Digital Media Adapters Part 6 – Roku XD S

So far I have looked at the Apple TVGoogle TVBoxee BoxWD TV Live Hub, and now I will look at the Roku XD S.  You may be wondering, with all of these major competitors, can the Roku even come close?

Roku was one of the first commercially successful media streaming boxes out there.  I owned the first one and was pretty impressed with the then unknown Netflix video service.  The video and quality of the service was impressive, albeit SD.  The Roku XD S is HD with 1080p output and adds music, photo, audio, news, sports and even social media services to the game.  It is the first DMA I have tested that DIDN’T offer local networked PC content.

Video

The Roku XD S offers a variety of video services.  Most notable is the inclusion of Netflix, Amazon VOD, vimeo, AND Hulu Plus.  So far, I haven’t seen this number and variety of applications on any other device.  As notable is the absence of YouTube video. Odd, yes?

The video quality looked really good, especially the HD channels, although it is not made clear if I am really looking at 1080p resolution or not.  There isn’t any way to tell on Netflix or Amazon VOD.  It’s just called “HD” and that’s it.  I don’t know about you, but I want to know what I am getting, either 480p, 720p, or 1080p. That way I know if the image I’m watching is the director’s vision or the result of a lower resolution.

I didn’t experience any stutters on any video, even though the unit doesn’t have a hard drive.  This is the first device where I didn’t experience any video hiccups.  Services like Netflix and Amazon were pre-buffered in the on board memory before playback.

The TV connection is made by HDMI or composite, and for the cost of the extra cabling, component video.  I think the component cable should be thrown in, but at the impressive $99 you get what you get.

As described earlier, the Roku doesn’t support UPnP or DLNA for networked content.  Why care? Well, it means if you have content on any home PC, tablet, networked storage, or smartphone, you cannot get access to that video.  You would need to upload it to a cloud based service.  As there is no YouTube access, that could be tough for some.  I did upload some light videos to Picasa and played them back successfully.

Audio

The Roku XD S offers many services, notably: Pandora, MP3tunes, and TuneIn Radio.

Like video, the Roku doesn’t support networked PC music either.  To play my music, I needed to get an account with MP3Tunes.com, pay $4.95 per month, and then upload my music.  That $4.95 also gets you web, tablet, and smartphone access.  It is a very cool service and I recommend you try it, the free 2GB package, BUT with UPnP I would have this and wouldn’t need another service.

Photos

The following popular photo services are offered: Picasa, Flickr, Facebook photos, and SmugMug.

Web

The Roku XD S does not have a browser and therefore does not support the web.  Why care?  It’s individual, but for me it meant it was impossible, or at least not easy, to get my ESPN scores, WeatherBug, Twitter, Facebook, or web games.  I say this in the living room usage context.  I didn’t feel as shorted as there were apps for most of my preferred content.

Games

The Roku XD S does not provide any games.

Communications

The Roku XD S does not support text chat, voice chat, or video chat.

Social Media

Facebook photo’s “like” feature is supported.  That’s about it there.

Home Connectivity

As the Roku XD S doesn’t support UPnP or DLNA, options are limited.  It is virtually fire walled from all other content residing in the home.

Simplicity

I was shocked at how responsive and simple the Roku was.  The interface is all brand iconic for the services themselves.  Some users will love that, some users won’t. Given that local content off the PC isn’t supported, this was definitely the way to go.

The interface is the fastest and most responsive I have tried yet.  This makes a world of difference to me and it will make me use it even more.  It’s not the most attractive like with the XBOX 360, but it is as attractive as it needs to be.

Service authorization requires access to a web browser.  On one hand this is a pain, but on the other hand Roku has made this as straightforward as possible in most cases. You just go to the service URL and add a “/Roku”.  For example, you authorize Amazon VOD by going to amazon.com/Roku. Plug in the key and in about 5 seconds, the service is operable on the Roku with all your settings.  I had Netflix, Amazon, Picasa, Pandora, Facebook, and MediaFly up in about 25 minutes.

The remote is simple and I liked the feel of it.  The home button came in handy but I sometimes got confused with what looked to me like two “back” buttons.  I would like to see a smartphone remote.  Searching for movies, music, and RSS is a pain without a virtual keyboard. Also, in my five person household remotes walk away daily and I don’t want to be stuck without one.

Price

At $99 the Roku XD S is very affordable.

Conclusion

The Roku XD S is a pretty awesome living room DMA for media streaming from services, but not for content from networked PCs.  It was the biggest pleasant surprise of the bunch.  It is fast, simple, videos look good, no crashes so far, and has all the streaming services that many would want.  I can recommend it to a novice in living room devices.  At $99 you really cannot go wrong.  If streaming is what you want without access to home content, go for it.  If 1080p VUDU and access to networked PC content is what you must have, then no.

Have a comment or question?  Let me know below.

Next up, I will take a look at the XBOX 360.  Most of you know it as a kick butt game console, but how does it do in the context of a living room media adapter? I will show you.