Roku 2 XS Review : Streaming Videos and Casual Gaming on the Big Screenby Ganesh T S on September 30, 2011 11:59 AM EST
The strength of Roku lies in its developer support. Due to the fact that Roku came in early in the game, developers in the video content delivery space became used to dealing with them. The result is the large number of user contributed channels / private channels. Unlike Boxee (which is also a very attractive platform for the same developers), Roku wasn't burdened with a history of operating in the PC platform. Therefore, the apps have a more natural and intuitive interface compared to their equivalents on the Boxee platform. Note that this might not be true for all apps, but this was the case in the four or five random apps that I tried out.
Many of the good legal streaming apps are subscription based and require a monthly fee, but there are some ad-supported channels like Crackle and Popcornflix which offer an acceptable selection of movies and TV shows. Google searches reveal a host of private channels which don't appear in the channel store directly. Roku Channels hosts a user maintained database of the private Roku channels. These channels offer even more interesting content. For example, Nowhere TV gives access to all the movies available on archive.org. It also brings channels such as Al Jazeera English, France 24 and Deutsche Welle to the table. The Roku box is a boon for America's immigrant population, enabling them to catch up with the TV shows from their home country without paying a hefty premium to their TV service provider. The gallery below shows the extensive channel choices available.
Unfortunately, all is not well in Roku 2 land. Because of the core SoC's support for only H.264 content, many channels which used to work without issues in previous generation players do not work any more. There is also the inherent problem with network bandwidth and other bottlenecks (not only at the consumer's end, but also the channel provider's end). Many a time (particularly with channels like Popcornflix and Crackle), I was able to start a movie and view the initial advertisement. Right as the movie was about to start, Roku would go back to the channel's main screen. I would repeat the process multiple times (and end up watching the ads again and again). Sometimes, the movie would start up after a few tries. Other times, I ended up moving to a completely different channel. (I ended up considering that as the TV channel surfing equivalent for Roku). This sort of channel behavior doesn't bode well if Roku wants to cater to the non-techie crowd.
Roku doesn't control what type of videos get broadcast on their private channels. I suspect the channels in their store aren't curated well enough either. A screenshot from one of the channel store apps below shows a video from questionable sources being broadcast (not that consumers are going to complain, I guess). The channel was a free one, but there was also a paid subscription option. It is not clear whether all the paid subscription channels have the appropriate rights to the content being broadcast.
Broadcast Video of Questionable Legality on the Roku 2 (Channel Name Withheld on Purpose)
Out of all the apps that I tested on the Roku 2, the only ones that worked without issue 100% of the time were Netflix, Angry Birds, and some of the other trivial game apps. Most of the free / ad-supported video streaming channels were hit or miss. The fact that the wireless network is 2.4GHz only is also a big problem, particularly in locations where channel interference is likely. The two snaps in the gallery below show how the available wireless bandwidth can fluctuate wildly when shifting between two streams in the same channel one after the other. Wired connections work best and always help in taking at least one of the variables out of the equation when you see a video streaming channel misbehave.
Network media streaming boxes such as Roku and Boxee present a large number of apps to the users. While Roku one-ups Boxee with support for 1080p video as well as DD+ 5.1 audio in the Netflix app, Boxee scores by having support for Vudu as well as YouTube officially. The status of channel availability keeps changing, but Vudu and YouTube are two apps that are conspicuous by their absence in the Roku 2. An official YouTube app is supposed to be on the way. There are also adult channels available on Roku 2, and the absence of stricter parental controls on the box has been cited as an issue by many users.