Netgear Roku XD: Streaming for the Massesby Alan Lueke on November 12, 2010 12:30 PM EST
Performance Breakdown and Final Words
As with most media streamers, there isn't much to say about the performance. The main questions are whether it streams seamlessly, and can it do HD content? In this case, the answer is yes on both counts. The Roku XD delivers a Netflix and Amazon VOD interface I found easy to navigate and responsive, although the remote seemed to delay inputs for me on occasion. I'm not sure if that is because of the positioning of the box, but I experienced issues even when I had a clear line of sight.
The Roku XD lists full 1080p support; most streaming sites limit their offerings to 720p or 1080i so it's tough to see 1080p support as much of an advantage over the $20 cheaper HD model that only supports the lower HD formats. Oddly enough, even the OS menus are at 720p according to my TV. Anyway, while 1080p support is there on the XD, I'm not sure the content is unless you want to venture into the YouTube realm. 1080p streaming support could be coming to Netflix in 2011, so if that's important it may be worth your while to buy the XD to extend the lifespan of the box. Even then, only 1080p24 and 1080p30 are supported by the XD and XD/S; 1080p60 is not supported.
As far as practical testing, I connected wirelessly to my 2.4 GHz band 802.11n network and tried some HD content through Netflix. I was impressed that my quality was set to HD over the wireless connection and connective via Ethernet wasn't necessary; sure, local WiFi ought to run faster than any streaming service but you never know. If your wireless connection speed drops for whatever reason during playback, the Roku Netflix channel will briefly exit the movie and rebuffer. (We confirmed this by starting several other downloads on our PC while the Roku was busy playing a move.) Our experience is that the Roku adjusts your stream quality to a lower setting to ensure stoppage free playback from that point on. However, should the bandwidth increase again the Roku continued to play the lower quality stream unless playback was manually stopped and restarted, so it's not a dynamic adjustment. The image quality was easily a match for what I typically enjoy through windows media center; it lacks some of the features that are typically present with a PC using a decent video card, but the image quality was excellent on my LCD TV. The UI may not be as elegant as some of the other offerings out there, but the box will stream web content in acceptable HD quality over wireless or wired.
While the Roku XD doesn't have some of the great styling of its competition from Logitech and Apple and Boxee, it does have excellent advantages that I think make this box a winner. First and foremost, it has a solid channel selection with an active development community that is bringing more and more content to the box—a must for any device of this type. If there isn't an active development community to bring new media to your box, it won't be long before it is obsolete.
The other thing the Roku brings you is a competitive price. At $80 for the basic Roku XD version we tested, you get a media streaming box with excellent streaming channel support, especially once Hulu is live, with 1080p HD support over HDMI. This puts it slightly below the list price of the Apple TV that lacks 1080p support, and it's in a completely different league from the Revue ($299), Boxee ($199) and Xbox ($199, $299). Those others offer keyboards and elegant UIs but not much additional streaming content over the Roku. At 5.9W of power consumption while streaming video, it also uses quite a bit less power than some of the larger devices, even if it's slightly above the numbers posted by the Apple TV.
Beyond the price, what may give this Box a chance for use in more homes is the inclusion of composite video. There are quite a few consumers who don't have the latest gaming consoles, and many homes don't even have an HDTV. HD content from your cable or satellite provider can likewise be expensive, not to mention adding a Blu-ray player and a receiver that is capable of decoding HD audio codecs. For the home theater enthusiast with all of those items, sure, there are other options for a media streamer. But what about a box that brings you Netflix and Hulu and other streaming options that will connect to your old tube TV?
The Roku is the type of device that can bring the streaming experience to a whole new audience—those without expensive HD equipment who may not have a game console, HTPC, or another device filling that role. Money will still need to be doled out for a broadband internet connection, but if you hook the thing up to an SDTV, you're not going to need a super fast connection either. All in all the Roku is an excellent product for those who want to cut the cable TV cord and the associated costs but don't want to invest heavily in new home theater equipment. For that type of user, I would definitely recommend the Roku as a way to join the streaming TV revolution and start watching what you want when you want, and the $60 price for the HD version is tough to beat.
For users with HD setups, the recommendation is less emphatic. If you're looking for something to provide streaming services on your HDTV with good image quality and a low price, the Roku HD will fit the bill. If you're looking to stream 1080p content as that becomes available, you may want to upgrade to the $80 or $100 model for the better wireless chip inside; the $100 version supports dual-band as well for added throughput. But if you'd like additional bells and whistles, such as excellent support for local media streaming, a futuristic UI, keyboard, ability to play games, etc. you may want to look at some of the more expensive options, or perhaps put together a basic HTPC. But if all you want to do is add streaming media services to any TV in your home, you can't really go wrong with the Roku.