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Roku XD Review

Roku May Have Been the First Netflix Streamer But is it the Best?

About.com Rating 2 Star Rating
User Rating 4 Star Rating (1 Review)

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Roku Menu

Roku is a media streamer that plays content from Netflix, Hulu Plus and a number of other online "channels."

Photo (c) Evan Gonzalez - Licensed to About.com
Update: 4/30/11: Since the review below was posted, Roku sent a new Roku XD/s media streamer so that we could take another look at Roku. The follow-up Roku XD/s proved to be a markedly better performer. For all the details, read an updated review of Roku using their new XD/s box, as reported by About.com Contributing writer, Barb Gonzalez.

Initial Roku XD Review

Roku was the first set top box to stream Netflix. But today, you can find Netflix on almost any networkable device that plays video. Being first out was a huge boon for Roku's popularity, but it doesn't mean that the Roku box actually stands up to the hype.

Roku's limitations begin with its description. Roku is a "streaming player," or "media streamer," not a network media player.  In other words, a Roku box can stream movies from its online partners but it can't play music, movies or photos that you have stored on your computers and devices on your home network

Pros and Cons

Pros: 

  • It is easy to add special interest "channels."
  • It connects to your own photo streams from Flickr and Facebook.
  • The Netflix channel is enhanced and easy to navigate.
  • It is a small, lightweight unit that can fit into your purse or laptop case.
  • It has built-in wifi.

Cons:

  • Setup is easy but cumbersome and time consuming.
  • The picture quality is poor.
  • The channels for connecting to you networked computers and devices is confusing, can connect to only one source at a time, and it never worked.
  • The unit is flimsy and seems like it would break easily.
  • No USB connection on this model.

Set Up May Be Easy But its a Chore

Roku promotes its box as easy to set up, and that it can "be up and running in 5 minutes," with "no PC needed." Both of these statements aren't exactly accurate. It is true that the instructions are easy to follow. However, compared to other devices, the setup on Roku is cumbersome.  

While you don't need to connect the Roku to a PC for setup, you absolutely need access to the Roku's numerous activation web pages. Roku calls their online content partners "channels." There is a Netflix channel, a Hulu Plus channel, an Amazon On Demand Channel, a Flickr channel and several more. A limited number of popular channels come loaded on the Roku and you can add more, mostly free channels through their channel store.  

The first time you watch any of the channels, you must activate it on the Roku box. On other players, you can activate monthly subscription channels on their websites. However, Roku requires that you go to a special Roku activation page and enter a code that appears on the Roku screen. Often this also requires filling out a form and creating a new account for that channel.

It helps to have a laptop, or smartphone handy when setting up so you don't have to run into another room to enter activation codes on your computer. Setup is painstakingly redundant and I stopped adding new channels simply because I didn't want to create yet another account and activate it.

The box I reviewed had a glitch and had to be reset three times before I could get past the second setup screen. I don't think this is a typical experience, but it just shows that setup isn't always a breeze.

Picture Quality May Be 1080p But It is Not Good

The Roku XD's specifications list that it can play 1080p full high definition video.  However, the picture quality from the Roku box I reviewed was worse than any player I've connected in the last couple of years and did not have high definition clarity.

Onscreen movement consistently blurs when watching movies from Netflix and Amazon on Demand. There are boxy artifacts in large areas of color and curly mosquitoes around object edges. This is not limited to video. The same picture interference is obvious when viewing photographs on Flickr and Picasa. The photos are grainy and colors are dull. Jagged edges (jaggies) plague any diagonal object edge.  

I was confused when I read user reviews for the Roku box. These reviews rated the picture quality at 4 or 5 out of 5 stars. But, as I read the complete reviews, I found that almost every user stated that the picture quality was good when compared to the picture quality to their "crappy cable," or the review actually said that the picture quality had all these problems but was "good enough." 

Bottom line, if you have a big screen 1080p TV and care about picture quality, this is not the player for you.

It Could Not Connect to Play Media From a Home Network

Poor Photo Quality

This photo from an online sharing site illustrates the poor picture quality that plagued both photos and videos on the Roku box.

Photo (c) Barb Gonzalez - Licensed to About.com

The Roku is an online streaming box or "media streamer."  It is not meant to play content from your home media libraries. You can download a channel to find the photos, music and movies on your home network, but it is confusing to use and it didn't work during my testing.

To access your home media libraries, you need to add the Chaneru channel and fill in the IP address of the device where your media is stored. Unlike other network media players that list all of the computers and devices that can share over your network, you can only connect to one device at a time. I filled in the required fields, but it never succeeded in making a connection. I repeated the process, trying all of my computers and devices and never got it to work.

Even if the Roku was able to connect to my home network computers or network attached storage (NAS) drives, it can play only a limited number of media file formats

The "MP3 Tunes" channel lets you listen to music in your iTunes library. It does not play from your computer. Instead, you must sync your iTunes library with the MP3 Tunes website. In other words, you have to upload your songs to the website so you can stream them to your Roku player. MP3 Tunes limits you to 2 GB of free storage. 50 GBs costs $4.95 per month. This is an impractical solution if you have a large music library.

Still, if you have few songs, photos, and videos, you can upload them to online sharing websites--MP3 Tunes for music, Flickr, Facebook, and SmugMug for photos, and Vimeo for home videos. Then you can access your media through these channels on the Roku box.

User Reviews

Reviews for this section have been closed.

 4 out of 5
Roku XD Review, Member lotusguy

I believe I can shed some light on Barb Gonzalez's poor review of the Roku XD box. I, too, found the video quality of Netflix on the Roku to be sub par when I first installed it. I have other Netflix streaming devices on the same wireless network and the quality is great, so I set about trying to determine what was wrong. The breakthrough occurred was when I found a private channel that tested bandwidth to the Roku. To my surprise (horror) I found that when the Roku resolution was switched from 4:3 to 1080p, the throughput dropped by a factor of 10. When starting a program, Netflix tests the bandwidth and winds the resolution back to fit what is available. Thus, Netflix HD material was being displayed in SD with lots of rebuffering. I contacted Roku tech support which was worthless, but just before I packed the box up to send it back, a new version of the firmware was pushed to the box and this fixed the problem. Now I get the full 10Mbps that TW cable provides and HD material on Netflix is seen in HD, which is 720p. (Obviously SD material is still SD). Barb's timing was unfortunate and she never got the firmware update that would have solved her video quality problem. Now the biggest shortcoming with Netflix is only being fed the stereo soundtrack for material better served with Dolby 5.1. Waiting patiently for the next update......

6 out of 6 people found this helpful.

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