Roku 2 XS Media Streamer Page 2

As before, the remote has only a few buttons. The previous version had a rubberized navigation button that was sporadically unresponsive, whereas the new rocker-type navigation button is so precise that it's far easier to select letters when using the onscreen keyboard to enter account logins, passwords, and search words.

Also new in the remote is a motion sensor that lets you control Angry Birds by swinging the remote to launch your bird at the perfect angle and speed to kill enemy swine. So far, Angry Birds is the only game that makes use of the motion sensor. Other games on the Roku, such as Pac-Man, Galaga, and Storm in a Teacup, simply use the up/down/right/left navigation rocker. I'm sure Roku will add more games and uses for the motion-sensor remote in the future. Wouldn't it be great to simply point to a movie you want to play or swipe the remote to scroll through the lists of TV shows on Hulu Plus?

Not only is the remote able to control games, other design upgrades improve its performance when using it to control the Roku 2 XS. In fact, it works with other Roku 2 models, but only the XS includes the remote in the purchase price.

Roku's menu is the same as it has ever been, clean and basic. All channels appear in a horizontal list in which you scroll right or left to find the channel you want and click on its icon. The channels appear in the order you added them. I wish Roku would add the option of manually changing the order so your most-used channels appear on the first home screen for fast access.

Overall, the allure of Roku has always been its ease of setup and use. This is the kind of device you can safely hand to your non-techie mother or spouse and be pretty sure they will be able to get it up and running with very little assistance.

If this is your first Roku player, you will need to set up a Roku account. If you've had a previous Roku model, you probably already have an account and can simply link the new box to your account. All of your previously downloaded channels—both free and paid—will automatically download to your new Roku 2 XS box.

The ability to link to your Roku account is particularly useful if you buy additional Roku boxes or need to replace the unit you are setting up. Note that while it automatically downloads the channels you have associated with your account, you still need to link each channel with your online subscriptions (for example, link to your Hulu Plus or Amazon Instant Video channels to your accounts).

However, easy setup doesn't mean that it's completely hassle-free. As on earlier models, many of the channels must be set up by going to a website and entering a code that appears on the Roku screen. The Netflix channel lets you sign in using the Roku keyboard, but the rest of the channels require that you go online from your computer or mobile web browser. If your computer is in another room, you must note or remember the code and enter it once you have gotten to the website. Using a laptop or iPad while sitting in front of the TV makes it a little easier.

Finding channels to add is straightforward, because they are laid out in a grid under categories. Still, finding a specific channel is laborious. Only a few channels appear on the initial screen, and you have to scroll to the right to browse through all the channels in that category. It was a real treasure hunt to find the USB channel, but the Pac-Man game was easy to find under the Games category.

The biggest improvement in the Roku 2 XS is better picture quality, offering 1080p HD streaming as it's supposed to be. I've tried to find out from Roku what main processor or video processor they are using, and whether it is has been upgraded from the previous generation, but the company is tight-lipped about the hardware details.

Previous Roku boxes claimed to be high definition, but they performed poorly on large-screen TVs. HD streaming movies were plagued with motion artifacts and jaggies, and they would never appear as bright and crisp as HD video from Blu-ray or even HD cable. The picture quality of still photos was just as bad—many were grainy and solarized with color banding.

Regarding my reviews of previous Roku boxes—and my comments on HT online editor Scott Wilkinson's Home Theater Geeks podcast—many readers and listeners argued that they felt the picture quality was fine, saying it was "as good as cable." I tested a number of Roku XDS boxes and compared them to other media players connected with the same cables to the same TV, but the results were the same—a consistently poor-quality picture.

So it is with great pleasure that I can declare the Roku 2 XS generates a beautiful picture—bright, crisp, and detailed. The motion artifacts are completely gone. Photos streamed from Picassa and Flickr are stunning and true to the original digital files.

For those concerned with audio quality, the Roku boxes still do not provide an audio decoder—all audio is passed unprocessed through the HDMI connection. It can pass 5.1 surround sound, but whether it's Dolby Surround or Dolby Digital depends on the source's audio format and what audio formats your A/V receiver can decode.

In the past, I may have only recommended the Roku box to aging family members with less-than-perfect eyesight. Those boxes were easy to use, but the picture was standard-definition quality at best.

I'm happy to say that I can whole-heartedly recommend the Roku 2 XS. The new gaming remote is the easiest and most responsive you'll find with any media player, and it's a pleasure to use. The small size of the box and the use of Bluetooth are big pluses, letting you tuck it behind your TV or in a cabinet.

If you are looking for a good way to stream movies, TV, music, and other online content in an easy-to-use manner—or if you are truly addicted to Angry Birds—the Roku 2 XS is a solid choice. You get a wide variety of content that is easy to add and a menu that is simple to navigate. On the other hand, if you want a media player that can stream content from a computer or server on your home network, you'll need to look elsewhere or add a second device to your system.

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