For cheap access to many movies and shows, I dig Best Box TV Roku 2 XS, for $99.
But this is a category where the most honest answer is that it depends what you are looking for–read on for other choices.
(Last Updated January 9, 2013: A whole mess of new streaming boxes debuted at CES but the Roku also got better and is still at the top of the pile. More information in the competition section. )
It offers heaps of content and even plays locally-stored files from an attached USB drive. The XS can stream video and music (thanks to integrated media server software from Plex) and play games to a limited degree too. But the real draw is the 400+ channels listing, low price, and overall simplicity. The Roku has so many different channels because it allows for third party video streaming services to make plug-ins to work with the Roku.
CNet editors John Falcone and David Carnoy give it a 4/5 rating and Editor’s Choice, noting its all-around value: “Put another way, even with the increased competition–most notably in the Apple realm–and despite some shortcomings, the simplicity, affordable price, and superior programming selection of the Roku 2 XS make it the go-to choice for buyers looking for a sub solution for accessing the increasingly attractive panoply of online streaming-media services.”
AnandTech editor Ganesh T S likes the XS as a set-top for the everyman: “As long as the prospective customer understands what he is getting (a very good VoD player for subscription services with Angry Birds on the TV, and the promise of more paid games to come), and is comfortable with the price he is paying for it, there should be no issues.”
Hobbyist Rick Lehrbaum at Deviceguru ran his own Roku XS vs. AppleTV vs. Logitech GoogleTV vs. Boxee vs. NetgearTV N200 face-off. The XS won for basic features (4.6/5) and for overall ease: “By far, Roku is what we recommend most to those who have resolved to cut the cable TV umbilical cord, but haven’t figured out how to go about it yet.”
Many reviewers (including those cited above) initially knocked the Roku XS for its limited file sharing capabilities at the time of launch. Since then, Best Box TV Roku has effectively added DLNA streaming from a computer or server and file transcoding support via a third-party app from Plex. This doesn’t change the device’s native file compatibility (listed in “Key Specs”), but it does add enough practical file support to make most of the initial complaints a non-issue.
The Roku is also constantly improving over time thanks to new deals and firmware updates. Roku just announced at CES that it struck a deal with Time Warner Cable to bring over 300 live cable channels to Roku boxes. Of course, it’s only available to people that actually subscribe to cable and is contingent on what package you have, but still, live cable on an internet streaming box is pretty exciting. The Roku XS 1080p is also among the few devices capable of taking advantage of Netflix’s new “SuperHD” streams (provided your ISP supports the Open Connect protocol).
The XS is still far from perfect. It doesn’t support faster 5GHz Wifi, and it’s a little slow at basics like reading USB attached media. Signing up for channels individually is a hassle, and Roku veterans will note the missing optical and component outs from previous devices.
At Wirecutter, we like to recommend the sole product we would get, but more important than being decisive is being honest about the landscape. We took some initial flak for our choice of the Roku, so we rang Adrian Covert (Gizmodo’s set-top beat reporter) and Dan Nosowitz (Popular Science’s streamer reviewer) for additional perspective.
The verdict? The Roku makes sense as a device for the masses. But the endorsement came with caveats (Nosowitz prefers the Boxee in personal use) and both agreed that there are much, much better options for specific tasks. And everyone was pretty much in agreement on the hard truth: there’s currently no such thing as a perfect media streamer. Some are great at delivering content, others at streaming local files, and some can even handle web surfing. For every advantage there’s an equally limiting setback.
This is why we’re also recommending a few other options. The Roku is our best streamer for the masses, but there are better options for specific tasks:
- Boxee Box is great if you want the most features and don’t care about price. It has top-notch file compatibility, a decent library of content partners, web browsing, and even a cool QWERTY remote. It’s knocked in reviews regularly for minor bugs and crashes, but the UI is smooth. Boxee is also the only device in this lineup (save for AppleTV) that supports AirPlay. It’s iPad app is fantastic for streaming video to the tablet. Licensing disagreements means no Hulu Plus (for now) but if you’re willing to shell out another for Boxee’s HDTV tuner you can watch OTA TV. These individual features can be found in cheaper devices, but if you must have everything in a single box (and don’t mind the added expense) then Boxee is your box. Boxee recently released Boxee TV, which is a cloud-based DVR that lets you record as much as you want, and play back via any device that can load an HTML 5 webpage. However, it’s currently only available in certain markets, only works with over-the-air signals (or unencrypted cable), and has a month subscription. An interesting product for sure, but not really competition for the Roku, at least not yet.
- Western Digital’s TV Live is ideal for streaming files across your own network, but it’s lighter on content and overall stability. It’s perfect if you’re mainly wanting to playback downloaded video files and is also compatible with Plex and other media server software.
- The Xbox 360, connected Blu-ray player, or SmartTV you already own most likely streams Netflix and plays local files too. Fan noise might be a problem with the consoles, but they’re just as capable and offer a lot of the same content. These boxes tend to spin their fans loudly when playing HD video, so there’s that to consider, too.
- AppleTV is a no-brainer for heavy iTunes users. The show/movie library isn’t as big as Roku’s, but AirPlay–the streaming protocol that lets Apple gadgets send video and audio to the AppleTV and your big screen–adds a huge value for anyone with an iPad or iPhone. At it’s also one of the cheapest ways to add AirPlay to your home theater setup.
- Now’s a good time to mention there are Roku 2 boxes. They lose full 1080p HD and ethernet and so we think the extra money is worth it. The XS has angry birds and a motion controller for that, which is useless, but the ethernet is nice to have. If you don’t plan on using a Roku 2 with a wired connection, you can get the Roku 2 XD and save.
- Google’s Nexus Q media streamer is the opposite side of the AppleTV coin; it’s only a great fit for Android users. As of its announcement, it only supported Google’s in-house “Play” services for streaming music, movies, TV, and YouTube. Otherwise, bread and butter services like Netflix and Pandora are MIA which easily puts the Q behind cheaper content powerhouses like the Roku 2. You can’t use it to stream media from most any app like you can on Apple TV. And it costs . Sure, it sports a 25 watt amp for powering speakers, along with micro-HDMI out, optical out, dual-band WiFi, Bluetooth, NFC, and an ethernet port. But I’d rather see a box that plays and streams from any app and many services rather than just “Play” media. Oh look, we’re not alone in thinking this box is a weird, overpriced one. Thankfully though, Google seems to have realized how half-baked the Q was and are now postponing its launch indefinitely so it can spend some more time in the oven. Hopefully they’ll address all the aforementioned issues and make it into something normal people might actually want, but that might just be wishful thinking.
- Roku recently launched the Streaming Stick, which looks like a large USB flash drive. Inside, however, are all the basics of Roku’s regular boxes (including WiFi). It’s the same price as the 2 XS, streams 1080p video, and doesn’t require any external cables. However, you will need a TV with the new MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) interface. This looks just like an HDMI connection, but also transfers power to the connected device. If you bought a mid- or high-end TV in the last year or so, you might have an MHL connector. Check your owners manual, or the back of the TV, as MHL inputs should be labeled as such. The Streaming Stick’s advantage over the 2 XS is only the lack of extra wires, so unless you have a new TV and are looking to reduce clutter, the 2 XS is still our pick.
- LG’s Smart TV Upgrader offers LG’s suite of connected TV features in media streamer form. While it does include a web browser, the current lack of Amazon Instant Video limits its desirability.
- Google TV soldiers on in products like the Logitech Revue, Sony NSZ-GS7, and Vizio Co-Star. None have received many positive reviews. CNET, in their 2.5/5 review of the Co-Star, put it succinctly: “The Google TV software continues to disappoint.” Viewed as just a media streamer, Google TV offers similar streaming services as the Roku, but with a clunkier interface.
- The Asus Qube, which debuted this week at CES, aims to fix Google TV’s interface problem by implementing a–wait for it–cube-based interface involving motion and voice controls. It’s certainly different, but we didn’t find it particularly better than the straightforward navigation offered by Roku.
- The bottom line: You might need a combination of devices (or upgrade to the pricier Boxee) if you want to cover every single base. None of the current devices on the market truly ace the mix of form+function+content+price+advanced features that make a phenomenal streamer. On the bright side, they’re mostly inexpensive.But if you don’t need to more than a core set of features, The Roku 2 XS is a great choice with nearly all the streaming services out there, for not a lot of money.
Last Year’s Model: Roku’s XDS is better than the XS in many ways (except that it was discontinued last July). You might have to shell out if you find one, but it’s worth it. It has the 1080p, HDMI, ethernet, and USB of the XS and adds component and optical out.