Product Design Reviews

Product Design Review: Roku


Commentary by Rich Jaroslovsky

(Bloomberg) — When Roku's original TV set-top box arrived last year, it did one thing, simply and well: allow Netflix Inc.'s customers to view Internet-delivered movies instantly on their televisions.

Roku's devices, no longer with "Netflix" in their name, these days are doing a growing number of things—still simply, and still well.

The company has introduced two new models: the HD-XR, which takes advantage of the faster speed and greater range of current-generation wireless networks, and the low-end SD. And with the addition of live Major League Baseball games last summer and additional content sources this fall, Roku has started to broaden its available programming.

Together, the new hardware and content give Roku a spot in the race to control how Net-delivered entertainment will find its way onto the big flat-panel screen in the den or living room. With the field growing more crowded by the day, though, no one is close to claiming victory.

On Dec. 7, Boxee Inc., whose software lets users locate, play and share online videos on Windows and Mac computers, said it's working with Taiwan-based manufacturer D-Link Corp. on a device for televisions. Microsoft Corp. and Sony Corp. already deliver Internet content over their TV-connected Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 game consoles, and TiVo Inc., Vudu Inc. and Syabas Technology Inc. with its Popcorn Hour line are among others jostling for position.

Apple NibblingThat doesn't even take into account the growing number of Internet-enabled TVs and Blu-ray video-disc players. Plus, of course, Apple Inc., which continues to nibble around the edges of the market with its Apple TV.

Physically, Roku's black box couldn't be further removed from Apple's styling ethos. About the size of a stack of four CD cases, it's so unobtrusive as to be all but invisible. For a device built around simplicity, that is sort of the point.

The rear of the $79 SD base model has jacks for standard- definition video and audio cables to connect the box to a TV, an Ethernet port that you may or may not use, and connection for the power adapter. That's it.

I tested the two higher-definition models: the $99 HD and the $129 HD-XR. They include options for a wider variety of connections: S-Video, component video, optical audio and HDMI.

Newer NetworksThe main difference between the two is that the XR takes advantage of the newest Wi-Fi standard, called 802.11n, in addition to the older "b" and "g" networks the other two models work with.

Set-up is dead-solid easy. You plug the box into the TV, and into an electric outlet; it then automatically locates all available wireless networks. You select yours, and enter your network password using the exceedingly simple remote control.

Out of the box, Roku provides three sources of programming: Netflix, which gives customers of its DVDs-by-mail service unlimited access to a library of some 17,000 movies and TV shows that can be watched instantly over the Internet; Amazon.com Inc.'s Video on Demand service, which claims more than 50,000 titles available either for rental or for purchase and storage on Amazon's servers; and the MLB.TV Premium service, which, for a fee, streams live out-of-market baseball games.

Access PainCompared with the ease of setting up the box itself, accessing content for the first time can be a bit of a pain. For the most part, you'll need to use a computer to set up individual accounts with each programming source if you don't already have one.

Then, Roku generates activation codes on the TV screen that have to be entered on the services' Web sites. I'm ashamed to admit I ran up and down the stairs between den and computer a couple times before it occurred to me to use my smart phone's browser to enter the needed codes from there.

Once I was set up, the fact that I was watching content streaming in real time over the Internet became entirely irrelevant. Video played without stutters or interruptions. I could stop, rewind or fast-forward, navigating via handy thumbnail images on the TV screen. Picture quality varied depending on which connection cables I used, but was never any worse than watching a DVD or a movie on cable.

The channel store, which launched last month, adds among other things access to photographs on Facebook and Yahoo! Inc.'s Flickr, videos from blip.tv, Revision3 and Mediafly, and music from Pandora's Internet radio service. Another channel, MobileTribe, provides a service that aggregates content from your various social and sharing networks in one place.

Missing PiecesStill, I found myself wishing for things Roku so far doesn't have—DVD-type extra content, for instance, as well as access to hulu.com's TV programming and YouTube. At the same time, I wonder just how appealing some of the more cutting-edge channels will prove to be in a device that, after all, is designed to be easy enough for your Aunt Agatha to use.

As technology blurs boundaries, it matters less and less whether content is delivered via Internet, cable, satellite, over the air or stored on a hard drive. What does matter is that it gets delivered with a maximum of choice and a minimum of fuss. Roku already has a pretty good handle on the minimum-of- fuss part.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Rich Jaroslovsky in New York at rjaroslovsky@bloomberg.net.

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