Much like the Apple TV, the Roku 2 XS is a media player that's designed to make it easy to access web-based video and audio content via your TV, rather than streaming files from a PC.
Roku offers four different versions of the Roku 2 in the US at various prices, but in the UK, only two of these models will be available. The first is the entry-level Roku 2 LT, priced at £50, which is limited to 720p resolution HD video, and the second is the top-of-the-range Roku 2 XS, which I'm reviewing here, costing £100. It supports 1080p resolution playback and includes a motion-sensing controller.
Design and connections
The first thing that stands out about the XS is just how small it is. This thing is really tiny. In fact, measuring 84mm square, it's actually smaller than the diminutive Apple TV. However, unlike Apple's telly box, the power supply for this one isn't built in, so it's not quite as tidy a package.
The XS is very light too, weighing a mere 85g, but this means it tends to get pulled around by the cables that you attach to it. The Apple TV's extra weight and rubberised underbelly helps it stay in place. Nevertheless, I do like the glossy black finish of the XS, as well as the slightly quirky clothes-style tag with the embroidered Roku logo, that sticks out the left-hand side of the player.
On the right-hand side you'll find the full-sized USB port, while the rear is home to an Ethernet socket (Wi-Fi is also built-in) as well as an HDMI port and an AV-out mini-jack. The latter can be used to deliver stereo audio and composite video to older TVs that lack a digital input. There's also a microSD card slot (used for storing downloadable games only). Sadly, there's no digital audio output, so if your surround sound amp doesn't have an HDMI input, then you're not going to be able to enjoy the 5.1 soundtracks available on many of the Netflix HD movie streams.
Of course, another quirk of this device is its remote control. Like the Wii-mote, it has a motion sensor built in and there's a wrist loop at the bottom to stop it flying out of your hand when you're waving it around like a wand. However, the motion sensing is only used for control in games, such as the included Angry Birds title. You can't move through the player's normal menus with sensing gestures.
Menu navigation is actually done using the remote's regular buttons. There's a four-way control pad near the top, as well as an OK button for making selections. The home button always takes you back to the main menu, while the back button takes you one step back in any menu you happen to be in. Roku has included three playback controls, but I found I hardly used these as you can generally control most apps using the control pad and OK button.
Unlike most remotes, this one communicates with the player via Bluetooth so it doesn't need line of sight to work. As Roku has built in an IR receiver, you can still use the box with a normal universal remote if you want.
The Roku isn't a straightforward plug-in-and-go device, but the first time you turn it on, a wizard starts up to guide you through the set-up process. First up, you have to choose whether you want to use a wired or wireless connection. Once this is sorted, the player downloads the latest software. The download takes a couple of minutes, after which it does a quick reboot. You then select your region and the XS displays a code on the screen. You need to take this code, head to your computer's web browser and then fire up the Roku site to register the device online.
During the registration process, you have to enter a payment method -- either a credit card or Paypal account -- before you can use the device. There's no way around this, even if you don't plan on actually purchasing any content with the XS.
After you've set up your account and while still on the Roku site, you select the channels -- really Roku's name for apps -- that you want to add to the player. Your list of chosen channels then gets automatically downloaded, which is a nice touch. Of course, you can add more channels later via the Channel Store on the device.
The user interface on the XS is quite basic, but reasonably effective. It just consists of a single banner across the middle of the screen, with large icons for the settings page and Channels Store, followed by all your channels. You just scroll left or right to access the ones you want. You can either step through them one by one, or hold down the left-to-right buttons to zip along the list until you see what you want.
There's also a small web-style banner advert at the bottom of the screen that promotes various channels that are available in the Channel Store, and a bar across the top of the screen with the Roku logo on the left and the current time shown on the right. That's pretty much it.
It's simple and reasonably effective, but it lacks the slickness and smooth graphical animations that make the Apple TV such a pleasure to use. Also, as you add more channels into the list, it's annoying that there seems to be no way to re-arrange them.
As the list grows it becomes unwieldy too, because sometimes you find yourself having to whizz all the way from one side of the menu to the other, which can take some time. In fact, after I reached the point of having around 15 apps in the list, I started to wish that Roku had used a grid layout rather than the single banner approach.
Adding channels is very quick. Just enter the Channel Store and browse what's on offer. These are shown as a grid of large icons divided up into categories such as Top Rated, New, TV & Film, Games and Internet TV. When you add a channel, the player will remember your preference and when you exit the Channel Store, it will download and install it into your list.
When it comes to content, the Roku is a mixed bag. On the positive side, it does support Netflix and BBC iPlayer and even has a CNET channel!
However, while the Netflix client is excellent, the iPlayer client is sluggish and not quite as stable as it should be.
There's plenty of other content too, including Picasa and Vimeo channels, as well as a very limited Facebook app that just allows you to view photos and videos, not friend updates. There are a few free movie services, such as Cackle, that have older movies and TV shows that you can stream. However, there are lots of weird omissions. For example, it's bizarre that there's no YouTube app.
This model does come with the full version of Angry Birds, which is fun to play using the motion-sensing remote. The motion sensing is used to control the angle of your catapult and you then hit the OK button to fire your angry little critter. There are other versions of Angry Birds that you can download from the store, as well as a limited number of other games. However, the other games aren't a patch on Rovio's titles.
The Channel Store isn't the only place that you can add channels to the player. If you log into the Roku website using your username and password, there's a section that allows you to add private channels. You do this by entering a code that corresponds to the channel that you want to add. Many of these private channels are beta version of upcoming channels, but there's also various special interest video channels, such as NASA TV and foreign news feeds, along with x-rated content that Roku doesn't want listed in its Channel Store.
The XS is very much focused on web streaming, but you can download the USB player from the channel store to allow you to playback media files from USB memory keys or hard drives. However, file format support is limited and the Roku can't down-mix surround sound streams to stereo. So if you're trying to play a file with surround sound audio and don't have the player plugged into an HDMI-compatible amp, you won't actually hear any audio at all.
The player lacks native support for streaming files across a network from a PC. You can add this by downloading the free Plex server software for your computer and adding the Plex Channel to the Roku. However, the Roku doesn't actually support that many file formats so your PC will have to do a lot of transcoding. Also, the Plex player on the Roku takes so long to load up a video file that you'd need the patience of a saint to rely on it as your sole media player.
Form the moment you switch on the XS, it's clear that it just doesn't have the processing and graphical grunt of the Apple TV. Whereas the user interface on the latter is full of sexy transitions and smooth animations, the menu system on the XS is static and workmanlike.
The biggest annoyance though, is the sheer length of time that channels take to start up. For example, from selecting iPlayer or Netflix in the Roku's menu until the channel is ready to use takes anywhere between 23 and 45 seconds. Nevertheless, when playing back HD videos from ether Netflix or BBC iPlayer, the quality of the video output can't be faulted. However, as I've already pointed out, if you haven't got a surround sound amp with an HDMI input, there's no way to get surround sound from this box.
I can't help feeling that the Roku XS is caught between two stools, mainly due to the pricing. At £99, the XS is the same price as the Apple TV and more expensive than the WDTV Live, and both of those are far superior products.
The Apple TV offers a much faster and slicker user experience, while the WDTV Live is cheaper yet supports the two big hitters that the Roku XS has in terms of content -- Netflix and iPlayer. It also offers excellent media streaming support. If this player was priced at £50, I could see it working as an impulse buy, but at its current asking price there's little reason to choose it over competing products.