Roku XDS Media Player Review 
Home Theater Media Servers Home Theater/Media Center PCs
Written by Mike Flacy   
Friday, 15 July 2011

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.

Design

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.

Roku XDS unit and remote

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.

roku xds revision 3

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.  


 

If you are using wireless to streaming content, I highly recommend upgrading to a dual-band router to take advantage of 5GHz 801.11n speeds.  It’s also especially helpful when clustered around several neighbors in an apartment complex where 2.4GHz streaming is tougher.  That being said, a wired option is preferable over wireless for the fastest speeds possible.  For A/V connectivity, HDMI is obviously the best option and the simplest solution. 

Compared to the interactivity of the Apple TV, the Roku XDS comes up a bit short.  The user is faced with a fragmented series of app authorizations prep their Roku device for everyday use, an experience that requires a larger investment of time than setting up the Apple TV.  However, you can speed up the process if you own an iPhone or iPod Touch.  I’ve been using a fantastic app called DVPRemote.  Not only does it offer all the same remote functions via Wi-Fi connection, it also provides an on-screen keyboard for typing search queries as well as a compatible channel guide.  The app also works on the iPad and offer more screen space for searching for content.

roku xds back view

Performance

As mentioned earlier, most of my testing focused on a handful of the premium apps; specifically Hulu Plus, Netflix, Amazon on Demand and Pandora.  The Hulu Plus interface is very similar to the web interface, both in style and navigation.  Unfortunately, it’s tough to determine what’s available on Hulu Plus through device streaming and what content is PC only.  I repeatedly ran into situations where I couldn’t access a specific show because it could only be reached from the Web.  However, the quality and speed at which content was presented was excellent.  I never ran into any lockup issues and all the content I played simply worked, be it with the occasional annoying commercial.  Netflix was also just as responsive.  The only time I noticed a problem was during movies.  Seventy-five percent through most feature films was typically the time when Netflix would revert my speed connection from HD to SD.  I experienced this when using wireless, but eliminated it when using a direct, wired connection.

Amazon on Demand was the source of my main frustrations.  When watching the recently released Unknown as a HD rental, the device locked up about halfway through the film.  Pausing / fast forwarding the film was impossible and required a device reset to fix the problem.  The Roku has no power button, thus you are forced to yank the power cord to cycle the XDS. Pandora is a sparse, but functional experience.  All the main Pandora functions are easy to access and skipping around between tracks is a breeze.  I’m curious if Spotify is going to roll out on the app store now that it’s been released in the United States.  The USB channel is also simple to use and allowed me to quickly access content I downloaded from the Web to play on the device.  While I would have vastly preferred true DNLA support to access all the content on my hard drive through the wireless network, transferring it to a USB stick isn’t a huge pain.  

roku xds front view

Conclusion

The Roku XDS is a snappy media player that offers a great deal of streaming content for the price.  The setup process takes a bit more time than other streaming players, but the end result is well worth the effort.  On an interesting side note, my significant other had no problem jumping into controlling the XDS and finding her favorite shows on Hulu / Netflix.  I was able to teach her the main functions of the remote within a few minutes and she was navigating around like a pro immediately.  When pairing this with a simple HD antenna, you can easily save hundreds of dollars over the course of a year.  Outfitting all the televisions in the house is relatively cheap as the majority aren’t going to require the XDS boxes, but rather something less expensive in the Roku lineup.  I highly recommend the Roku XDS for anyone seeking a method to cut their dependence on cable /satellite television or are simply looking for an easy way to access the most streaming content off the Web on their main television.






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