Roku’s New Internet TV Boxes: Better, Cheaper, Smaller–and Ready to Take on Apple TV

By  |  Wednesday, September 22, 2010 at 6:00 pm

How will Roku’s little Internet TV boxes fare in the market against the generally similar new $99 Apple TV which will ship in the next two or three weeks?  We still don’t know. But now we know that Apple will compete with an all-new lineup of Rokus. There’s nothing radical about them, but they sport some nice tweaks to an already appealing gizmo–and all three models deliver more oomph for your buck than the ones they replace.

As before, there are three models, but now even the cheapest one, the $59.99 Roku HD, does 720p HD. The $79.99 Roku XD adds better Wi-Fi (802.11-n instead of g), and the $99.99 Roku XDS has dual-band 802.11-n, component and optical output (all three versions have HDMI and composite), and a USB connector. (The USB will let you access your own content off USB storage devices, via a software update which Roku plans to push out in November.)

Roku loaned me an XDS to try, and the dual-band 802.11-n does seem to help: When I tried the earlier HD-XR model, it sometimes choked when I did something bandwidth-intensive on another device, such as watch YouTube on my laptop. So far, the XDS hasn’t hiccuped once.

All three versions have a new, lower-profile case: I used to say that the Roku was the size of an overstuffed club sandwich, but now it’s closer to PB&J.  (It’s a little bigger than the tiny new Apple TV, but only slightly so.) There’s a new remote control that’s skinnier and longer, and the version that ships with the XD and XDS has an Instant Replay button that lets you jump back ten seconds in the video you’re watching.

Roku’s setup is still among the best in the business: The first screen told me that it would take about five minutes, but I was up and running in about three. Adding channels such as Netflix Watch Instantly, Amazon Video on Demand, MLB, and Pandora takes just a few clicks, equally divided between the Roku and a browser on your computer.

Did I mention channels? As always, they’re ultimately what makes Roku interesting. Between Netflix and Amazon, there’s a surging sea of movies and TV shows in SD and HD, including all-you-can-watch options (Netflix) and rentals and purchases (Amazon). There’s sports (baseball and UFC) and news. There’s music in both free (Pandora, and paid (MOG, Sirius XM) flavors. There are your own photos (Picasa, Facebook). There’s even a little news, via a channel Roku Newscaster that provides access to newsy podcasts. You can browse and install dozens of optional channels, insuring that Roku will be a gateway to a broader array of stuff than the new Apple TV will offer, at least at first.

Apple TV will have HD movies and TV episodes, but the only TV networks that are signed up so far are ABC and FOX, and there’s no equivalent to Roku’s profusion of specialty channels, or its spots. And while Roku lets you buy movies as well as rent them, the only way to purchase a film or TV show for Apple TV will be to download it to a PC or iOS device, then stream it to the Apple TV box. On the other hand, Roku doesn’t do streaming from other devices around your house at all; the only way to get your own media onto Roku is to upload it to a Web-based service or (with the new XDS) to plug it in on a USB storage device once the software update ships.

At Apple’s press event last month, Steve Jobs seemed pretty confident that the new Apple TV will have the best implementation of Netflix on a set-top box to date. I’m curious to try it out. Roku’s is slick, and works great as long as you’re searching for a title–but it doesn’t let you find movies or shows by looking up actors or other personnel.

The new Rokus are available immediately. I can’t render a verdict on Apple TV until I’ve tried one, of course. But I’m pretty sure that Roku will still be in the game–especially considering that it has not only a $100 box but $80 and $60 models, too. Stay tuned for a hands-on comparison once I can kick back with both companies’ boxes.

[Full disclosure: I’m helping Roku judge its developer contest.]


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6 Comments For This Post

  1. Jindo Fox Says:

    Thanks for posting this, Harry — ever since we first saw the AppleTV, I was wondering what the new streaming box could do that Roku has been doing for a long time. Neither product is super-compelling to me (I have a half-dozen ways to see Netflix streaming already), and I don't see non-geeks lining up to get yet another set-top box.

  2. dholyer Says:

    I just upgraded to a dish 722k, and the Roko device looks like a nice toy to add in the future. But I'll be waiting for the Google TV to come out and see how it compares. I use to do netflicks. The nice thing about a DSL line is I can try these new toys out and see which works best. Who remembers the old time of only 3 networks and if you where lucky you also had PBS. And you thought 3 or four channels was heaven, as where today 283/163 in HD on Dish, and at least 500 on the World Wide Web. What will it be like in 2050? Will the three prime networks even still be around, in the 1000+ channels there will be. Will Max Headroom come true?

    So many possibility's and many more questions, but I'll let others come from the millions that want to ask them. And do not be afraid to ask them, because asking will help build the future of the Video Domain as TV becomes history.

  3. kent Says:

    dont know where to get a xds, please help

  4. Mark Ezrin Says:

    I love my Roku and never have any problems with netflix. However, they haven't figured out that to be a true media player, they need to offer streaming (i.e. NOT USB) of my PC and NAS based home movies and pictures. Every other media player does this. Don't give me a cute, fancy 3rd paety channel. Just recognize the rest of my network.

  5. Laura Says:

    I am sick and tired of paying satelite companys for tv where I am at the mercy of what they pick for me to watch. I am not real computer and electronic savy, all I want out of my tv is to be able to pick and choose my movies or tv shows. I love Netflix and Hulu for that reason and it dosen't cost me hundreds of dollars a year. The Roku sounds like just what I am looking for at home as long as there is a good news station that plays FOX we will be more that pleased with Roku. Anxious to try it out.

  6. Carolyn Says:

    I think I would want the Roku , but am not sure which one. If I want to use it with two or more tvs will the XDS probably be the one I want. I do have high speed internet,but do not have a box to get HD. Also, I like it being wireless, but is it really or do I have to hook up a cable of some sort? I just want to get more movies etc. on my TV, not needing to get pictures/videos from my computer at this time. Maybe I will do that later. Could I use the box without hooking up wires and then add the wires later if I want to? Any info. you can give me would be helpful, but make it easy for me to understand….signed, not good at hooking things up to anything. Thanks in advance.