Roku XDS: First Impressions

December 19, 2010

I recently received a Roku XDS for my birthday. So, I’ve temporarily unplugged the AppleTV to give the Roku a spin. Yes, I ran out of HDMI and optical ports and I’m at my limit with power strips. Ultimately, one of the devices will stay in the living room and the other will go in the kitchen.  I’m glad I got the XDS over the other models because of it’s extras. For one the XDS has an optical audio output that will work with my older Pioneer receiver. It also has dual-band wireless n networking.   The other extra is the USB port that you can play media directly from (apparently not usb drives with their own power source).

Since I just started using Apple TV, it’s hard not to compare the two to each other.

The Roku is easy enough to set up but it’s a little bit more involved than Apple TV. After you connect it to your TV and it starts up, it says it should take about three minutes to get going. In reality, it took a bit longer than that. First, you select your wireless network and security info. The Roku then downloads the latest software for the box and restarts itself. At this point, a code is displayed on the screen and you go to to enter the code and set up your account.

After this, you chose your screen type (standard, 16:9 standard, 720p HD or 1080p HD). Given I was using HDMI, I picked the 1080p option. Unfortunately, there is very little content available in 1080p but in the future, it will be a advantage over Apple TV. The only other tweak I had to do was to go into the settings and select 5.1 surround sound since I was using the optical audio as opposed to the regular RCA connectors.

Now, you are ready to go! The Roku is built around the concept of “channels” which differentiates the device from Apple TV and Google TV. Third party developers can create their own channels for the Roku bringing a wide variety of content, some free and some paid. Of all the streaming devices on the market, the Roku is the king of obscure content, there’s a channel for everyone: Pub-D-Hub has old TV shows and movies in the public domain. Crackle has short versions of shows like Fantasy Island and Different Strokes.  Newscaster has a shows from a variety of news sources such as NBC, BBC, Fox News, NPR among others albeit in low resolution but without commercials. Of course, there are also the popular paid channels such as Amazon, Hulu Plus and NetFlix.

Channels and choice of content are really where the Roku outshines Apple TV. It’s not that you can’t get a lot of the same content on Apple TV. For example, you can listen to the NPR show, “This American Life” on both devices. However, to listen to it on Apple TV, you need to go to iTunes on your Mac or PC and download it first. You can just go to the Newscaster channel on the Roku, select NPR and listen to the podcast.

Apple TV does have it’s advantages over the Roku.  t’s biggest advantage is that it can stream local content via iTunes. Also, the iPhone and iPad can function as a remote as well as push content over AirPlay.  Finally, Apple TV just has a better feel to it: It has a more polished interface that is more responsive than the Roku’s. There was more attention to detail when they designed Apple TV. There’s a little meter that shows wireless strength on the AppleTV, the Roku just says “Good”. Even the little noises when you click the remote are more pleasing on AppleTV. After the kids saw both, they gave the thumbs up to Apple TV.

The Roku has some quirks as well. The unit tends to run hot and there is no way to turn it off short of unplugging it from the wall. The Roku’s one gaping hole is that it cannot steam media from any sources on your local network. There’s been lots of speculation that the Roku will eventually add DLNA support but no definite dates as of yet. There are third party solutions like Rokbox but they’re not for the faint of heart.

Bottom line, the Roku and Apple TV are both great streaming boxes and have their respective advantages. If you’ve bought into the Apple eco-system or you just want a solid iTunes extender, go with the Apple TV. If you only need a NetFlix box, you could go with the basic Roku HD for just $60. Personally, I think the Roku XDS is worth it for a few bucks more given its future proof. In the near future, I’ll do a comparison to see which one is the better NetFlix box. Have a happy streaming holiday!

Roku XDS Streaming Player 1080p

Tags: Apple TV, Roku

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