Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Roku First Impressions

I received my Roku XDS media player on Saturday (two days after ordering it).  That, in itself, is amazing.  I have to say that both Roku and the US Postal Service did a great job in getting the player to me with hardly a thought.

The XDS is a very nice tiny unit in appearance - measuring about half the size of a hard cover book.  There is a single power light on the front that Roku dimmed down to almost completely invisible.  Is that a problem?  In this case, no.  I am sick and tired of blinding blue LEDs shining out of every piece of equipment I have purchased lately.  This light does nothing but tell you that the unit has power, so there is no need to have it bright and always visible.  The only time you'll really need to see it if the media player stops working -- if that happens you'll get up and look at it close-up anyhow!

Set-up was a piece of cake, but be prepared with a computer close-by before you start.  Despite the effort by Roku to try to make you feel like you'll never need to use your computer once you have this device, it is clear that this is not the case.  To activate the unit and have it upgrade its software you will need to register it with Roku's web site, which involves entering an activation code to the web site that displays on the screen.  Roku calls this their Rendezvous registration process, and you will find yourself doing this often.  Even though there are a lot of free Internet services you can access on the Roku platform, many services (like Pandora) link to your existing account, and this is the way that Roku saves people lots of keystrokes or using "Ouija board" typing with the remote.  It's not a pain if you have a laptop handy near the TV, but if you don't you should probably somehow bring the Roku player near a computer while you set-up programming from the "channel store" or you'll find yourself running back and forth between the TV and computer.  Aside from the computer, about all you need to do to set-up this box is plug it in.

I mentioned in my earlier postings a concern about advertising and that I didn't think there was any.  I now know that there are most definitely ads on the screen, specifically on the main screen.  It isn't terribly intrusive (not like TiVo, where they almost trick you into selecting them), but nonetheless they are there.  It looks to me like they really want me to use Amazon's video-on-demand service.  I actually would like some way to say, "Please leave me alone, I was thinking about it anyway."  I would really appreciate it if they would keep this to a minimum.

Most of  the main user interface is modeled after the modern iPod and Windows Media Center graphic displays that flip items back and forth using the left and right arrow keys on the remote.  While this does make it so that an idiot can use the XDS, I don't feel that this scales well and I find it a little annoying.  I think I would like an option where I could either categorize my channels or put them in a list format of some kind.  As the number of channels available increase and the number of channels I have in my subscription list increase it will become more cumbersome to flip through all the choices all the time.  Think of it like having a stack of CDs to play -- when you have 10 or so CDs it isn't bad to flip through them all to find the one you want.  Once you have more than that, you alphabetize them and/or organize them by genre or the like.  On the plus side, the configuration screens are very intuitive and function well.  They ship the device with a short diagram on how to hook the thing up (I laughed when I opened the box and staring me in the face was a card with only the word "Hi!" printed on it).  Really, that's about all you need.

Since I have a Netflix account already, that was the first thing I tried.  I tested it by watching an episode of Tripping The Rift that was in my instant queue, and was disappointed that the audio and video became horribly out-of-sync as the show continued, and the video was mediorcre.  Knowing that I have had this experience with some Netflix online movies before with the TiVo I tried watching Outsourced and fast-forwarded into the middle of the movie.  Not only was the audio OK now, but the video itself was impressive.  I also tried to view a program that didn't work correctly on the TiVo, and it messed-up in the same spot on the Roku player.  So the problem is Netflix, not either player.  Unlike the TiVo, you can do searches for movies on Netflix right from the Roku player.  If the Amazon video-on-demand service works as well as Netflix (or better) then this is going to be pretty cool.

The next thing I tried was Pandora...of course.  That worked without a single problem.  Having seen the Flash (yuck) version of Pandora on occasion, I do miss some of the features that they support there and would like to see those on the Roku version.  Otherwise it worked just like I wanted when I contacted Pandora over a year ago.  If I had to make one complaint, it would be that they somehow punch the volume way up on the music to the point where I have to remember to turn my home theater amp's volume way down before playing that channel.  The interface for Pandora on Roku is very nicely done for HDTV, in that it just looks really good.  I wish that Pandora for a browser was done in Java instead of Flash.  Sigh.

There are two issues that I had with channels and these are a bit annoying.  On Revision3's programs, the audio occasionally cuts out for a second during the program.  I think this may be because they drop a few bits in the audio stream for whatever reason, and my home theater amp takes a second or so to figure out what kind of digital audio it is receiving and then start playing it.  I feel this is a bug in the home theater system, but in any case it is annoying.  The other one is much worse and I don't know what to do about it:  I tried watching newer episodes of Is It A Good Idea To Microwave This? using a third-party YouTube application, and my Sony HDTV barfed on the video stream (it said it was receiving video in an "unsupported format").  It is hard to tell whether this is a limitation of my TV, a problem with the third-party application, or a bug in the Roku player's firmware.  I contacted Roku about the first problem and have yet to get a response, which is a bit disappointing.

Today I joined Roku's developer program, which allows one to write applications to use with the Roku media players.  I can't say much about it yet since, well, I just joined.  However, I am impressed with what looks like a very open development platform.  Seeing the documentation that Roku provided makes me respect the engineering that went into making Roku's players and how much thought went into the hardware and software.  In any case, Roku applications are written in a language called BrightScript, which seems like a cross between BASIC and Javascript.

A few other random things worthy of mention...
  • There is not any local disk storage...so anything you watch is streamed (not stored), although there does appear to be plenty of memory for buffering.
  • Only port 80 and 443 seem to need to be open outbound in your firewall for things to work (it is not necessary for any inbound connections)
  • When they say that you should not locate the unit near a source of heat (like home theater receiver) they aren't kidding.  The bottom of the XDS gets fairly warm by itself despite the excellent ventilation on top.
  • The remote control has no volume control (it is a very basic remote without learning capabilities).
  • ...also, the remote control has no power button as the Roku players are not meant to be turned off.
  • The XDS pulls between 5-6 watts of power no matter what it seems to be doing, according to my Kill-a-Watt.
  • I have not tried the wireless capabilities yet, but will soon...
Given the $100 price tag for the XDS, I'm not sure if this was a good buy yet.  I'm clearly not disappointed with the player, but at the same time I'm not overwhelmingly impressed yet.  Given that some Blu-Ray players are now doing similar things while being able to play Blu-Ray disks at the same time, I think that Roku's survival is going to depend on how well they can attract content providers and to provide a pleasant user experience.  The open development platform seems like a good first step in attracting content providers, but their draconian legal agreements are kind of intimidating.  As far as improving the user experience - again, the user interface needs to scale better for increased programming.  No ads would be nice too.  Good customer support is a must.

I will try to write more about this as I get more of a chance to use it.  I am trying to get a really good idea how I feel about it while still in the 30-day money back guarantee period.


Interceptor said...

Too late now, but I saw that as of today Tivo Series 3 and Tivo HD now support Pandora after all.... Too little too late, I suppose.

Techite said...

cpu, I posted this review on my blog because of your thoroughness. I also gave you the credit, along with a link to your blog. If you have any objections, I will remove it. Thank you.