Tech News on G4

Streaming Video with ROKU 2 XS

Oct 15, 2012

By Greg Gazin - Apple Gazin’ - G4 Canada

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ROKUI'm not one for spending too much time in front of the tube, so when I had the opportunity to test drive the ROKU 2 XS streaming video player (recently available in Canada) I figured I could do a little catching up with a few flicks and TV shows and find out what this little device had to offer.

As a media-streaming player, it would make sense to serve up the Apple TV as an obvious reference for some comparisons. Luckily I have 2 HDMI ports on my somewhat dated Toshiba 26" 720 HDTV, so I was able to quickly plug the Roku unit in. In fact, I stacked it right on top of the Apple TV.

The first thing I noticed is that they are both similar in size and look. The Roku is smaller (84mm x 84mm x23mm) with an easily identifiable purple jean style tab label.

Roku 2 XS supports 10/100 Base-T Ethernet and wireless 802.11n. Unlike the Apple TV that offers no expansion or useable USB port, the ROKU has a MicroSD expansion slot for extra storage as well as a USB port for playing content. The Roku supports 1080p and 720p HD via HDMI (16:9 & 4:3) and standard definition (SD) output as well. SD is done through the 3.5mm composite AV port, which is particularly handy for those who want to take advantage of the unit’s features but don’t have an HDTV. The AV cable is included as well as an AC power adapter. The HDMI cable is sold separately.

ROKU The remote runs on 2 AA batteries (included) and looks somewhat like a Wii Game controller complete with wrist strap. In fact, it does support both those functions. In addition to the standard playback buttons, it has 2 (A&B) action buttons, a purple direction pad and an LED remote status indicator.

Interestingly enough it’s not your typical remote; it’s also a Bluetooth enabled controller so you’re good for 10m and don’t need a direct line of site to operate it. It also has motion sensing so you’re good to go when you’re in the mood to play Angry Birds, which by the way is included free (full version) and looks great on the big screen.

Set Up

Set up is reasonably easy but much more involved than the Apple TV. With Apple TV everything revolves around your Apple ID and iTunes ecosystem. You can be up and running just by using your remote.  With the Roku, you need to set up an account using your computer through the company’s website. You’ll need to use your email address, set up a password and supply credit card info even if you’re just wanting to use the free channels.

During set up the Roku player generates a unique PIN that links it to your account, somewhat similar in concept to pairing a Bluetooth device. Once set up, you can add channels. (Even games, which one would think would be called apps are called channels.) For some, you can just subscribe through, or add through, the Roku Channel Store on your TV but others require you to sign on through your computer and sync the channels that way. Others require you to sync with a code like during the account setup.

If you’re a channel surfer and want to try to sign up for every conceivable channel and new ones as they show up, then you’ll need to ensure that your computer is always handy.

ROKU Many Channels

While this could sometimes be a pain, this is where the Roku shines. There is a plethora of channels providing content from movies, documentaries, shorts, games and more.  Some of these include Netflix, Crackle (free movie channel), live and on-demand sports like UFC, MLB and MLS. There’s also Facebook, Vimeo, Flickr and Picassa. You can also add channels like CNN where you can view their videos while keeping track of your investments.  There are indie channels, classic channels and private channels you can add even outside the Roku store.

Roku says there are over 100 channels in Canada and counting. (Of course there are over 4 times as many in the U.S.)

Interestingly enough there is no native YouTube channel. Unlike Apple’s Airplay, there’s no out of the box solution to seamlessly get local content from your computer to your Roku or the ability to share your content via other devices.

You can of course do this via PLEX a 3rd party channel you are now able to get directly from the Roku Channel Store. You will need to install the PLEX Media Server application, which you can download to your Mac or PC.  There you can get plugins for other channels – like YouTube. It’s free, but it’s still in its infancy. Of course, you’ll need to keep your computer on at all times.

Hooking up a USB thumb drive to your Roku is another way to get content to your TV.  It supports a limited number of file types, so you can’t assume it will play everything.  For Video, it supports mp4 and mkv; Audio: AAC, & mp3 and for photos JPG & PNG.

 

I like the user interface. It’s clean and user friendly although not as elegant as the Apple TV. As for performance, it was usually pretty good. I did notice a few times movies seemed to have to buffer, part of that is also the Internet connection and on one occasion, the unit locked up and had to be reset.

Bottom Line

Overall it’s a decent little unit. It’s not as slick and seamless as the Apple TV and the iOS ecosystem – if you are really into iTunes. You might need your computer around for some functions and sharing isn’t easy unless you rely on 3rd party solutions like PLEX.

The Roku does have a significant number of channel offerings (movies, documentaries, TV, and even games etc.) and seems more open to 3rd party additions.  The Wii-like remote and the free Angry Birds game were a nice touch. Plus, it’s compatible with non-HD TVs.

Roku 2 XS retails for $109.99 CDN and is available through London Drugs, Walmart and Amazon.ca.

Pros:
Huge selection of movies, shows & games
Standard Def or High Def
Remote acts as game controller

Cons:
No direct YouTube support
Requires use of computer to set up
No network media sharing out of the box.

Rating: 4/5

Greg Gazin can be reached at  gadgetguy "at" telus "dot" net , GadgetGreg.com , or on Twitter @GadgetGreg

About G4 in Canada
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