Component Reviews

Roku HD Internet Entertainment Set-Top Box

There is a lot to like about the Roku. Some may decide that what the Roku offers is more than enough for them.

Published on December 2, 2009

Roku HD Internet Entertainment Set-Top Box

Roku HD Internet Entertainment
Set-Top Box

SRP: $99
888-600-7658
http://www.roku.com/


Basic Description
Set-top box that allows instant viewing of over 50,000 movies, television shows and major league baseball (from Netflix, Amazon Video on Demand and MLB.com) to any television.  The Roku requires a wired or wireless high-speed Internet connection.  Unit includes a basic remote and standard analog audio cables and a composite video cable.  A connection speed of at least 1.2 Mbps is required for digital video, 2.5 Mbps for high quality and 4.0 Mbps is recommended for HD;  30-day money back guarantee; one year warranty. ~5.125 x 5.125 x 1.75 H; ~ 1 pound; no fan!

Associated Equipment
System 1: Marantz VP-11S1 DLP Projector, Meridian 568 Preamplifier, Sunfire Cinema Grand Amplifier, Bowers and Wilkins Signature 8NT and CDMDS8 speakers, PS Audio Power Plant Premier AC Regenerator, Audioquest cabling.

System 2: Samsung HPT-5064 50” Plasma Television, Eazy 6 Preamplifier, Rotel RMB-1066 Amplifier, Bowers and Wilkins Signature 7NT speakers, Monster HTPS-7000 Signature Power Conditioner, basic cables.

Setup and Product Details
I did read through the setup guide that comes with the Roku HD and for most people that will be enough to get them started.  I describe the pieces and process in more detail below.

Cables.  The basic package does not come with a digital audio cable or video cables that will support an HD signal.  For those that need it, Roku sells a premium cable accessory that includes a 6’ HDMI cable, a 6’ component video cable, and a 6’ optical cable for only $20!  At the time I asked for the Roku for review I didn’t know that this kit existed otherwise I would have requested it, but I’m sure it is fine as a basic kit.  For those into this as a hobby, you are likely going to want to get upgrade cables.  For system 1 I connected a long HDMI cable that runs directly to the projector and ran the audio into the preamplifier via both analog and optical digital audio.  For system two I used analog audio and component video cables.

Power On and Basic Setup.  When I applied power (there is no power switch) the picture came up and I was prompted to go through the initial setup.  I utilized a wireless connection so I manually entered the password and a connection was established almost instantly.  (Later when I used a wired connection there was no need to change any of the settings—the device locked onto the Internet immediately.)  The system needed a software update (~2 minutes) and a restart (~2 minutes).  The display type choices are HDTV (720p), 16×9 Anamorphic (480p), and 4:3 Standard Definition.  I didn’t try the standard definition setting.  Note: the box does not offer a 1080i HD setting, so many will not be able to take advantage of the better quality offered by this box (as many older HD televisions do not accept a native 720p signal).

Source/Media Material.  In addition to offering the ability to watch Netflix “instant view” material (currently over 12,000 choices), there is also Amazon Video on Demand (over 40,000 choices) and feeds from MLB.com available with the Roku.  Baseball season won’t start till next year, so I was limited to Netflix and Amazon.  I already have an unlimited Netflix subscription (necessary if you want to play videos for free), so this was an ideal way to start testing.  The basic unlimited plan starts at $8.99 per month.  To use Amazon you’ll need to set up an account online (free) and then it will function just like a satellite or cable PPV service (so you pay as you go).  The big difference is the amount of movies/TV shows that can be accessed instantly (over 50,000).

The Roku Website.  Normally I wouldn’t dedicate a section to the website of a product under review, but this website is so well done it necessitated an exception.  It is well laid out, has an easy-to-understand introductory video right on the front page, and the links make sense!  I recommend watching the video for anyone who thinks they might be purchasing one of these products.  The Products section goes right to a comparison so you can see the difference between the three models (the HDXR has wireless N and a future-use USB port for $130, the SD is standard definition quality for $80 and the HD version is the unit being tested).  The Help section has tons of questions and answers about the product including pictures.

Remote.  I wish every remote could be this simple.  There are only nine buttons: home, forward and reverse, play/pause, up, down, left, right and select.  A trick that took me a while to figure out was to just push the up button to go back one screen rather than having to go all the way back to the home screen.  Also, the Roku remembers where you are in a movie so you can start right back up from where you left off.

Netflix Setup.  In order to set the Roku up to work with Netflix it is necessary to get a code from the unit, log on to your Netflix account from a computer and enter that code.  In about 15 seconds the Roku was ready to play some of the films that were in my Instant View queue.  I decided to take a few minutes and add some more films to my Instant View queue (which is as easy to do as adding to the regular queue).  When you’ve found a movie you want to add you just go to the add section for Instant View and click “add to my instant view queue.”  Note: This can only be done from a computer and not the Roku unit itself.

Advanced Setup.  After my update, my software revision was 2.3 build 78.  When I checked my network strength the Roku listed it as “excellent.”  There is a stereo/surround option in the audio section of the setup menu.  The unit cautions you against selecting the 5.1 setting when only using two speakers and the analog audio output, but I did and it worked fine in two channels in on System 2.  The screensaver menu offers 5 min/10 min/30 min/none adjustment.  The sound effects that the Roku makes when you use the remote are adjustable as well in high/medium/low/off settings.


Netflix Operation

The Roku stays on all the time (with little power draw) and is quick.  Any selection would make a sound and have an effect in a second.  I first used the supplied remote and then I programmed my universal remote to work the unit from other rooms.  There was already a code set for the Roku box in the Universal Remote Control database (under AUX components).

Once I had selected Netflix, all the cover art for the movies in my instant queue came up.  The selected movie is larger than the others and you can scroll from side to side to cycle through.  I could see how having more than 30-40 films could be a tedious process going from beginning to end.  The online FAQ recommends only putting about 50 selections in the queue although I believe the limit is 500.

After the title is selected, information about the selection comes up such as the actors, viewing time, year, rating, synopsis, director and genre.  From this point you have the option to rate the film (like normal for Netflix users) or to play it.  During the film you can fast forward and reverse.  When you select either of those functions or “pause,” a screen comes up showing elapsed time and remaining time and frames that show what is behind and what is forward from the current position.  When the film is done you can delete the film from your queue as well.  If you leave the machine by itself when a movie is not playing a screensaver comes up.

Amazon Operation

With Amazon you have the choice to Search for a film, go to HD Movie Rentals, browse Movies, look up HD TV Shows, regular TV Shows, check for Specials, or search Your Video Library.  Within some of the categories are either movie genres (i.e. Comedy, Drama, Sci-fi, Action & Adventure, etc) or categories like Top, New, Latest, Free TV (with about 30-40 selections), Channels (for your fix of Gossip Girl and Life at $3 an episode), A-Z search and even one for the Criterion Collection (although there were only about 30 choices mostly at $4).  The Special Deals section had some markdowns for $5 DVD sales.

Current episodes of Mad Men are $2 a pop and there are special pre-theatrical film releases that were $11 each.  HD rentals range in price anywhere from $4-6 each with some as low as $3.  When you select the film or show you would like to watch you are given different options depending on the title.  “Angels and Demons” had an HD rental for $5, a SD rental for $4, a purchase for $15 and a free preview for two minutes.  Some discs may have different rental policies so make sure you know what you are getting into.  One I clicked on allowed 24 hours of viewing starting from purchase, while another said 48 hours after you begin to watch.

The purchase information is available to read over (I got to it by clicking on an info area).  If you purchase movies and shows you can watch online or via a connected device and download to two locations like a PC or a DVR.  Also, your download can be transferred to two portable devices.  All this is subject to licensing restrictions—meaning that it is possible that Big Brother can turn off what you have purchased making it impossible to watch it.

Video Quality
The first film I viewed was “Blazing Saddles” (on System 1) which loaded up with three out of four possible circles of quality.  The signal quality and load times depend on connection speed.  I ran a connection test that is available at www.speedtest.net .  My download connection speed averaged 3.4 Mb/s and my upload speed was .65 Mb/s.  As mentioned above, a slower connection speed reduces the quality of the video—more on this later.  Load time took about 10 seconds.  As the video was blown up to roughly 100 inches in diagonal I was able to rate the quality relatively easily.  First I should mention that the video was 2.35:1.  The quality (and aspect ratio) reminded me of laserdisc.  It was somewhat better than what I have come to expect from standard definition viewing on satellite.  Keep in mind this was with the video output set to 720p.  When I did a resume after return to the menu, the quality increased to four out of four circles.  The quality was not markedly different.  The next film I viewed was “Hancock” and with the four star quality download the picture was better.  I’d say it looked close to DVD at times.

I decided to check out a TV series and picked “Californication, Season 1” (on System 2).  The introductory screen was a little different from before as I was able to select various episodes and the summaries came up for each.  When I had finished an episode the ones I had viewed were grayed out, so I could tell what the next one was if I came back to play one later.  When a particular episode finished I now had the option to play the next one directly.  The user interface (UI) was always quick and easy to work.  It was obviously designed by someone who actually uses such things.

There are never any trailers or warning screens like with DVDs.  Nor are there any specials or extras included.  Occasionally you can find extras available for free download on Amazon.  I didn’t buy or rent anything from Amazon, because I’m cheap and they don’t pay me enough.  However, I did take some time to hunt down some free material and the video quality was similar to what I had experienced with Netflix.

HD material is labeled on the screen after clicking on its picture and is shown below the title cover art with Netflix.  Also, you can do searches for just movies/TV that are available in HD.  If you try to play HD material from Amazon while the unit is not set to 720p output (or not getting enough bandwidth) then a screen will come up insisting that you won’t be able to view in HD (and picture quality suffers).  If you don’t have enough bandwidth then you will get this screen as well.  Currently there is no option for 1080i output, so even if you have a fast Internet connection, you might not be able to enjoy material with better picture quality due to your TV’s limitations.

The HD material (and even the selection screen) looked excellent in the 720p mode.  When you start to stream the films/shows in HD there is an “HD” next to the four circles indicating you are getting the best picture quality.  Unfortunately, I would lose signal on occasion and the video would come back without the HD indicator.  At this point the picture would go from better-than-DVD quality to slightly below DVD quality.  I used “The Big Lebowski” DVD and compared back and forth with HD and non-HD streaming from the Roku.  The picture differences were obvious softness and lack of color saturation when not streaming HD.  If you lose HD you can always skip forward or backward manually causing the machine to reload when you hit play.  Sometimes this would jog the device back into HD mode.  As I mentioned above, my connection speed is less than 4 Mb/s so this was the likely cause.

Limitations
So before you rush to your computer to buy one of these it is important to understand the limitations.  

Downloading.  The Roku is a huge data hog.  If I was in the process of downloading anything (from the Internet) at the time I was trying to watch with the Roku I would get all sorts of issues from stuttering to picture artifacts to freezing of the image.  The video would play for a short time and then the reload screen would come up and then a little more playback and then another reload.  This could be a problem if there are any heavy “downloaders” in the household.

Closed Captioning.  I tried a foreign film to see if subtitles automatically came up (which some may not like), but there is definitely no closed captioning option.  This will be a big problem for those who are hearing impaired.

Parental Controls.  Unlike DVD players and satellite/cable, etc. there are no parental control options.  So, if you have something in your queue or the little tykes have figured out how to add a film to your queue then there is no stopping them from seeing traumatic films like “Bambi” and “American Drive-In.”  Just be aware.

Surround Sound and Audio.  Audio material that is available in 5.1 is indicated when you click on the movie cover art (like the HD indication).  However, I was unable to get anything besides a two-channel signal from both the optical output and the HDMI output.  I was easily able to simulate surround and that seemed to work quite well.  Most material doesn’t even show that it comes in surround—matrixed or not.

Video Quality.
  Video quality resembles satellite broadcasting for the most part and only rises above DVD quality when receiving an HD signal.  Much of the material is not available as an HD stream and if your Internet connection is not fast enough then you will not be able to take advantage of it.  Also, your TV will need to have the ability to input 720p (as most new ones do).

Aspect Ratio.  For film purists who rejoiced at the fact that DVD kept the correct aspect ratio no matter what the format of the original film was (1.66:1, 1.85:1, 2.35:1, etc), may be disappointed with the current download situation.  Everything I watched with System 2 was either 1.78:1 (maybe due to cropping) or 1.33:1.  With one of the films I watched, “Greenfingers,” the aspect ratio should have been 1.85:1, but was panned and scanned to 1.33:1.  There is no indication what the format will be before starting the film.

Available Selections.  After about a week of watching at least one film a night, my wife started to complain about the lack of current films available from Netflix.  We could always pay to view them on Amazon, but that defeats the purpose of our unlimited two at a time program with Netflix.  In fact, the DVDs we had received have been just sitting while we enjoyed the ease of flipping through our Instant Queue and watching movies without loading discs.  Also, movies and shows can only be added from a computer and not through the unit directly (with Netflix).

Special Features.  Unless special features are a separate download, then you lose any special features that might be on the DVD had you rented or purchased it.


Conclusion

Years ago if I heard someone talking about downloads replacing physical media I would laugh.  The quality was poor and few people had the patience or know-how to make it all work.  Time has passed and technology is creeping into our lives more and more.  Although I’m not ready to give up my blu-rays or DVDs just yet, some may decide that what the Roku offers is more than enough for them.  For “rental” use the answer is even clearer.  Except on certain films where the best quality of picture and sound is important, the Roku gives you an easy-to-use and instant way to watch media—and in most cases doesn’t cost anything.

For secondary areas the Roku also makes sense.  If you ever miss a current episode on TV, many shows are available for instant download and for $2 or $3 may even cost less than some pay services depending on how much you watch.  There is a lot to like about the Roku.  Even though the review is complete I won’t be removing it from my system anytime soon.

Brian Bloom
big_brian_b@hotmail.com




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