When Roku's original set-top box launched last year, it did one thing, simply and well: Allow Netflix (NFLX) customers to view Internet-delivered movies instantly on their televisions. With new models and content sources, Roku is doing a growing number of things—still simply and well. The new hardware and content give Roku a spot in the race to control how Net-delivered entertainment finds its way onto your big TV. With the field growing more crowded by the day, though, no one is close to claiming victory.
Roku's black box is about the size of a stack of four CD cases, and it's all but invisible on a shelf with other gear. There are now three models: A $79 entry-level box provides only a standard-definition signal; the $99 model provides higher-definition connections, including HDMI; and the $129 HD-XR works with the latest Wi-Fi standard, called 802.11n.
Setup is dead easy. Plug the Roku box into a TV and a wall socket and it automatically locates and displays all available wireless networks. Just select yours using the simple remote control and enter a password, if you have one. 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; Amazon.com's (AMZN) Video on Demand service, which claims more than 50,000 titles you can either rent or purchase and store on Amazon's servers; and the MLB.TV Premium service, which, for a fee, streams live out-of-market baseball games.
Accessing those services can be a bit of a pain. You'll need to set up accounts on your computer or, if you already have an account, log into it and enter an activation code from the TV screen. I'm ashamed to admit I ran up and down the stairs between den and computer a few times before realizing I could enter the codes on the browser of my smartphone.
Once I was set up, the fact that I was watching content streaming over the Net was entirely irrelevant. Video played without stutters or interruptions. I could stop, rewind, or fast-forward, navigating via handy thumbnail images on the screen. Picture quality varied depending on which connection cables I used, but was never any worse than on a DVD or on cable.
Roku's new channel store adds access to photos stored on Flickr and Facebook, videos from blip.tv, Revision3, and Mediafly, and music from Pandora's Internet radio service. You can also use MobileTribe, a paid service that aggregates content from your social networks.
Still, Roku provides no DVD-type extra content, nor solutions for accessing hulu.com's TV programming or YouTube. And I wonder how important some of its 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.
Roku faces an imposing list of contenders. Among them, Microsoft (MSFT) and Sony (SNE) deliver Net content via their game consoles, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, while Apple (AAPL) keeps nibbling at the edges of the market with its Apple TV. Boxee, whose software lets computer users locate, play, and share videos, just announced it's working with manufacturer D-Link on a device that brings this capability to your TV.
These days it matters less and less whether content is piped over the Net, cable, satellite, the airwaves, 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.
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