When Roku came out with its first high-def media streamers, I was so impressed that I bought one after returning my review unit. Roku's newest models, which include the top-of-the-line Roku XDS, the mid-range Roku XD and the Roku HD, are significantly smaller than their predecessors. The higher-end units are also equipped with several new features, but none of these features strike me as a huge improvement, especially given the fierce competition in the category in the last year.
The basics haven't changed: All models are a small box that connects to your home network (via either Ethernet or WiFi) and your TV, and all stream some 75 channels of Internet content, including Netflix and Amazon on demand video services, Major League Baseball broadcasts, Pandora, Shoutcast and other Internet radio services, and Flickr, Picasa and Facebook photo sharing sites. As before, you're responsible for maintaining your accounts on all for-pay services.
You add and remove channels through the Roku channel store, which requires setting up an account on Roku's website and associating it with your unit (a process similar to setting up a Netflix on demand account for any device that supports the service). However one of the reasons I'm less excited about Roku than I used to be is that it still doesn't support YouTube or any of the big TV-show services such as Vudu or Hulu.
I checked out a shipping version of the top of the line Roku XDS, which offers 1080p support (the original HD models topped out at 720p), a USB port for playing content on an external drive, and integrated dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi. At £64, it costs less than the high def unit I bought last year, and is almost half the size (Roku accurately describes it as sandwich-sized).
But having a smaller set top box isn't that important to me, it's not like a cell phone that I carry on my person, after all, and Roku's claim that it's now easier to take the unit with you doesn't resonate since the old unit wasn't exactly huge and weighty. Also, there are several gotchas relating to the new features.
For starters, 1080p support is less useful than it sounds for two reasons. Very little 1080p Internet media is available for streaming at this time, and even if you find 1080p content, according to Roku, you'll need 5mbps Internet service to stream 1080p content via the box. Roku provided links to some 1080p videos on Vimeo, and they looked good on my 1080p set, but the feature would be a lot more compelling if it could offer content that I'd otherwise have to get on Blu-ray: big screen movies or TV shows, for example.
The USB port for sideloaded content requires setting up a private channel, albeit one which won't be publicly available (through the Roku Channel Store) until October. But in my tests, this was also disappointing because it only supports video in .mp4 and .m4v formats (Roku says it will be adding .mov support at launch), .mp3 audio files, and .jpg and .png still images. I would have liked to see .avi video support, at the very least.
Dual band WiFi could be useful to people who can't network a Roku using ethernet, and are in an environment where lots of neighbors are using 2.4Ghz WiFi, which can make smooth video streaming problematic if not impossible. The ability to use 5Ghz WiFi can help, but you will need a 5Ghz 802.11n router to take advantage of 5Ghz 802.11n's ability to support many more simultaneous users. However I still recommend using HomePlug AV powerline networking, rather than depending on any wireless hookup for media streaming.
Another feature the XDS offers is an optical audio output, but again, this will only appeal to a small subset of users who are depending on the unit's component video hookup, but want superior digital audio quality. Like all the units in the line, the XDS also has HDMI and component video outputs.
Finally, the XDS offers a redesigned remote, with a convenient instant replay button to show the previous seven seconds of video, and an information button that brings up channel info and is also accessible to channel store programmers for additional features. The new remote is skinnier than the original Roku remote, and about the height of a iPhone.
The refreshed line includes two other units. The Roku XD has everything the XDS has except for the USB, component video, and optical audio ports and dual band WiFi support, it only supports 2.4ghz 802.11n Wi-Fi. The Roku HD additionally dispenses with 1080p support (it only supports 720p output), does not support 802.11n WiFi and has the original remote.
Roku still makes easy to use media streamers at reasonable prices, but these new units don't represent a great leap forward. I would have been more excited to see a significantly upgraded channel line-up, and would recommend looking closely at Roku's content offerings before investing in any of these units. If you're new to media streamers and want channel content (more than your own content), Roku's models may work well. As an owner of an older unit, I see no compelling reason to upgrade.