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Roku Offers Beaucoup Streaming HD Video

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.)