I purchased a Roku XDS digital video player (Editor’s Note: things change fast in technology and this product is discontinued, please see the modern version here) so the whole family could watch Netflix instantly on the high definition TV and I’m very pleased to write this Roku product review. Roku has opened up a whole new world of internet video entertainment on the flat screen TV including YouTube, Hulu Plus, Pandora internet radio and several dozen other channels. Roku has transformed my TV viewing experience and is the best $100 I’ve ever spent!
One way to watch Netflix instantly is to connect your home computer to the TV, however this a bother to configure and Microsoft Windows is often uncooperative. Watching TV should be frictionless and simple. The Roku digital video player solves this in a small and wonderfully easy to install and operate package!
Roku Netflix Player Product Review
From the moment you open the Roku box it comes across as inviting and uncomplicated. The setup instructions are a big card that says “Hi” and with 5-step Getting Started foldout card with lot’s of pictures. The Roku kit contents are:
- Roku digital video player
- Composite (red/white/yellow) audio/video cable
- Power adapter
- Getting Started guide
- Remote control with two AAA batteries
The 5-step Getting Started Guide is the best I’ve seen and clearly explains with pictures and minimal words how to connect your Roku to the TV, which are:
- Connect to your TV
- Power Up
- Connect to your network (wired or WiFi)
- Complete the Guided Setup to link it to your Netflix account
- An overview of the remote control functions.
The Roku remote control has very few buttons and is really more of a mouse in operation to navigate the on-screen widgets.
Roku XDS Audio / Video / Network Interfaces
The Roku player is offered in three different models as shown on the Roku product matrix that range in cost from $60 to $100 in round figures. I chose the top-of-the-line Roku XDS model because I wanted:
- An optical audio port for Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound through my Home Theater system.
My home theater system doesn’t have an HDMI port, so I needed the optical audio (Toslink) for Dolby surround sound.
- 1080p HDTV signal
- Dual-band WiFi (not using dual band yet, future proof feature)
- USB port to play digital home video’s by plugging in a flash drive
The front of the Roku is solid black. A dim purple LED illuminates in the right corner when it’s powered on.
Until I got my Roku player, I wondered what the blue tag was on the left side – an antenna or some sort of authorization card? – it’s just a piece of fabric with the Roku logo for the designer touch. The remote control has the same fabric tag, too.
Roku HDMI and Optical Audio Cables
Roku doesn’t include an HDMI cable, so you’ll need to provide one yourself. I’m using the HDMI cable to connect Roku to my plasma HDTV and an optical audio cable to connect to my older home theater receiver to take advantage of Dolby 5.1 surround sound. The two 6-foot cables shouldn’t cost you more than $20 together from Amazon.
Here’s the Roku HDMI and optical audio cables as connected to my TV and home theater receiver. The power cable is on the far right.
My internet connection is WiFi (wireless) so the RJ-45 Ethernet port is not used.
Roku Player Setup
Roku displays a welcome screen when the unit is first powered-on to configure your network (wired or wireless), TV display settings and to create a Roku account. The Roku player is very small and unobtrusive as it sits below the flat screen TV as shown here:
Roku requires a full time Internet connection to access Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Facebook, etc. and the network setup is very easy. I choose the wireless (WiFi) network connection option:
Roku will display a list of WiFi networks to choose from in your neighborhood. Select your WiFi network and enter your WiFi password so Roku can connect to your network. The password is saved so you only need to do this once.
When your Roku player first connects to the Internet, it will automatically download any software updates (cool!), restart itself and launch the Roku Home Screen for the 2nd phase of the setup process.
Link the Player to Your Roku Account
The 2nd phase of the setup process takes about 5 minutes to link your Roku player to your Roku account, select the TV display type and add channels – Netflix, YouTube, Pandora and so on.
The TV will display a six character “link code” with instructions to go to http://roku.com/link to link it to your Roku account. If you don’t have a Roku account, you can create for free.
Roku will ask for a credit card number or Paypal account to make purchases for premium content from the Roku Channel Store. I added a 4-digit PIN number to safeguard against accidental or unauthorized purchases.
The TV will display a success message when your Roku player is linked to your account
Next, select the display type that best matches your TV. If you have an older standard definition TV, the 4:3 standard is best. I chose the 1080p HDTV for my flat screen TV.
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound Setup
Roku defaults to stereo sound output. Using the Roku remote control, go to the Settings menu and select Audio Mode then “5.1 Surround Sound” to activate Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. You must have an HDMI or optical audio cables to receive Dolby surround sound signals. The movie must be encoded with Dolby 5.1 to hear surround sound.
Roku Channel Store – Netflix Activation
Select the Netflix icon from the channel from the Roku main menu. You will be asked to link your Roku player to your Netflix account to watch Netflix instantly. Follow the on-screen instructions to log onto your Netflix account and enter the activation code for your Roku player.
After logging on to you Netflix account, enter the Roku activation code. The Roku player will display a confirmation message on the TV screen.
Now I’m all set to watch Netflix instantly on my TV with Roku!
Roku Netflix Watch Instantly
The Roku will list the movies in your Netflix Instant Queue, which is nice because anything you add using the computer will reflect here. You can also find movies using the Roku remote control by clicking Search widget in the center of the screen.
In this next image, I’ve paused the movie UP by Disney/Pixar. You can fast forward and rewind at slow/medium/fast speeds with the remote. The video and sound quality was excellent. However, many Netflix movies are not Dolby 5.1 surround sound encoded so you’ll get stereo instead.
Roku: Pandora Radio
Roku has a free Pandora Radio channel. A one time activation is necessary to link your Pandora account to the Roku player. We fire up the TV to select the Panadora radio station we want to listen to, then turn off the TV because only the home theater receiver needs to be on for music.
Roku YouTube Channel – Alternate Method
Watching YouTube on TV is loads of fun!
Add the YouTube channel to your Roku player by following these instructions at the Roku Support forum.
Update: The Roku 3 player with ver 5.3 software is now required to watch YouTube, but you can try this alternate method.
The Roku YouTube channel application is nicely organized with several categories for featured and most watched videos. Use the search option to find your favorite artists and videos. Here I’ve searched for Lady Gaga to display all of her videos:
YouTube videos look great on TV with the Roku player. Here I’ve paused the video with the Roku remote control.
Vertical Green Line on TV Screen
The vertical green line down the left side of the screen is an alignment error where the image is shifted a few pixels to the right leaving an exposed area that displays as a thin green line or bar. I’ve tried adjusting the TV picture options and changed the Roku display from 1080p to 720p resolution, but the green line is still there. It’s an overscan or pixel mapping imperfection that’s easy to ignore. My next troubleshooting steps are to try the second HDMI port on the TV and/or 1080p component video cables. If I find a fix, I’ll post an update.
Roku Netflix Player – Two Thumbs Up!
Roku fundamentally changes the TV viewing experience by bringing streaming Internet video into the living room. I used to get bored because watching TV because “there’s 250 channels but nothing’s on” or I’ve already watched the Netflix CD’s received in the mail. Now I can surf the extensive Netflix Watch Instantly streaming video library, laugh at YouTube videos or simply listen to my favorites on commercial free Pandora radio.
For ease of use and value for the money, Roku is a winner!