As with the last generation, all three Roku players are housed in essentially the same plastic shell. It's much trimmer than the previous models, and extremely small in general -- it's not much taller than two CD cases, and a little narrower. It's also gotten a little classier, with a perforated top and a jaunty purple cloth tab with the Roku logo sticking out of the side. The streaming-only HD and XD have HDMI and composite outputs, but the XDS is much more flexible, with HDMI, composite, component, and optical audio ports along the back, as well as a side-mounted USB port for local media.
The HD soldiers on with the older Roku remote, but the XD and XDS get a new clicker with new instant replay and info buttons. The new remote also has a purple cloth Roku tab, which we really like -- it doubles as the pull for the battery door.
Software-wise, the basic experience is almost exactly the same: intuitively simple, but still quite flexible. Although the XD and XDS support 1080p playback, the menus and most of the channels are still 720p, regardless of how you've set the display preferences -- they only output 1080p when you play 1080p media. That means services Netflix and Amazon Video on Demand are still 720p, since they don't offer any higher-res content -- it's only certain channels like Vimeo that support 1080p. Of course, any 1080p support at all is a plus over the 720p-only Apple TV, but we'd be remiss if we didn't note that the Xbox 360 offers instant-on 1080p Zune video rentals -- Roku doesn't provide the content and its boxes are cheaper, yes, but it's something to think about if you're in the market. Another thing to think about: Roku owners also have access to 99-cent TV shows from Amazon
-- and that's the purchase price, not the rental price as with the Apple TV.
Roku's awfully proud of its Channel Store, which has over 75 channels from services like Facebook, Pandora, Last.fm, MLB.tv, and more, but installing almost every single channel involves logging into the respective service on your computer and linking the Roku player to your account. It's a hassle, and it gets old quickly after you've installed your fourth or fifth channel -- even typing in login information using the on-screen keyboard and remote would be simpler than having to hit a browser every five minutes. Once you've gotten over that part of the setup process, though, things are quite simple -- the XDS offers the same fundamental Roku experience as always. We might have detected a hint of lagginess as compared to our Roku HD-XR here and there, but we were jumping out of channels and video pretty fast while we were testing -- when we slowed down to a more real-world usage pattern, things were quite responsive. If you've had a Roku before, you're not going find any surprises here.
The big draw of the XD and XDS is obviously 1080p support; the XD can stream 1080p video from service providers, while the XDS can also play 1080p video files off a connected USB drive. We had no problems playing 1080p Vimeo content, but that's really the only 1080p channel we had to test -- we'll have to see if enough Roku content partners offer 1080p video to justify the XD's increased price.
Local playback off the XDS's USB port was a different story entirely, however: while we could get it to work regularly, we also experienced several crashes, glitched-out video, and overall bugginess. Roku also has some work to do on format support, as right now USB playback is limited to MPEG-4 video, MP3 audio, and JPG and PNG photos. The USB playback channel on our XDS was just a private beta, though, so we'll have to revisit this when the final version is released to the Channel Store later in the fall -- if Roku can clear up the issues and beef up format support it'll present an appealing quick'n'dirty playback solution.
Roku tells us it'll be adding additional support for DLNA streaming in the future, and with various DLNA-compatible devices like the Samsung Galaxy Tab, the Motorola Droid X, and LG Optimus Windows Phone 7 handset either out or on their way to market, it could present a solid alternative to Apple's AirPlay. We weren't able to test any DLNA features, though, since they're not currently available -- the potential is there, but Roku has to execute.
So that's the Roku XDS -- it's really quite similar to the Roku Player, the Roku HD Player, and the Roku HD-XR before it, albeit in a smaller case and with some additional capabilities. For $99, it's hard not to love, although we'd really like to see Roku add in serious DLNA support -- the $99 Apple TV is destined to be the next great iPhone / iPad accessory, and there's no reason Roku's players can't serve a similar role for Android and Windows Phone 7 owners (and mobile DLNA devices in general). We'd also like to see some additional local playback options for that USB port and some more 1080p streaming content, though -- the XDS's limited local playback support just isn't worth a $20 premium over the XD right now, and the lack of 1080p streaming content means the XD's 1080p streaming support isn't necessarily worth $20 over the HD. But those things can change, and we have hope that Roku will continue to execute as well as it has in the past.
Roku says its goal is to sell three of its boxes to every household -- that's one for every TV in the average American home. It's an ambitious goal, but it's not necessarily out of reach -- especially since the company's latest generation of players expands on an already-appealing formula with new features and even lower price tags. There's still some work to be done and more content partnerships to strike -- add in Hulu support and it's game over, guys -- but the Roku XDS is definitely worth a look if you need a streamer, and the oh-so-cheap Roku HD is probably worth a look even if you don't.