By Bob Rankin
For watching videos streamed by Netflix, Amazon, Vimeo, and other online movie services, it’s hard to beat the ROKU set-top box. Simple, inexpensive, and small, it just gets the job done with a minimum of fuss. Now the ROKU devices are getting even cheaper thanks to looming competition from Apple TV.
A ROKU set-top box is small — only an inch tall, and about 5 inches square. The device comes in three models. The basic HD model ($59) offers 720p resolution, 802.11g WiFi reception (and an Ethernet port), plus HDMI output. The mid-range model, the XD ($79), adds 1080p resolution (if content providers offer it), a fancier remote with features like still-image progress checks during fast-forwarding, and single-band N WiFi. The high-end XD/S ($99) has the same features as the XD plus component video and optical video outputs, dual-band N WiFi, and a USB port for playing videos, photos, and music from local sources.
So how does your movie travel from the Internet, to the ROKU set-top box to your TV? The ROKU box connects to the high-speed Internet router provided by your phone or cable provider. This can be either a wired (standard ethernet network cable) or wireless connection. Then you connect the ROKU box to the TV, using any of the ROKU output ports, which include S-Video, Component, Composite, or HDMI.
Content is delivered by multiple partners who stream their content over “channels” to the ROKU device. ROKU’s Channel Store features over 75 channels at this writing including Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, UFC, MLB.TV, and other premium channels. Amazon videos cost just 99 cents each, for example, and that’s the purchase price, not a rental as with Apple TV. Each channel provider has its own pricing scheme and some providers operate multiple channels.