extensible architecture, I'm surprised these haven't happened yet. But as far as I'm concerned, Netflix is the primary reason to own this box.
(Update: Roku says that support for both You Tube and Hulu is on the way. I've gotten early access to the You Tube interface for testing.)
Indeed, if you don't have a Netflix subscription, and live in the US, get one. This service is getting better and better, is low cost, and will soon make TV obsolete for many people. It's really improved over the years.
If you have a Netflix subscription, you need a Roku Player or something else (like an Xbox 360 S) that can play Netflix instant queue content. The question is whether this device provides anything unique you can't get elsewhere. I already have an Xbox 360 S in my living room, with Netflix, as well as some services like Zune and last.fm that aren't available on the Roku Player, not to mention local and network-based content playback. (Though the 360, annoyingly, still can't "see" NTFS-formatted hard drives, which is inexcusable.) So I'm not sure the Roku could ever replace the 360 in my own home. That said, your situation is likely different. And the Roku Players are so inexpensive, I could see families purchasing multiple boxes to place on different TVs throughout the house. It really is a simple and useful little device. Not perfect--what is?--but pretty darn close.