Roku 2 Reviewed: A Little Black Box of Streaming Heaven
We love gadgets. We love tiny, well-designed gadgets. We love tiny, well-designed gadgets that help you cut-the-cord. As such, we love the Roku 2’s. There are four version of what is actually Roku’s fourth generation internet streamer, and if you are considering one, there are really only 4 questions to ask in determining which model to purchase:
1. Do you care about being able to plug in an external USB drive?
2. Do you require 1080P?
3. Do you insist on having it be connected by ethernet?
4. Do you want to play games?
How you answer these three questions will determine which version of the box is best for you. But let’s not jump the gun. Now for the full review.
By way of background, Roku was originally known as the “Netflix Box” as its original, primary use was enabling users to easily watch Netflix on their big screen TV. The box was, and still is, known for its simple setup and ease of use, and the latest generation of these boxes continues to deliver.
Beyond still being one of the best 10′ Netflix interfaces around, Roku has grown their channel lineup to the hundreds including staples Netflix, Amazon VOD, Hulu Plus, and newer channels such as Crackle and HBO Go. And those are just the officially supported channels. Roku also provides a framework for developers to develop their own “private” channels one of which, Plex, provides HTPC users an inexpensive and easy way to extend their media center to additional rooms in the house, but there are lots more (including adult-content for those so inclined).
The Roku 2 is small, really small. Its under 3.5″ square and just shy of an inch tall. In fact, volume wise, its a bit smaller than the AppleTV 2nd generation, and that’s saying something. But even more important, its light, I mean feather light, 3 oz light (whereas the AppleTV is 9 oz). Its so light, that I used duck tape to stick it to the back of a TV and it stayed put. The other big difference between this generation and prior ones was the remote, which has actually become a bit more complex. Prior generations simply had a d-pad with a select button in the middle, a “home” button, one Play/Pause button, Rew button and FF button. The new generation adds a 30-sec rewind button, a ‘Back’ button, and special key button, and “A” and “B” buttons for game play, which also make the remote have Wii-like motion control (only on the XS version).
Setup is dead simply. Plug the Roku into your TV and to its power adapter and follow on-screen instructions. From a dead start it took me 2:27 to go from plug-in to streaming on Netflix. I’ve owned three of the four generations of Rokus, and never had a problem setting one up…except for the newest version. We tested two Roku 2’s, and I’ve set up about a dozen more for friends and family. There are numerous threads on the Roku forums detailing the problems people have had connected their newest generation Roku 2 to local networks, and in about half of our cases, we experienced the same frustrating issue. While we’ve figured out no magic bullet to solving the problem, we have gotten the Roku to connect in every case after trial and error. Of course, if you connect the Roku by ethernet, you won’t have this issue. One other issue that we’ve experienced with the new hardware is remote pairing. On one occasion, our remote mysteriously no longer controlled the Roku (the newest generation, top end model has a bluetooth rather than IR remote). After an hour or so with online support, they sent us out a new one which we then pair successfully. Again, this can only be an issue on the XS (most expensive) model as all other models come with an IR remote (although all models are bluetooth remote-capable).
Navigation and Use
Despite the addition of content available on the Roku, navigation hasn’t changed from prior generations. The main screen still presents the user with his own channel lineup of installed channels plus a setup item. Navigation is primarily controlled through the d-pad and the “ok” button. The one minor annoyance we had was how quickly one can navigate the potentially long lists of items. Versus the ATV, the Roku’s navigation with the bluetooth remote is downright sluggish, and holding down one of the d-pad buttons results in an annoying pause, and then still painfully slow scroll. While a big benefit of the new RF remote is that line-of-sight is no longer needed, and you can hide your Roku behind your TV or in a media cabinet, the downside is the sluggish navigation. This could also be the result of how far the remote is from the unit itself, and if so, is a bit of a disappointment. This was also evident when playing Angry Birds, which comes free (after download) with the XS model. Motion control isn’t nearly as good as the Wii remote (and certainly not as good as either Kinect or Sony’s Playstation Move, but the games on the Roku aren’t that sophisticated yet. While we found this to be a minor annoyance, it wasn’t a deal breaker.
Now back to those first four questions. If you answered “No” to all four questions, get the $49.99 LT. Answered “Yes” to 1 but “No” to the rest? The HD model at $59.99 is your daddy. Answer “Yes” to question 2 but “No” to 3 and 4? Then you’re stuck with the $79.99 XD version. Finally, if you want a wired solution OR gaming, the XS is the only model that offers either, but at $99.99. We might quibble that an extra $20 for an ethernet jack and a bluetooth, motion control remote is a bit much (they justify it buy charging $30 for the motion control remote plus 2GB SD card separately), but its clearly my opinion that Roku is trying to create greater differentiation across models than in previous generations, when there was little incentive to buy the most expensive model.
Roku’s newest generation is a terrific internet streamer and a terrific alternative to the AppleTV if you aren’t locked into the Apple ecosystem. Inexpensive, easy to setup, and delivering a very high quality picture with tons of content, the Roku 2 should be a serious consideration for any HTPC user. Is it worth the extra bucks for ethernet and games? That’s up to you, but at just $50, trying out a Roku in your house is pretty risk-free way of testing the cord-cutting waters. Happy cutting…