Back in the 1990s, when the World Wide Web was still new and shiny, and all things seemed possible, television ads promised us a future where every movie ever made would one day be available for streaming on the Internet. (At least if I’m remembering the ads I saw around ’97 or ’98 or so correctly.) The Roku set-top box is a big down payment on that promise. And if I were the cable or DBS companies, I’d be a little scared.
While lots of people will keep watching good ol’ network TV, the ability to cut the cable is now within sight. After seeing numerous links at Instapundit.com, typically with comments from readers about how much they enjoyed their Roku set-top boxes, I decided to give one a try.
Once out of the box, while a few people have complained in comments at Amazon about interconnectivity issues, for me, hooking up the Roko XS couldn’t have been simpler. Plug in a LAN cable, plug the Roku’s A/C adaptor into an outlet, pop a pair of AA batters into the remote, and then follow the instructions on its GUI, and let it do its thing. Within a few moments, it was happily talking to the server back at Roku HQ, and was good to go.
The whole design philosophy of the Roku seems to be “strip everything down to its basics, and keep the interface as clean and minimal as possible.” The remote control bundled with the Roku XS only contains 10 buttons, and an up, down, left, right controller. The onscreen GUI is similarly minimal. But then, this is a unit designed primarily to do one thing: get streaming content off the Web and onto your TV screen.
One element of the Roku is too minimal, in my opinion. I was surprised that the only hook-up options are an HDMI cable to connect to most of today’s HDTVs, and an all-in-one analog output, with a mini-plug-sized jack on one end for the Roku box, and RCA connections for video and analog on the other. I would have liked to have seen a separate digital audio output, whether it was RCA or Toslink, to plug the audio into an A/V receiver for surround sound. Fortunately, my LG HDTV has its own Toslink audio output, and I was able to snake a cable back to my A/V receiver as a workaround. Currently, only the Roku XS model has an outlet for hardwired 10/100 mbps Ethernet, and a slot for a microSD card.
Where No Set-Top Box Has Gone Before
So how is the picture? Pretty damn good, I must say. All of the Roku units output a minimum of 720p HD; the Roku XD and XS up the picture quality to 1080p. Of course, picture quality is dependent upon the source material the unit outputs, which can vary widely. But I watched the remastered version of “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” the second pilot for the original Star Trek on Netflix, and this was the sharpest I had ever seen the original show. (Which sometimes didn’t work in its favor: the picture was so sharp, you could see where Leonard Nimoy’s makeup was applied. And the crude appearance of Gary Lockwood’s reflective silver contact lenses.)
By happenstance, on Sunday, I watched part one of an early episode of Law & Order on TNT via my HDTV DirecTV receiver. On Monday, I tracked down the second part on Netflix via the Roku box, and the picture quality of the second episode easily held its own with its TV counterpart.
Similarly, an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise streamed from my Amazon Prime account on the Roku box looked equally sharp. This is true HD quality, delivered to the big screen, without cable TV or satellite.
There are occasional hiccups along the way. Netflix videos start out in SD, looking a bit like a low-res video tape, before being sufficiently buffered to play in high-definition. The process takes about 15 seconds to a minute, I’d estimate. You may also notice an occasional jitter or repeated frame, particularly if you’ve got a lot of other activity on your household LAN. And the Roku box assumes your home has a certain amount of Internet infrastructure already in place: high-speed Internet via cable or DSL. Roku states, “Generally we recommend a network speed of at least 1.2 Mbps, but to view live events, like Major League Baseball games, you’ll want at least 3 Mbps. For HD viewing, we recommend 5 Mbps.” Chances are though, if PJM loads easily on your browser, you’re good to go to connect a Roku box to your LAN or Wi-Fi.
To do that, you’ll need a Wi-Fi-enabled router or hardwired Ethernet LAN (if you have the Roku XS model and want to go the hard-wired route) to send the signal to the Roku unit. You’ll also need Netflix, Amazon and Hulu Plus accounts to take advantage of those entertainment services, needless to say.
Hopefully more channels will be added to the unit’s featured choices, which are installed onto the unit via its GUI, which takes you to its equivalent of the “App Store” in a smart phone or tablet. Videos from Fox News and the Wall Street Journal are there already, as is GBTV. YouTube apparently used to be on the Roku, but some of sort of contract or financial dispute has caused them to vanish, at least temporarily. And while Amazon’s videos are available on the Roku, where’s the Amazon MP3 Cloud? (Currently, Roku works with Pandora, MP3tunes, and others to provide music.)
Fortunately, these days, there are workarounds for all of those: my HDTV DirecTV box added YouTube videos almost a year ago. And many Blu-Ray players, such as LG’s BD670 unit work the Windows Media Player to stream music from your hard drive to your home theater or media room. (But that’s the subject for another post…)
Back when in the 1990s, the home theater industry pushed the concept of “convergence” with a vengeance. It took a while to finally for the concept to be perfected, but the Roku XS delivers convergence in spades.
Pros: Cheap to purchase, no monthly fees for the unit itself. Easy to hook-up. Massive amount of content, if you already subscribe to streaming Internet services.
Cons: Currently no YouTube; only analog or HDMI video output. Only XS box had a hard-wired LAN port. No separate digital audio output.
Bottom Line: A must for the high-tech multimedia home theater junkie.