Roku Updates Streaming Media Players in Advance of Apple TV Release

Summary:Roku has revamped and improved its line of streaming media players, value priced to compete with the updated Apple TV.

The New Roku XDS, $99.00 as shown, supports 1080p HD video output, USB MPEG-4 media side loading and optical audio output, integrated extended range dual-band Wireless-N/G and features a compact, more streamlined design.

While some analysts and media have been awaiting the release of the new pint-sized and iOS-based, $99.00 Apple TV, streaming media market leader Roku which released the first Netflix instant play streaming device two years ago, has now released three new models which are feature and priced competitive with Apple's offering, and may even be a better choice for the more discerning buyer than Apple's own offering.

I've had a chance to play with the upper-end version of the new Roku XDS, which includes several new features that may make the devices no-brainer purchases this holiday season especially for those who want to be able to view content from Netflix, Amazon Video and other 3rd-party sources without having to be locked into Apple's ecosystem.

At the low end, the new $59.99 Roku HD streams video in high-definition at up to 720p (the same as the new Apple TV) and features built-in 802.11G Wi-Fi and wired Ethernet.

Fundamentally, it is functionally identical to the previous Roku HD product, except in a smaller casing. The new Roku devices are only 1 inch tall and less than 5 inches wide and with an updated, slimmer remote which has a DVR-like instant replay function which plays back from an 11-second cache, and is now $30 cheaper.

Per the company's press release dated September 22:

The Roku XD ($79.99) and XDS ($99.99) models deliver the next level of streaming performance, with 1080p HD support (delivered over HDMI) and extended-range Wireless-N. In addition, the XDS model features dual-band Wireless-N technology, component video output, optical audio output, and a USB port, which is capable of playing side-loaded 1080p MPEG-4 (MP4) and QuickTime (MOV) content directly from flash and USB hard drives.

The model which I tested was the upper-end Roku XDS ($99) which I installed in my upstairs bedroom on a 40" SONY BRAVIA 1080p/60 HDTV, circa 2007/2008 model.

This was an ideal test of the extended range and dual-band capabilities of the Wireless-N transceiver on the new model, since my Dual-Band Wireless-N access point, a NETGEAR WNDR3700, was in my basement, two floors down.

I currently own a previous generation Roku installed in my ground floor living room which while HD-capable, only has 802.11g wireless and had reception issues with my access point, so I have to use the wired Ethernet connection using a NETGEAR 5Ghz wireless-N bridge in order to sustain video quality and a reliable data stream.

It should be noted that my ISP/Broadband is currently an Optimum Online Ultra connection, which has maximum (advertised) sustained downlink data transfer rates at 101Mbps. However, I previously was using this configuration with Optimum "Burst" which was a 20Mbps maximum sustained connection and was able to play 720p HD movies just fine.

My Mobile Gadgeteer colleague, Matthew Miller, also evaluated the new XDS and has more details of the unboxing and device setup, for those who are interested.

Also Read: Roku Adds Instant Replay Feature And More (Mobile Gadgeteer)

I was very happy to discover that the Roku XDS was easily able to sustain 130Mbps data rates using its integrated wireless transceiver with the WNDR3700 access point running the Open Source DD-WRT firmware, two floors down. I had absolutely no problems watching several full-length 720p-quality NetFlix movies with the built-in wireless-N connection using the new model and keeping up with the speed of my broadband connection, with no interruptions whatsoever.

The new Roku XDS was able to connect to my Wireless-N access point at 130Mbps+ data rates.

The Roku interface itself has remained largely unchanged, which includes the familiar Channel Store and user-friendly on-demand Netflix browser which was updated earlier this summer.

Roku becomes cloud-enabled with new Roku Channel Store and Developer SDK (November 2009)

Roku issues major NetFlix channel feature upgrades (June 2010)

As previously-stated, the upper-end XDS model includes the ability to "side-load" MPEG-4 content from a USB drive. With the evaluation unit, Roku provided me with several 1080p movie trailers on a 2GB USB which I tried to watch on my SONY Bravia 1080p set. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that the device only supports the newer 1080p/24 standard, not the original 1080p/60 standard which was initially released with my SONY set when I purchased it two years ago.

In order to watch these movie clips on my SONY unit, I had to set the Roku XDS's video output to 720p instead of 1080p, so it would automatically downscale it, and which it had no problem doing. I was also able to successfully watch the video clips at native resolution with the device connected to my 24" 1080p/24 commodity Chinese-made $250.00 computer monitor using the supplied HDMI cable.

Minor HD compatibility issues aside, I really like the USB side-loading feature, and how users can simply connect a USB drive containing their content (such as home movies, etc) instead of relying on a streamed connection from an iTunes-equipped PC or Mac, which is what will be required with the new Apple TV.

In addition to USB side-loading, I was also able to watch my own HD content which I had uploaded to the Vimeo online service on the Roku XDS. Vimeo is but one of many channels (currently 85 and growing, using Roku's free SDK) that offer enhanced functionality and content which are offered on the device using the Roku Channel Store.

The Channel Store offers numerous free channels in addition to premium pay channels, such as Amazon Video for movie rentals and the MOG music on demand subscription service.

However, because the content on the Channel Store is being streamed by various sources, all which have different Content Distribution Networks (CDNs) the reliability of a particular channel is only as good as the CDN hosting it.

The major ones, such as Pandora, Blastro, Radio Paradise and RadioTime performed just fine and I had no issues. However, on some of the obscure channels I had timeouts, such as the NASA channel, which is provided by a 3rd-party not-for-profit organization, and with TWIT.TV, which is hosted by Internet personality Leo Laporte.

In cases like these, the device -- or any other device like it which integrates content in this fashion -- can only be expected to perform on a "best effort" basis, since the CDNs aren't centralized with high availability, as with NetFlix or Amazon Video.

The new Roku players are definitely an improvement over the previous generation, particularly if you go with the top end, XDS model. Feature-wise, it should be more than a match for the Apple TV, and I'm confident that with their aggressive pricing structure it should allow the company to maintain a healthy lead as the premier Netflix set-top viewing device.

Do the new Roku devices turn you on to streaming on-demand content? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Mobility, Browser, Hardware, Software Development

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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