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Multimedia & VoIP Reviews

Introduction

Roku XDS

At a Glance
Product Roku XD|S network media player (2100X)
Summary Inexpensive app-based media player with Netflix support
Pros • 1080p support
• Silent
• Wide variety of apps for audio, video and photo playback
• Connects to dual-band 802.11n or Ethernet network
• Intelligent stream buffering for trouble-free playback
Cons • Plays only MP4 and M4V video
• Does not play from DLNA servers or network shares
• Adding channels is a real chore
• Not much use without an Internet connection

As soon as I saw Roku's first N1000 "Netflix box" back in 2008, I ordered it on the spot and ever since have been enjoying trouble-free movies and TV via Netflix' "Watch Instantly" service. I've been meaning to write a review on it, but never got around to it.

Besides, there wasn't really much to write about—unbox it, connect it up, link it to your Netflix account and watch stuff. The good news was that the viewing experience was flawless, i.e. while the movie was running, you'd never know that you were watching something streamed from the Internet. The bad news was that there wasn't very much to watch.

But Roku has been quietly at work driving the cost of its players down and expanding what they can play far beyond just Netflix. So when I saw last week that Roku had once again refreshed its line (and driven the entry price down to $60), I ordered the top-of-line XD|S and resolved to finally review a Roku player.

The new players all come in a new lower-profile case that has a slightly smaller footprint than my old N1000 at just under 5" square (4.9 x 4.9 x 1.2 inches [125 x 125 x 30 mm]). They all look the same from the front, except for their model branding, so Figure 1 shows the rear panels.

The USB port on the XD|S sits at the right front side corner (viewed from the front). A better position than on the rear, but still kind of awkward for access vs. a front panel location.

Rear panels of the new Roku models

Figure 1: Rear panels of the new Roku models

Figure 2 is a feature comparison table that bears a bit of explanation. Cost savings and differentiation in the HD limit you to 720p video, 802.11 b/g radio and "basic" remote (more on that shortly). For $20 more, the XD adds 1080p video, 802.11n 2.4 GHz radio and "enhanced" remote. Parting with yet another $20 gets you the top-of-line XDS (I'm dropping the "|" from here on) with all the XD's features plus dual-band N radio, component and optical digital audio outs and a USB 2.0 port.

Roku bundles in batteries for the remote and a combination analog stereo, composite video cable. But you'll need to pay extra for cables to access the component video and, of course, HDMI outputs.

New Roku player feature comparison
Click to enlarge image

Figure 2: New Roku player feature comparison

That USB port will support playback of mp4 and m4v (video), mp3, aac and m4a (audio) and jpg and png (photos) files from attached drives when a free firmware upgrade due out in November enables it. There is a "private" USB Media Browser app available now that is supposed to enable play from drives attached to the USB port. But after multiple tries, I couldn't get it to appear on my XDS.

By the way, you don't need to buy an XDS to get a USB port and the attached playback capability. The previous top-of-line HD-XR also sports a USB port.

The two new remotes are shown in Figure 3. Neither is backlit, just like the original. The "Enhanced" model on the left has the basic navigation buttons from the original remote, plus Back, Options and Replay buttons. Roku says the new remote can be used with old players after they receive the version 2.7 update.

The Replay button will be of the most interest, as it replays the last 7 seconds of video, without the annoying rebuffering you still get when using the FF and Rewind buttons. I tried it while watching a Netflix stream and it works as advertised.

New Enhanced and Basic Roku remotes

Figure 3: New Enhanced and Basic Roku remotes

Even after only a few minutes of use, I can say that I think Roku has made a mistake with the new remote. The central navigation square is way too spongy and you have to hit the OK button spot on, which I found difficult with single handed operation. But once I get the codes for the new buttons programmed into my Harmony One, the new Roku remote will go right into the drawer with the old one.

New Enhanced and old Roku remotes

Figure 4: New Enhanced and old Roku remotes

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