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Roku Offers Beaucoup Streaming HD Video

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.