Editors' note: This review was updated in January 2010 to cover new content and features available in the Roku HD Player as of a November 2009 firmware upgrade.
As of September 23, 2010, this product has been discontinued and replaced by the similar Roku XD, which adds faster 802.11n Wi-Fi and 1080p video compatibility.
Originally introduced in May 2008 as the "Netflix Player," Roku's little video-streaming box had one mission: allow Netflix subscribers to view that company's small stable of on-demand videos on their TVs. The box worked well enough, and as the year progressed, subsequent software updates and--most importantly--expanded program offerings and more HD content made the $100 Roku Netflix Player an even better deal than when it was initially launched.
Eighteen months later, the Roku Player is now a family of products with programming choices that go far beyond just Netflix. In addition to the original $100 product review here (now dubbed the Roku HD Player), there's a step-down entry-level model that loses the HD video output--the $80 Roku SD Player--and the step-up Roku HD XR Player. That $130 model adds state-of-the-art dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi and a USB port for future expansion. In addition to the expanded hardware offerings, the big news in the Roku world is the November 2009 software update that delivers upwards of a dozen programming channels to all of the Roku boxes.
Panoply of content
All of the programming on the Roku Player is available a la carte via the Roku Channel Store (see the setup section below for details). As of November 2009, there are 12 "channels" to choose from.
Netflix (paid subscription): Access approximately 12,000 movies and TV shows on-demand. The service is available to all Netflix subscribers on plans that allow one disc or more at a time, which costs as little as $9 per month. Some content is available in HD. You create an instant viewing queue with your PC's Web browser, and those titles are then accessible on the Roku.
Amazon Video-on-Demand (pay-per-view): Amazon offers 40,000-plus movies and TV shows for sale or rent a la carte, for anywhere from $2 to $4 (rentals) to $6 to $15 (purchases). Titles can be queued up via a Web browser, or you can search via an onscreen keyboard and/or lists of hot titles. Some content is available in HD.
MLB TV (paid subscription): MLB TV enables access to live and prerecorded Major League Baseball games--with the major caveat that it only works for out-of-area teams. You can choose the home or away video feed, which is available in standard or high-def (bandwidth permitting).
Pandora (free): The popular free streaming audio service is available through the Roku Player. "Stations" you set up in advance can be accessed onscreen, and songs can be skipped or voted as "thumbs up" or "thumbs down."
Mediafly (free): The online content aggregator allows you to access a wide variety of audio and video broadcasts from pros and amateurs. Popular programs are instantly accessible via genre, and Mediafly subscribers can line up customized feeds as well. While the programs are ostensibly "podcasts," Mediafly content includes some full-length TV programming as well, such as news and public affairs shows from NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, ABC, and CBS.
Flickr (free): Photos on Yahoo's Flickr service can be accessed onscreen via the Roku.
Revision3 (free): The full range of programs from this tech-centric video provider--including Tekzilla and Diggnation--is available on the Roku.
TWiT (free): Similar to Revision3, Leo Laporte's TWiT is a provider of techie video and audio programming, including the eponymous This Week in Tech show.
Blip.tv (free): Blip.tv aggregates and distributes a variety of independent Web video programs.
FrameChannel (free): Like Flickr, FrameChannel (which is used on some digital photo frames) allows you to access and share photos you've uploaded to the Web.
Motionbox (free): Motionbox is a YouTube-like site that lets you access home movies you've uploaded.
MobileTribe (paid subscription): MobileTribe aggregates information from a variety of your existing social network accounts, including Facebook, MySpace, and Plaxo.
The Roku HD Player looks all but identical to the other two models in the Roku Player line. Measuring 1.75 inches tall by 5.25 inches wide by 5.25 inches deep, the box is slightly smaller than your typical cable modem, but instead of having just an Ethernet port on the back, it's equipped with all manner of audio and video outputs: HDMI, component video, S-Video, and composite video ports, as well as digital optical or the standard red/white analog stereo outputs. (The HDMI and digital audio connections support stereo and surround sound.)