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.

Setup
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.

Performance
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.

Conclusion
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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COMMENTS
chrisheinonen's picture

"For Mac users, note that the Roku 2 will only accept USB drives that are PC formatted—FAT16, FAT32, HFS+, or NTFS."

The default file system for an OS X Mac is HFS+, which would indicate that a normal OS X formatted drive would work fine.

Barb Gonzalez's picture
When I connected a mac formatted external drive, there is this error message. Yes, the extended OS X format should be HFS +, but the bottom line is that the Roku 2 wouldn't read any of my Mac formatted drives.
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Stanman98075's picture

The Roku will NOT pass 1080P through my brand new Pioneer receiver. 720P works OK. Roku tech support agrees that it isn't compatible with all receivers, and states that I will have to bypass the receiver and connect directly to the TV. I would only have 2-channel audio if I did this since the Roku doesn't have digital audio out. A lousy solution!

I tried, without success, to get Pioneer interested in this.

Not a happy Roku camper...

Barb Gonzalez's picture
I have my Roku 2 connected directly to my TV using HDMI. I have my TV connected to my Denon AV receiver using an optical out from the TV. This seems to give me both 1080p on the TV and surround sound.
fimillerny's picture

I have ordered a new 59" Samsung Plasma that has a Netflix app (and other apps). What is the difference in sound and picture when using the Samsung app vs the Roku (or Apple TV)?

Also I read Stanman's comment re incompatibility of his new Pioneer AV Receiver and receiving 1080p. It gives me concerns since I just ordered a new NAD M15HD2 and will have to wait and see if there is a similar issue.
Fred

Barb Gonzalez's picture
When it comes to picture and sound quality of an external streamer like Roku 2 or the Apple TV versus an internal Smart TV app, I have been hard pressed to notice a difference. As long as the HDMI cable is decent, the quality of the Roku 2, and especially the Apple TV are both excellent. The benefit of the Roku 2 is that it is easy to use and there is a good variety of channels...then again, apps are being added to Samsung Smart TVs at a fast rate. The benefits of the Apple TV include iTunes content and access to your photos using PhotoStream, and airplay or mirroring from you iPhone and iPad. There are other factors to consider when choosing a media streamer vs. a smart TV, most notably access to the content you want to watch.
richardevans's picture

As a long time Roku user I was excited to get the new Roku 2. Local content was and is still available by plugging a USB drive or a hard disk drive with it's own power supply into the USB port.
I've successfully played back HD 720p mkv files using a flash drive.
***There is a wonderful media streamer for videos called PLEX. You need to download the application from Plex and install it on your computer. Then you need to add files from your computer to the Plex media manager. All of this is pretty easy. Then add the private PLEX channel to your Roku account from your computer. Now you can stream both avi and mkv files directly from your computer which acts as a server and the Roku acts as a client. (Note: Roku allows users to install what are called private channels which aren't supported by Roku but are usually perfectly functional.)
http://elan.plexapp.com/2011/05/03/plex-on-the-roku/

***To playback music files (which isn't currently possible with the PLEX server) you need to add the app called MainSqueeze. Again like the PLEX server, you need to download and install server software. MainSqueeze uses the Logitech Media Server. Then add the private channel MAINSQUEEZE to your Roku account.
http://roku.permanence.com/

This may seem like a lot of effort but it can be set up fairly easily if you have some computer knowledge; no more knowledge is required than any other media streamer. The benefits of using the Roku as a content streamer make it worth the effort to add local streaming if that is important to you. I've recently tried both the WDTV live and the Sony SMP-N200 and both had many issues that will probably never be solved. Roku's open SDK (software development kit) means many developers are working on the player. Some who developed great apps were eventually hired by Roku. That's how a forward thinking company should work.

Barb Gonzalez's picture
It's great that you've been able to play mkv files and that you like using Plex. It's getting better, but it's not 100% for me and I find other solutions better for streaming. I had great luck with the Sony. I'd love to hear other solutions you find...

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