Editors' note: As of November 2013, the product reviewed here has been discontinued and replaced by a similar updated Roku LT model.
The Roku LT ($50) may be more than a year old, but it remains one of the home theater products we'd most recommend.
At half the price of many of its competitors, the Roku LT offers a huge array of streaming-media content, including Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Spotify, MLB.TV, Mog, Rdio, Vudu, and HBO Go, along with tons of additional niche channels. The Roku LT also continues to get major updates, like the recent Roku Search functionality, which manages cross-platform video search that's on par with Google TV.
The Roku LT has its flaws, but they're minor. It lacks the step-up features of more expensive Roku boxes (Ethernet port, Bluetooth, SD card slot, USB port), but those aren't essential features for most buyers. Those invested in the Apple ecosystem may be better off with the Apple TV, especially with its excellent AirPlay functionality, but Roku's AirPlay-esque Play on Roku feature is a decent substitute for non-Apple households. The most glaring flaw may be its lack of a YouTube channel, as YouTube is offering increasingly compelling content, even for living-room viewing.
But for $50, it's hard to argue that there's a better value on the market, which is why the Roku LT earns our enthusiastic Editors' Choice Award for the second straight year.
Editors' note, January 22, 2013: The Roku LT was first reviewed on May 16, 2012. This review has been updated several times to include details on new features and channels that Roku has added since then.
Like the more expensive Roku 2 boxes, the Roku LT is very compact and just a little thicker than the Apple TV. There's nothing on the front, save for a small dim light that lets you know it's on. The LT has a distinctive purple color; if you want a more traditional black box, check out the nearly identical $60 Roku HD.
Around back are an HDMI output and standard AV outputs, the latter making it possible to use the Roku with older TVs. If you want additional connectivity -- like an Ethernet port, SD card slot, or USB port -- have a look at the step-up Roku 2 line of players. For most people, those features aren't needed for the core functionality of streaming video and music.
The LT has built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi for connecting to the Internet, although it's not dual-band like some of Roku's older boxes. Unfortunately, dual-band connectivity isn't available on any current Roku boxes except the Roku Streaming Stick, so most people can't upgrade for better network performance.
The remote is delightfully simple. There's a directional pad with an OK button in the center, and there are some basic playback buttons plus Home and Back. The asterisk button on the bottom generally brings up more options, although it's not always clear what you're going to get when you press it. The LT remote now also includes direct-access buttons for Netflix, Pandora, and Crackle, which is a nice touch, although Crackle strikes me as an odd third choice.
Setup is straightforward and relatively easy. The only real annoyance is that you'll need to create a Roku account, which involves entering your credit card information or linking to a PayPal account, so you can purchase premium channels. Virtually every major channel is free (or billed separately, through the channel provider), so the credit card step should really be optional.
You'll also need to link your Roku box to each individual streaming service, which generally involves entering an activation code on a Web site, so expect to spend some time in front of your TV with a laptop.
Content and user interface
The home screen has a basic interface, with a horizontal row of channels to choose from. The Roku LT comes preloaded with the most important channels: Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, and Pandora. The first three are an outstanding trio for cable-cutters, letting you mix and match subscription and pay-per-view content to catch up on your favorite TV shows.
The user interfaces for the major services are excellent and comparable to what you'd get using a more expensive device like the Sony PlayStation 3. Unlike with those very first Roku boxes, you can search through Netflix's streaming catalog, as well as browse titles that aren't in your instant queue. The new Rokus also support closed captioning for Netflix.
If you want more content, you'll go into the Channel Store. Here you'll find lots of excellent mainstream apps like HBO Go, MLB.TV, Vudu, NHL GameCenter, Epix, Crackle, Picasa, and Flickr, as well as more niche channels like TED Talks, Revision3, TWiT.TV, NASA, and CNET. On the audio side, there's also a full selection: Spotify, Pandora, TuneIn Radio, Slacker, Shoutcast, Mog, and Rdio, and, recently, Amazon Cloud Player.