Hands on with the Roku 2: Less is More

The cat's been out of the bag for a month or two now, but today Roku officially announces an entirely redesigned line of streaming media players, featuring a smaller form factor, a few new content channels, Angry Birds - and, on the top-of-the-line XS, a motion-control remote. The new units should hit stores by the end of the month.

The boxes are much smaller than the previous generation's - the casing's just over 3 inches square - and for the eco-conscious, energy consumption's been brought down to around 1.5 watts (by Roku's own calculations, that's some 20 times less than some vampiric DVRs). Price points remain the same as when we last looked at the Roku line - $59.99 for the HD, $79.99 for the XD, and $99.99 for the renamed XS - though you'll find a few changes under the hood. All three new Rokus get microSD slots for channel and game app storage (with only 256 MB of storage onboard, you'll want the card if you're interested in loading up many of either), Bluetooth is now present across the board, and both the XD and XS can now stream Netflix in 1080p (the base HD model is still limited to 720p). And there's a more muscular processor behind Roku's gaming initiative, though the company's not disclosing any details about architecture. As in the last generation, you'll only find a USB port (allowing local playback of movies and music from attached drives) and an Ethernet port (for Internet connections only, no support for NAS) only on the XS.

Beyond gaming, Roku now offers some 300 content channels; the widely varied offerings cover your needs from BabyFirst TV to the Nuclear Blast Records channel. An SDK invites interested parties to build their own channels, so there's sure to be more on the way.

The news isn't all good: to the chagrin of owners of DACs and older HDTVs, respectively, the XS drops the stereo optical audio and component video outputs sported by its XD|S predecessor. There are usually good reasons for such moves, like them or not, but they can be annoying, especially if you're heavily invested in other gear.

Last week I got to spend some time with the new XS, and I'll tell you right now that the Bluetooth-connected remote doesn't pose a threat to the Wii. Nor is it meant to. It's a great addition to the kind of "casual" gaming Roku's aiming to serve up (basically, they're looking to capture some of the mass-market enthusiasm for mobile games as part of their overall experience - the serious gaming crowd is probably watching video content via their consoles in any case), but it isn't the sort of device that lends itself, say, to realistic simulation of your tennis serve or lightsaber thrust. It's perfectly suited for knocking down pigs with a bird-loaded catapult, however, so Roku's on the right track there.

Motion control aside, the Bluetooth Game Remote is s a nice addition, since it frees you from having to maintain a line of sight to your Roku box - which means more installation options if you're industrious; not having to shift from your comfortable position on the couch if you're not. All three Rokus will work with the Bluetooth remote, though it's only included with the XS (the other models ship with an IR remote; the Game Remote will be available separately for $29.99).

We'll be keeping an eye out as the Roku 2 develops as a gaming platform - Angry Birds is entertaining, but probably not worth an upgrade on its own. That said, if you want one of these boxes, have any interest at al in games, and want 1080p support, you'll probably want to shell out the extra $20 now for the XS over the XD - and get USB and Ethernet support as part of the bargain rather than add the Game remote later for $30). Basically, if you're looking for a streaming set-top box/digital media receiver/whatever-you-want-to-call it (and you don't absolutely need to stream Rdio, MOG or Pandora over optical S/PDIF to a DAC, or support an older TV), the new Rokus are definitely worth a look on their well-proven cable-cutting merits.