So how do these boxes perform as part of your home entertainment center? The big draw for most people will be the movie capabilities. Both products support Netflix and Hulu Plus along with other services such as YouTube, Blockbuster (WD TV Live only) and Amazon Streaming (Roku only). Figure 5 shows the main Netflix menu displayed by the Roku.
Figure 5: Roku Netflix menu
If you've used the Netflix streaming capability before, you'll feel right at home with either the Roku or the WD TV Live menus. In both cases, you'll find an attractive bright-red theme with a scrolling list of content to choose from. You'll have access to movie or TV categories, search, recently watched, full metadata, etc. Standard-definition and high-definition content is supported.
Both products have the same basic menu. But I slightly preferred the Roku implementation because it seemed to be a bit more responsive although I did experience an occasional menu lag.
One annoying factor in the WD TV Live's Netflix implementation is the transition time in and out of the higher-level menu. After selecting Netflix, you get nearly 10 seconds of totally black screen before you can start navigating through the menus. This delay was common for the other services as well.
As far as quality, 1080p HD movies looked great on my 52" HD TV and standard definition movies usually looked OK as well. I half-expected to see some stuttering or pausing as the movie streamed. But with Netflix, I typically had no problems over my Comcast Internet service, which a speed-test measures around 1.25 Mbps up and 15-20 Mbps down. I did see one lip-synch problem with an old TV show where the soundtrack was noticeably out of sync with the video.
One issue you'll have with streaming movies from the Internet on either box is trick-mode, i.e. fast-forward, reverse, etc. Figure 6 shows the trick-mode menu on the Roku
Figure 6: Netflix trick mode
You can't really tell from this screenshot, but moving around in a movie entails jumping from scene to scene. You won't get true fast-forward or fast-reverse behavior like you'd normally get in a DVR or on a DVD. But in general, Netflix was quick and easy to use on both boxes and had a lot of good content to choose from.
Both the Roku and the WD T Live support Hulu Plus. Figure 7 shows the Hulu Plus menu as seen on the WD TV Live.
Figure 7: Hulu Plus menu
The Hulu Plus display and interactions in the Roku appeared to be identical to the WD TV Live's. If you're not familiar with Hulu Plus, its an $8 a month service that lets you watch content (with ads) from various network providers.
The "Plus" refers to a supposedly larger catalog of available content as opposed to the standard, free Hulu service. But the reality is that the shows you get on Hulu Plus are a subset of what's available on the web. What you basically get for your $8 a month plus commercials is the ability to access Hulu from something other than a web browser running in a computer. The Plus service also seems to have more high-definition (720p-only) content than the web service.
You can get an idea of the available content by browsing through the hulu.com website. But from my browsing, Hulu's emphasis seems to be on network series vs. movies, although a large selection of movies is available.
I thought Hulu Plus' menus and interactions were attractive and fairly well done. But I had more playback issues with Hulu Plus than I did with Netflix. One evening while watching a TV show, I kept getting annoying pauses as buffering occurred during viewing over a wired connection.
When this started, I stopped the playback and measured a 20 Mbit/sec download speed to my home, so I obviously have more than enough bandwidth. I found that both the Roku and the WD TV Live had the same issue that evening, so I have to conclude it was on the Hulu side.
A couple of times, I also had the Roku box completly crash and reset while watching a Hulu Plus movie. Another time, after watching a movie for an hour or so on the Roku, I noticed that the audio and video were several seconds out of sync.
Like Netflix, trick-mode operations for Hulu Plus are more a scene-selection rather than a quick scroll to a desired spot in a show. Figure 8 shows the interaction (identical across both the Roku and the WD TV Live)
Figure 8: Hulu Plus trick modes
Like Netflix, Hulu Plus also includes recommendations based on your previously viewed shows, and a queue of shows to watch later. The catalog of shows is large and has interesting content. I just wish it were more reliable! (Tim says: Amen to that!) And also like Netfilx, bringing up Hulu Plus on the WD TV Live was preceded by 10 seconds of black screen.
Now for the differences between the two products. The biggest difference is that the WD TV Live can play local content while the Roku cannot. Well, that's maybe a bit harsh. The Roku can play some local content, but only from a USB drive plugged directly into it. And only if that content is mp4 (H.264) video, mp3 or aac audio or and jpg or png images.
I should also note that when I plugged a USB stick with a few movies into the Roku to do a quick playback check I didn't notice anything "funny". But when I plugged in an old 500 GB USB drive containing lots more content, the Roku became painful to use. Every time I navigated to the top-level directory of the drive, it appeared to be scanning the entire thing for content. So in this case, with a 500 GB drive, it was taking nearly two minutes! So down one directory, and then back up...wait two minutes...every time. Every time!
As for supported formats, I didn't have much luck with anything other than mpeg 4 files. But even then, some mpeg4/H.264 movies I had captured from an elgato device just hung up in the "retrieving" menu, forcing me to cancel playback.
None of my .mov, .mpg (mpeg1), qt, or avi files even showed up in the menus. Along with standard-def H.264 content, I was successful with a 1080p H.264 movie. Looked pretty nice, in fact. But I was a bit disappointed that the trick-modes worked much like the online content—no fast-forward scrolling. Just jumping.
It looks to me like Roku's local playback support is for just for displaying a handful of files. It's definitely not designed to handle a big library and certainly not a big library of mixed formats. I hate to see what it would have done with my 2 TB drive! I'd probably be waiting 10 minutes every time I changed a directory.
In contrast, the WD TV Live has the ability to stream data from a local DLNA server as well as from an attached drive. And if you don't happen to have a DLNA server, the Live can also browse plain ol' network shares on its own. The Live also supports a much wider array of formats than the Roku, as listed in Figure 9. For more on this, check out my review from last year.
Figure 9: WD TV Live supported formats
Something the Roku has that the WD doesn't is games. This feature is supported only on the top-of-line XS, however.. Figure 10 shows a session of Angry Birds playing on the Roku.
Figure 10: Angry Birds on the Roku
As usual, Angry Birds is a lot of fun, but it's a bit challenging to play with the Roku remote. The gyroscopic remote helps, but you don't get the same degree of control as you would on a phone or PC. The pigs are safe from me!