Talking tech since 2003

It seems that anything we do anymore has a core shaped around the Internet.  Think about it.  That connection piped into your home does so much more than anyone would have imagined it would.  Sure, we use the Internet on our computers to exchange electronic messages and keep up with our social lives; but it doesn’t end there.  Internet connections help to power services that rival the “traditional” way of doing things.  More recent innovations such as VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) carriers such as Vonage make it incredibly easy for users to take advantage of their high-speed network connections to replace their “plain old telephone” providers, often times saving money in the process.  But societies creative uses for the Internet don’t end there.  Look at services like Hulu that for the first time make it feasible for users to drop their existing cable and satellite television providers in favor of entertainment streamed over existing Internet connections.  Even Netflix, a company that started out as a simple mail-in DVD rental service, is pushing the more cost-effective streaming option more than ever.

That said, as wonderful as our desktop and notebook computers are, watching hit movies and television series simply doesn’t feel the same in front of a retrospectively smaller monitor as it does kicked back in the lazy chair in front of the big screen.  This is exactly why Apple has developed and refined the Apple TV, a box that connects to an existing television set to deliver streaming media.  Other companies like Google have tried to mimic the concept of web-driven television, but in all honesty I just don’t think they’ve come close.  Having said that, though, one streaming media solution has set itself apart from the rest.

I first talked about the Roku box earlier this year when the product made its debut onto the shelves of retailers such as Best Buy and RadioShack.  At the time I was very excited about the progress that the device (and the company behind it) had made and expected that the introduction into the retail scene would allow for the product to gain popularity outside of the predominantly “geekish” field that it had previously bounced around.  At the time, retail pricing on the device was a mere $79, which beat the Apple TV’s $99 price-point by a full $20.

Now the Roku 2 has been unveiled and is available for purchase both on the company’s website and a handful of various retail outlets.  And just like before, the Roku has managed to stir up the market quite a bit.

With the baseline product weighing in at $59, the Roku 2 definitely has the Apple TV beat as far as pricing is concerned.  For this price users can take advantage of the “core” features of the device, including the ability to stream content from their favorite subscription-based providers (Hulu, Netflix, and Rdio, just to name a few) at a modest 720p resolution.  While not exactly feature packed, this model allows for users to take advantage of streaming media over WiFi, and in my mind will more importantly catch the attention of prospective buyers who previously hadn’t really considered streaming media to be a viable solution for their home entertainment.

Of course, the price is the only great feature for this particular device.  I’m not saying that the features aren’t impressive or anything, but when it comes down to it the baseline model doesn’t offer anything that we haven’t seen before.  Similarly, the Roku 2 HD (priced $20 higher at $79) simply takes advantage of the “classic” features whilst offering full 1080p high-definition output.

The device that really gets me, though, is the Roku 2 XS.  Priced head-to-head with the $99 Apple TV, the XS offers the same basic features that we see with the basic and mid-grade Roku boxes – including the full HD support of the Roku 2 HD – while adding features aimed more for power users.  The integrated ethernet port allows for users to set up faster connections to the device, helping to eliminate lags that they might otherwise see with weak wireless signals.  What this means is that content is delivered to the device at a faster rate, ultimately allowing for this particular model to be the closest thing to a cable or satellite replacement out there.  Likewise, the built-in USB port makes it trivial for users to hook-up an external or flash drive to share movies, music, or pictures; something that I think will help make it great for entertaining.

Best yet, the Roku 2 XS is the first and only version of the media system to support gaming.  Don’t get your hopes up, though.  Grand Theft Auto isn’t available, and judging on the price and estimated hardware specs of the box probably won’t be.  In fact, the only game currently available for the XS is Angry Birds.  So after a long day of playing on your phone, Macintosh computer, and Google Chrome web browser, you can sit back at the end of the day and play the same game on your TV.  Sounds great, right?

Admittedly the selection is far from noteworthy, but with the device supporting games and the XS’s remote designed surprisingly like that of the Nintendo Wii I’m sure that we’ll see more titles in the coming weeks and months.

Of course, the Roku – even the top of the line XS – does very little good without at least one streaming entertainment solution.  So on top of the cost of the device itself users looking for a real worth-while streaming solution will probably need to subscribe to either Netflix (approx. $9 per month) or Hulu Plus (approx. $7 per month) or even a combination of the both.

With broadband becoming more accessible and affordable, streaming really is becoming the way to go.  I’m honestly pondering dumping my satellite provider in favor for the Roku XS along with a Hulu Plus (and maybe Netflix) subscription once I get a better Internet connection setup at home.  And as cable and satellite rates continue to increase, I think Roku has a good change at increasing business.

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