The Roku XDS has a lot of great features and hits a great price point, coming in at under $100. It supports 1080P and Dolby Digital. It has a wide range of connectivity: HDMI, component, composite, optical audio port (S/PDIF), Ethernet and dual-band wireless N.
When the Roku 2 shipped with a new Netflix client that supported Dolby surround sound, subtitles and 1080P, owners of the XDS were surprised they weren’t getting the upgrade as well. Folks who had the XDS thought it was just a matter of time before their Netflix client was upgraded. However, the team at Roku stated this upgrade would not come to the previous generation of Roku boxes. Given the specs of the XDS, what happened? In the case of surround sound, we should have know that it was never coming to the XDS. Here’s why:
Last October, Netflix announced they had chosen Dolby Digital Plus to provide surround sound for their streaming content. At this point, Roku XDS users were enjoying Dolby surround sound from Amazon Instant video. Well, it turns out that Dolby Digital Plus is not Dolby Digital. In another words, just because a receiver or device can decode Dolby Digital doesn’t mean it can decode Dolby Digital Plus. DD Plus makes more efficient use of bandwidth, can carry additional channels (7.1 vs 5.1) and can carry higher quality audio.
The audio chip on the Roku XDS is the PN8935 from Trident. While it can handle Dolby Digital, it cannot handle Dolby Digital Plus. This is where the problem lies with putting the new Netflix client on the last generation of Roku boxes. Other Netflix players with optical audio ports have chips that can convert Dolby Digital Plus to regular Dolby Digital. While Roku may have been able to get away with passing Dolby Digital Plus over HDMI, the folks using the optical audio port would be left out. Don’t get me wrong, there may be a way to implement Dolby Digital Plus on the XDS, it would just take a lot of coding. If the current audio chip can’t handle it, you would rely on the box’s processor which would then take CPU cycles away from other things (perhaps precluding 1080P?).
On top of this, the Roku 2 uses a different processor architecture. The previous generation Rokus used a MIPs based processor and the Roku 2 uses an ARM based processor. It doesn’t preclude back porting the Netflix client, it just adds even more labor to the process.
While we’re raining on your parade, this also means that VUDU is probably not coming to the Roku XDS either. It also uses Dolby Digital Plus for surround sound.
On the other hand, I don’t see why the previous generations of the Roku couldn’t support closed captions in Netflix. The Wii can do it. You can express your interest in this feature to Roku here.
Is there a silver lining to these dark clouds? Yes! A new Roku 2 will only cost you $99. The only other alternative for comparable audio and video on Netflix is the Playstation3 (and that may only output regular Dolby Digital not Dolby Digital Plus ). I know, I know, you can’t buy a Roku 2 since your receiver doesn’t have HDMI. Well, there are other solutions for you. Both the Apple TV and Western Digital Live boxes support Netflix surround sound and have an optical audio port. They do this by transcoding the Dolby Digital Plus stream to regular Dolby Digital for the optical output. However, you lose 1080P video from Netflix. Maybe you should just buy a new receiver too. Ahhh, maybe that was their plan all along and that’s the subject of our next post. Stay Tuned!
Update: Made some minor edits to distinguish that the Roku bitstreams and doesn’t decode Dolby Digital in the “The audio chip” paragraph.
Netflix Ends Embargo on 1080P