Electronics can be evil. A short time ago I wrote an article about using the Xbox 360 as a media center. I concluded that it wasn’t the best choice. Sensing my betrayal, the 360 promptly kicked the bucket, leaving me without the Netflix I craved.
Rather than replace the 360, I decided buy to a competing media center, the Roku. My verdict on it can be summed up with “It’s awesome!” Why is it awesome? Let me explain.
Although I occasionally play Xbox 360 games, most of my gaming continues to be on the PC. The death of my 360 left me staring in the face of a $299 bill for a brand new one with the same sub-par interface and the same game support. I simply couldn’t justify spending that much money again.
The Roku, on the other hand, is affordable. I purchased the Roku 2 XS, which is the most expensive and feature-filled version available today. The price at my local retail store was $99.99. You can spend even less if you don’t want the motion-tracking remote functionality and Ethernet port of the XS.
At that price the Roku is almost expendable. It’s disappointing when a $300 Xbox 360 kicks the bucket and is intimidating to replace it, but if the Roku breaks, it won’t be a big deal.
I’m guessing that the “XS” in my Roku’s name stands for “extra small.” I expected it to be a lot smaller than my Xbox 360, but I wasn’t prepared for just how tiny the device is. At 3.3 inches by 3.3 inches, this media center is just slightly larger than a hockey puck.
It’s so small, in fact, that you can place it almost anywhere. If you stick some Velcro to it, and another strip to your TV, you can easily hang it off the back of your television.
The processor in the Roku XS is Broadcom’s BCM2835 system-on-a-chip, which is the same one used by the Raspberry Pi. It’s an ARM processor, and not a particularly powerful one at that. Power use is low, which means heat generation is low, which means no fans are required. Listening to an Xbox 360 whirr in the background for years will give you a healthy respect for silence.
An optical drives and mechanical hard drives can be sources of noise in media centers, but Roku doesn’t have an optical drive and uses flash memory. There’s nothing inside it that moves, which means it makes absolutely no noise.
It’s Easy To Use
Setting up the Roku couldn’t be easier. There are only a few options to select, all of which are blatantly obvious, and then a registration process that you’ll need to complete on a computer. It takes five minutes, and you’re set.
The interface isn’t as visually stimulating as what you’ll find on some other media centers, but it makes up for any aesthetic shortcomings with simplicity. Everything is arranged in a tile format that you navigate using the remote’s D-pad. Transitions from item to item are smooth and “channels” (such as Netflix and Hulu) open in just a few seconds.
The Xbox 360’s interface is hopelessly far behind the refinement of the Roku, the Playstation 3 is far more confusing, and Western Digital’s media center is much less intuitive (just compare the remotes for each device).
It Has Great Content Support
It’s easy to obtain some content on almost any media center, but many are lacking at least one or two popular options. The Xbox 360 will provide you with Netflix and Hulu Plus, but not Amazon. The same goes for Western Digital’s media center, and then there’s Apple TV, which doesn’t even include Hulu Plus.
Roku has what I consider the holy trinity of streaming video content – Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon. If you subscribe to all of these you’ll have access to an insane amount of media content for about $20 a month.
In addition to this, you have access to a lot of other options that provide smaller amounts of content. Most of them probably won’t be up your alley, but you may find one or two that interest you. I like the Giant Bomb channel, for example.
It Provides Excellent Image Quality
When I bought the Roku, I did so with some skepticism about its image quality. I knew it was small and that it used an ARM processor that’s not particularly powerful. Could it really display 1080p smoothly?
Yes, it can. Having set up the device, I immediately logged in to Netflix and played one of my favorite HD movies, Serenity. I skipped to the end, where a beautiful space battle takes place. This scene not only looks amazing in HD but is also shot at a blistering pace. Any skipped frames or performance issues will be apparent.
The Roku didn’t have trouble keeping up. Plasma blasts and missiles flew smoothly across the screen in all their HD glory. I am sure that a videophile could find artifacts or other issues, but to my average eye there were no disruptions in quality or any skipped frames.
Like any device, the Roku isn’t perfect. Though it now includes some games, such as Angry Birds, the experience is jerky and the remote doesn’t work well as a game controller. The games that don’t rely on motion control are better.
Another downfall is limited support for video formats. If the ability to play video files off an external drive is important to you, take a look at Western Digital’s player instead.
These gripes are minor, however, and easily redeemed by the price. If you want to own a media center for streaming online video the Roku is the default recommendation. Subscribing to all three major content providers (Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon) will satisfy all but the most hardcore couch potato at a price that significantly undercuts a premium cable subscription.