We have reviewed a vast amount of media players over the last year and a half, but nothing more dependent on streaming access than the Roku XDS. Over the years, Roku has consistently positioned itself as a leader in building inexpensive media players that have lead many consumers down the path of ending dependence on expensive cable or satellite television service. Competition has risen up from companies like Western Digital and Apple, but Roku continues to respond with players that range from $59.99 to $99.99.
These players vary in capability, but even the most inexpensive player (the Roku HD) provides 720p video, HDMI and built-in Wi-Fi. The next step up is the Roku XD if the consumer wants 1080p playback and Wireless-N capability (assuming their router supports it). The subject of this review is the Roku XDS. The XDS includes all previously mentioned features as well as dual-band Wi-Fi technology, component / optical outputs and a USB port for viewing content on a thumb drive or portable hard drive.
The Roku XDS is not as small as the hockey puck sized Apple TV, but it’s just as easy to miss when looking at a home theater setup. It is, however, slimmer than previous models of the player. The front of the media streamer simply has the logo as well as the remote receiver hidden behind the glossy black plastic. Along the right size, the USB port is at the front corner of the unit. The left side of the player is only home to a purple cloth tab with a repeat of the logo. This same tab can be found on the remote, a feature I found to be surprisingly helpful for non-technical people choose the remote in a sea of choices on my coffee table.
On the back of the unit, you will find a HMDI output, optical audio output, component video 3.5 mm jack output, Ethernet input, composite output for older televisions and the power connection input. The top of the unit is perforated for heat distribution, although the XDS rarely gets overly hot. The Apple TV aluminum remote feels more luxurious in your hand, but the utilitarian Roku XDS remote has more functionality. Beyond the standard directional pad with selection button in the middle, there’s also a Home button, Back button, Instant Replay button (replays the last 7 seconds of video), Options button and Play / Rewind / Fast Forward buttons. Beyond the remote, the player also comes with a pair of batteries, the power adapter and a composite cable. For those seeking the simplest HDMI connection, you will have to purchase that separately.
Software and Setup
After hooking up the Roku XDS for the first time, the user will be prompted to setup the Wi-Fi connection (if available) as well as the screen resolution and 5.1 surround sound. After connecting to the Internet, the Roku downloaded the latest software update automatically and restarts the box to reload the firmware. The user is then launched into choosing channels for their main menu. There are a few default channels chosen as recommendations like Netflix and Hulu, but there are plenty of free and premium channels to choose from. Loading and installing channels is a simple process, but you do have to authorize all premium options like Hulu Plus and Netflix. You simply install the app, start it up and get an authorization code for the software. It’s best to have a tablet or laptop nearby to bring up the website of the content provider to enter the code. A moment later, you are authorized and also to stream content right away.
If you setup the box as 1080p, it’s obviously still going to be limited by the resolution of the content. 720p content is still most prevalent on Netflix and Amazon on Demand. My go-to channels during most of testing included Hulu Plus, Netflix, Pandora, Amazon on Demand, Crackle and Whiskey Media’s app for entertainment news. There are around 75 channels to choose from, but they are extremely topic specific. I asked Tricia Mifsud with Roku about the inclusion of Vudu as an upcoming partner for more 1080p content and she said “Vudu is on the list of content partners we are working to add. I don’t have any timing to share.” Tip: If you have Amazon Prime, you are already authorized to access streaming movies that aren’t for rent. It’s an older collection of films, but still worth perusing.