Roku 2 XS

Oct 11 2011

Roku

Roku made a name for itself by providing a device that, for many, is synonymous with Netflix streaming.  The quality of that service, and other premium, IP delivered media, has increased significantly since the original box was launched, necessitating an update to modernize the lineup and provide support for HD content.  To address this, we now have the Roku 2 comprised of three models: HD, XD, and XS, spanning the range from $60 to $100.  Each of the devices is capable of 5.1 bit streaming, but the Roku 2 HD, which is limited to 720p, it is not as interesting as the other two which are capable of delivering 1080p video.  Today we take a look at high-end XS, which tops the XD by including Roku’s Bluetooth gaming remote, a USB port, and Ethernet.

The Device

The Roku 2 XS tops the lineup at $99.99, a price that puts it inside most buyers’ impulse range.  The packaging reinforces this target neatly by providing a concise view of many of the of Over-the-Top (OTT) services it makes available in an attractive box (which does a good job selling the device), but conceals one of the strengths of the streamer – its size.  The device itself is handsome with a glossy black finish, but I found the purple cloth tag on the side slightly disruptive; that could be the point though, adding some “quirk” to an otherwise simple design.  Tag aside, the form factor is very appealing because it is small enough to place, or hide, almost anywhere; I found underneath the soundbar was most convenient in my setup.  HDMI and composite + stereo outputs (via a breakout cable) are available on all of the models, the XS being the only one to provide 10/100 Ethernet alongside the standard 2.4 GHz 802.11N wireless support.  However, the lack of a component video option is perplexing, as it disenfranchises those looking to extend the life of an older HDTV with a connected media platform.  All models support the Roku Bluetooth (BT) remote as well as infrared (IR), but only the XS includes the controller in the box.  The BT remote is a convenient option because it frees the XS from IR’s line-of-sight requirement, enabling a rear mount or placement inside an A/V cabinet.  The remote lacks critical buttons (like volume) and the device does not support HDMI CEC, so another remote will be required to drive the other devices.  Given that, I found that the remote was only really useful for the game (Angry Birds) included with the XS, preferring to use a universal remote to keep the space uncluttered and the experience fluid.

Setup

Keeping the setup process simple is essential on any device targeted at “normal” consumers, and except for the lack of WPS support when configuring WiFi, the Roku 2 does a pretty good job of delivering exactly that.  Those using a wired network connection will have nothing to complain about, but anyone with a complex wireless key will find entering it via the on-screen keyboard tedious.  Given that this is not the only interaction with the virtual keyboard (e.g. searching for content), I hoped that the USB port (another XS exclusive) would provide support for wireless PC keyboards, but that was not the case as neither of the two models tested were detected. 

Conveniently, the Roku 2 will update itself to the latest firmware once a network connection is established, but it is also necessary to have a PC handy to register with Roku since you cannot create an account (which requires a credit card) on the device.  Any channels that have been installed previously are associated with the account though, so should the device need to be reset (or swapped out) they will be installed automatically once associated with an existing account.  Authentication information is not persisted however, so that will need to be setup again.

The device is relatively simple, so it is fitting that there are not many settings available to mess with (or up).  Oddly, while the device prompts for display resolution during initial setup, it does not provide the option to configure the audio output mode, so setting it to “5.1 Surround” will be required for those with capable hardware.  Both should be available from the TV/audio video receiver’s (AVR) EDID when connected via HDMI, so it is curious why neither is selected by default, requiring some user intervention (and knowledge) to choose appropriately.  On the other hand, the Roku 2 does not suffer from issues observed on similar devices that sometimes occur when the EDID data disappears.

Use

Starting the Roku 2 is a laborious process, taking just over two minutes and thirty seconds.  It is good that this will not need to be repeated often, as there is no way to turn the device on or off short of pulling the plug.  Normally this would be a concern, but since it only pulls two watts when on, and consumes a maximum of 2.5 watts when streaming 1080p over WiFi; while some sort of lower power “standby” state would be appreciated, it is not essential.

The Roku 2 XS came with a few channels (e.g. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Crackle, Pandora, etc.) already installed on the box.  Most of the services require separate authentication via the same “grab your PC, go to a URL, and type in a key” method used to link the device to your Roku account.  There are some exceptions, like Pandora, where the association can be made by logging on from the device, but as was noted earlier, if you use a complex password or username, entering it can be difficult.  Just enjoy the irony while you go through this process to enable your “post-PC” experience.

Understanding what Roku provides with the device is an essential part of determining what the end user’s satisfaction with the experience will be.   For instance, while there is a “USB Media Player” channel, it is telling that the channel is not included in the default set and offers very limited features and file support; marking the Roku 2 less as a media streamer, like the Boxee Box, than as an IP content delivery platform similar to what is found on connected HDTVs and Blu-ray players.  In comparison to what is found on devices from Panasonic and Sony (I have not used Samsung’s or Vizio’s “Apps” platform), the experience was rich, full-featured, and enjoyable.  Keeping with the general use case (enabling IP content on HDTVs otherwise without it), the XS was tested primarily with a Panasonic TH-C42FD18. Yet even in its current state, the Roku 2 offers a more relevant and diverse set of applications, as well as surpassing what is available from the same provider (i.e. Netflix and Amazon Prime) on the (also tested) TC-P58VT25’s VIERA Connect - a delta that will surely grow over time as the Roku 2 receives subsequent updates and the Panasonic is not.

While the Roku 2 XS is generally very usable, there are a couple nits where the playback experience could be improved significantly; mostly in regards to audio and subtitle selection during playback.  Using Netflix, for example, it is not possible (or at least the technique remained too elusive) to switch to the 5.1 track (which must be done each time because the player does not automatically select it based on the previously selected preference) or enable English subtitles (after being told that the volume is too high) without stopping playback, choosing the appropriate setting, and then resuming the title.  It is possible that the blame here actually lies with the application and not Roku, but ultimately for these services to challenge physical media’s dominance we need to realize the same level of convenience that is available “off line”.  Pandora provides another example where the experience could be better, where background audio playback is not possible on the device; the music stops, when navigating away from the channel.

Minor complaints aside, there was one glaring issue that severely impacted the experience.  The Roku 2 does not use the correct luminance when connected to HDTV displays over HDMI, although it was correct when attached to an HDMI PC monitor.  The tangible effect of this problem is that blacks are noticeably crushed and contrast suffers.  Normally, this sort of issue could be addressed via custom calibration on a specific input, but in this case variance from the ideal is so far off that it was not possible to push brightness up far enough on the display to mask the deficiency.  This issue has been reported to Roku and they assure us that it will be addressed in the next firmware revision – we will provide any updates as they become available.

UPDATE: Roku released a firmware update that has addressed the luminance issue. I updated the device and it is working properly on HDTVs and the HDMI PC display now. Huzzah!

Unlike many connected device platforms, Roku’s ecosystem is quite mature with a significant number of channels (applications) available.  They also provide a software development kit (SDK) which allows anyone to join in, with many unofficial applications available through “private” channels, as well as a mechanism for pushing custom content directly to the device.  However, VUDU is notably missing; inclusion would make the Roku 2 a more complete device.

For those who cannot help but mess around with advanced settings, there are several “secret” screens available to do things like: enable developer mode, override streaming bitrate, show channel versions, reboot the player without pulling the plug, and a few more outlined here.

Not surprisingly, there was no practical difference between the wireless and wired connections, as the bandwidth available from your home to the content provider will usually be far less than whatever is selected in the settings.  Of course, your results may vary depending on environmental conditions; for example, how many microwaves and/or neighbors with WiFi are around - so choose appropriately.

The Roku 2 provides a microSD slot for additional storage should you outgrow what is provided by the device.   While I was eventually able to get the one working, it took a few tries for it to format correctly - which takes a LONG time.  Should you need to take advantage of the feature, do not be discouraged if it does not work the first time and plan a secondary activity.

Conclusion

Ignoring the luminance issue observed with HDMI HDTVs, it is hard not to see the Roku 2 as an excellent option for anyone looking to add the “Connected Device” experience to an older display, or one that is no longer being updated by the OEM.  It is critical to come to the device with the right expectations, however, as the local playback experience is very limited, much like what has become standard from other consumer level devices, like Blu-ray players and HDTVs.  Roku provides three different models ranging in price from $60-$100.  With the top-of-the-line XS providing compelling value for the money, it is hard not to see the XD (and to a lesser extent because of its 720p limitations) and HD as good options for premium OTT content as well if local streaming is not a requirement.

Pro:

  • Premium IP content like Netflix and Amazon Prime
  • Bluetooth and IR capability
  • Form factor
  • Low power

Con:

  • Luminance issues (should be resolved in an upcoming firmware revision)
  • No VUDU Support
  • No background streaming support
  • Startup time
  • No CEC

Thanks to Roku for providing the review sample.

Amazon

    Roku 2 XS 1080p Streaming Player     $88.84
    Roku 2 XD Streaming Player 1080p     $109.99
    Roku 2 HD Streaming Player     $98.64

Comments

Great review, Andrew.  I was considering one of these for my Dad.

Very nice review.  Great information.  Roku 2 is the best media player on the market, but if you already have a Roku it is not really worth the upgrade.  Not enough new features to warrant it.

 

Steven

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