Roku 2 doubles as a casual gaming console with Wii-like remote, $99.99

Roku is transforming from a mere content streaming set-top box to a platform for casual games with the launch of Roku 2. Will it pose a threat to the more expensive video game consoles like the Nintendo Wii?

Roku just launched Roku 2, which offers three different models of the content streaming box (HD, XD and XS), but only the XS comes with a Roku Game Remote as well as a free copy of Rovio's Angry Birds. All three can access the Angry Birds channel (and other upcoming casual games) though you would need to purchase the hybrid game-controller-remote separately if you get the HD or the XD.

All Roku 2s share the same glossy, black exterior that is slightly smaller than the Apple TV box (at 3.3" x 3.3" x 0.9"), and comes equipped with a microSD card slot, HDMI port, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity. You can tell them apart by the model name on top, the different components they sport and their price:

  • HD: The HD is the cheapest option at $59.99 because it offers the most basic capabilities. It only supports 720p HD video, has no Ethernet or USB port, and comes with a basic Roku IR remote.
  • XD: For $79.99, the XD will support 1080p HD video playback but shares the same hardware as the HD.
  • XS: At $99.99, the XS is the most expensive of the three Roku 2s but it is also the best equipped. It has an Ethernet port and a USB 2.0 port, as well as the Game Remote (pictured below).

The Roku Game Remote is arguably the most exciting part of the Roku 2 because it transforms the set-top box from a mere content streamer to a casual gaming console. According to Roku CEO Anthony Wood, he's aiming to offer "games [for the Roku 2] in the $5 range rather than $30 range."

Not only does the Game Remote look like a Wii-mote, it also works just like one as it has built-in motion sensors, allowing you to flick your wrist to launch birds across your TV. It pairs with the Roku 2 box via Bluetooth rather than IR, which means as long as you are within Bluetooth range of the box, you can technically still control your game. (Though it would probably be wise to see what you're doing on-screen before making a move.)

When you're not playing Angry Birds, the Game Remote helps you navigate Roku's 300-plus channels -- from Netflix, the Mormon Channel to CNET (our sister site, also owned by CBSi). The company introduces new channels every week; Facebook, EPIX, Major League Soocer, AOL HD and FOXNews.com are some of the new ones that are launching with the Roku 2. Roku is also in talks with "major casual game publishers" to bring about more games to the platform after the second-gen boxes are released, said Wood.

I got a chance to see the Roku 2 XS in action last week and was impressed by how the palm-sized device can do so much and for such a low price. At $99.99, the XS actually is close to the same price as the OnLive cloud-based gaming system, but Roku 2 offers access to more free entertainment content than just games. The Apple TV is also similarly priced but the XS offers higher quality HD playback at 1080p and a game-ready remote out-of-box. While I'm skeptical that people will be buying a Roku 2 just so they can play Angry Birds on TV, they would probably play every now and then, in-between Netflix or Hulu Plus marathon sessions. So the potential for the Roku 2 to develop as a platform for casual games is there, and I wonder what effects it would have on the more expensive gaming platforms like Nintendo.

The new Roku 2s will be hitting stores by the end of July. You should be able to find them at Amazon, Best Buy, Fry's and RadioShack, as well as Roku.com. If you're looking to buy just the Roku Game Remote, you need to order direct from Roku. which is bundling the device with a 2 GB SD card for $29.99.

[Source: The Official Roku Blog, Roku press release, Apple, OnLive, BusinessWire]

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