Some things are better the second time around.
We looked at the Roku XDS when it was first released in September 2010. At the time, we liked what we saw, but ultimately it was little different from the previous incarnation of the Roku box. Moreover, we were anticipating the release of several major competitors in the upcoming weeks: the $99 Apple TV, the $129 Sony SMP-N100, the $199 Boxee Box, and a slate of Google TV products ($299 and up).
Now that we've had a chance to test all of those products, we've looped back to the Roku. Yes, it's still largely the same box--albeit with the notable addition of Hulu Plus to its channel list. But Roku is now a better deal than ever, especially when compared with its aforementioned competitors.
In fact, we think it's the best sub-$100 streaming media box you can buy.
As always, there are caveats. If you already have an older Roku model, the new one offers only a handful of improvements. Likewise, if you have a good Blu-ray player, a Net-connected TV, a PlayStation 3, or an Xbox 360, you'll already have access to many (but probably not all) of Roku's mainstream content providers--Netflix, Vudu, and Pandora are widely supported, for example.
Of course, if you don't already own one of those devices, it's a different story. The Roku XDS is more affordable than all of them, and it's got built-in Wi-Fi--something you won't find on entry-level Blu-ray players and even many Net-enabled TVs.
How about Roku's streaming media peers? Google TV is three times as expensive, and currently offers far less content (thanks to media companies blocking its built-in browser). Boxee is twice as expensive, and has yet to enable its Netflix and Vudu apps.
Apple TV is the same price, but it's very much targeted at users who wish to stay within the "iUniverse" of products. If you own an iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch, and you enjoy buying and renting content from iTunes, it's good--great, even. But otherwise, it offers only Netflix, YouTube, Flickr, and Internet radio content you can get on Roku or countless other devices. (The AirPlay feature is a cool addition for streaming audio from an iOS device, but in its current form, it's not a game changer.) Yes, Apple TV's user interface is far slicker than that of the Roku--but Roku's utilitarian interface is good enough, and it provides a gateway to far more content options.
Only the dark horse competitor Sony SMP-N100 (review coming Friday, December 3) gives the Roku XDS a real run for its money, delivering many of the same top streaming sources (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu Plus, Pandora, and many others). It even one-ups Roku for local media streaming (from USB and network PC sources). But it's 30 percent more expensive, and the interface and setup procedures are a little rough around the edges.
In the final analysis, even with the increased competition--and despite some shortcomings--the Roku Player's simplicity, affordable price, and superior programming selection make it the go-to choice for buyers looking for a sub-$100 solution for accessing the increasingly attractive panoply of online streaming media services.
And that's why we're awarding it a CNET Editors' Choice.
Read the full review of the Roku XDS.