Roku HD/XD/XD|S ($59-$99, roku.com)
Roku's fans pride themselves on the non-Appleness of their favorite DMR. Its open-platform nature is about as far removed from Apple’s locked-down approach as you can get — and that has ups and downs. The Roku's main interface is a scroll bar, from which you select your content sources of choice, third-party apps known as Channels. In addition to the main Channels such as Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and Hulu Plus, you get access to Roku's Channel store. Here you can download "apps" that give you access to further specialized content. Dozens of additional Channels are available, ranging from the Ultimate Fighting Channel to Jewelry Television, though how many you'll find truly useful I can't say.
Roku seems to rely on its Channels a bit too heavily, as my main complaint with the product is the lack of native ability to stream the content stored on your own networked hard drives. The only way to do this is via one of several third-party apps (and many users swear by these). But since these aren’t designed by Roku, availability and support of these apps aren't guaranteed. Some people don't see any problem with this, but when all the other products reviewed here perform this task natively (and well) out of the box, I have to count this against the Roku.
The Netflix interface has big cover art, and the ability to search (a feature sorely lacking in a few early DMR incarnations). Picture quality is good, but as is the case with the other DMRs in this roundup, Roku's scaling isn't as good as even a halfway decent Blu-ray player. The Amazon interface isn't quite as easy to use as the Netflix one, but it's not too bad. Hulu Plus is rather cumbersome, but that's Hulu Plus.
The cheapest Roku box, the HD, is a near-clone of the Apple TV. It's got a 720p output, built-in Wi-Fi, and a mix of streaming and on-demand video services. Upgrading to the XD ($79) gets you a 1080p output, a few more buttons on the remote, and 802.11n for longer range. The XD|S's additional $20 premium gets you a component video output, a USB connection, and dual-band 802.11n. Functionally, they're otherwise largely the same.
The small remote has none of the Apple TV or Boxee's attractiveness, looking cheap by comparison. The soft buttons feel nice, but like the others here there's no backlighting. Thankfully, with so few buttons, it's not hard to navigate in the dark.
Roku's big claim to fame is the XD and XD|S's support for 1080p video. The problem is, there isn’t much 1080p content out there. Netflix content delivered via the Roku is 720p, and is not upconverted. Amazon's Instant Video and Hulu Plus are also 720p. So at the moment, this ability isn't a reason to buy it over the Apple TV.
Main Streaming Content Sources: Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, SiriusXM, many other "Channel" apps for content, USB audio/video file playback (XD|S only)
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