A look at Roku's new line of digital media players

Aug 11, 2011 By Troy Wolverton

Getting video from the Internet to your TV used to be a difficult, costly procedure. That's no longer the case.

Consumers have a large and growing number of options for watching digital videos downloaded or streamed from the Net, ranging from digital set-top boxes to Blu-ray players to video game consoles to Internet-connected TVs. However, one of the best choices has been Roku's line of players, which are even more attractive now that the company has updated its line.

Introduced three years ago, Roku's players are inexpensive, easy to use and simple to set up. The new models - collectively dubbed the Roku 2 - are smaller and more energy-efficient. The range of content available on them is among the broadest you'll find among digital media adapters. And the devices have a new trick: the ability to play casual games such as "Angry Birds" with a motion-sensing controller similar to the one with Nintendo's .

Roku's first digital player was extremely limited. All it could do was play videos streamed from - a fact reflected in its original name: the Netflix Player.

Roku quickly dropped the "Netflix" appellation and steadily added access to new Internet content providers-all while keeping the price of its players at $100 or less. Today, you can choose from some 300 "channels."

You can now watch movies on Netflix or Amazon or TV shows hosted by Hulu. You can listen to music from digital music services such as Pandora and MOG, view photos you've uploaded to or Picasa or personal videos you've uploaded to Facebook. You can even watch live professional sports, including and NHL hockey games and UFC fights. Roku also provides access to numerous international TV shows and movies, and even to private channels that can be set up by businesses or individual users.

There are still some notable gaps in its lineup. You won't find YouTube in Roku's channel store, for example. Nor will you find Vudu, the high-quality video streaming service. And the device doesn't include a Web browser that would allow you to access videos found on less popular websites but not in one of its channels.

Still, Roku's channel list compares favorably to what you'll find on Apple TV box or on the typical Internet-connected TV. And the addition of games gives the Roku box digital content you can't find with Apple TV and many other digital media adapters.

"Angry Birds" looks great on the Roku 2 and works relatively well once you get used to using a motion-sensing controller rather than a touch screen. Roku representatives say it's just the first of many high-quality casual games you'll be able to play on the Roku 2 box.

The company's new controller - which only works with the Roku 2 players - should help it attract additional games. Shaped like its standard 8-button remote control, it adds motion detectors as well as two buttons specifically for playing simple games. Turned on its side, the new controller looks a bit like the gamepads used with older Nintendo consoles.

To be sure, you won't be replacing your Wii or Xbox 360 with a Roku 2 anytime soon, if ever. Its game selection is sparse and unimpressive beyond "Angry Birds," consisting of a handful of simple, low-resolution, single-player card and dice games like poker and mah-jongg. But it could soon be a fun way to play on your big-screen TV the kinds of casual games that have become popular on smartphones.

Content aside, the Roku 2 players are nice pieces of hardware. At little more than three inches square and less than an inch tall, the devices are even smaller than the pint-size Apple TV. Like the Apple TV, but unlike the Boxee Box, say, or the video game consoles, the Roku 2s are whisper-quiet and super-efficient, using less than 2 watts when streaming a high-definition movie. And their controller and interface are in the same vein as Apple TVs: simple, streamlined and much easier to use than your typical TV remote or game console.

What makes the Roku 2 boxes particularly appealing are their prices. The lowest-end model costs just $60. The top-of the line model is $100, but includes "Angry Birds" and the new game controller, which is a $30 add-on for the other models.

There are some ways in which the Roku 2 comes up short. One major and long-standing problem with the Roku players is that you can't search them easily. There's no search box in the Roku channel store nor on the Roku's 2 home page, so you may find yourself scrolling through dozens of channels to find the one you want. The devices also don't offer any way to search across different channels for a particular movie or TV show. Instead, you have to search within particular channels for videos, hoping that you picked the right channel to search.

Unlike the Apple TV or some other digital adapters, the Roku players don't easily connect to computers or other devices on your network, so you generally can't stream movies or music to the players from such devices.

So the new Roku 2 players aren't perfect. But if you're interested in getting Internet content on to your TV, they're a darn good choice.

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ROKU 2 DIGITAL MEDIA

-Likes: Offer broad range of content; easy to use; inexpensive; quiet; energy-efficient; can play games

-Dislikes: No way to search for particular channels or across channels for particular videos; no Web browser and no way to access content not available through existing channels; no easy way to access home videos or other content stored on home network; sparse selection of games

-How much: $60 for HD model; $80 for XD model, which supports 1080p video; $100 for XS model, which includes "," game controller and USB port

-Web: roku.com

Explore further: Tech gifts for the geek who already has everything

More information: Troy Wolverton is a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.

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