Roku is updating its lineup of streaming video boxes with a trio of new products for 2011. The new models add Wii-like casual gaming, controlled by a new Bluetooth motion remote. The ubiquitous Angry Birds is the debut Roku title, and it's included for free with the flagship $100 Roku box.
The new game-enabled boxes are known as the Roku 2 line--a particularly curious name, since it's the third or fourth incarnation of the streaming-media box (depending on how you count) that first debuted in May 2008. Truth in numbering notwithstanding, the new models carry over the basic functions of the existing Roku line, with more than 250 streaming media channels (including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, MLB, NHL, NBA, UFC, and dozens of others), HD video, and built-in Wi-Fi support. The tiny enclosures are smaller even than archrival Apple TV--just 3.3-inch square, and less than an inch high.
The three models are known as the Roku 2 HD ($60), Roku 2 XD ($80), and Roku 2 XS ($100); all should be available at retail by the end of July. They replace the existing Roku models (Roku HD, Roku XD, and Roku XDS, respectively) that are currently available at those same price points. Notably, all three models utilize the fastest 802.11n Wi-Fi standard, and all offer a MicroSD expansion slot on the rear.
All three also include Bluetooth compatibility for the new game remote--though that Wii-like motion remote will only be included with the top-of-the-line $100 model. The remote will be available separately (bundled with a 2GB MicroSD card) for $30. The HD and XD will ship with standard infrared remotes, and--thankfully--all Roku 2 models retain an IR sensor, so unlike the Wii and PlayStation 3, Roku 2 boxes will still be controllable via standard universal remotes.
The entry-level Roku 2 HD supports 720p HD output via HDMI, while the other two models offer full 1080p video. All three also include the option for standard-def video output via an included breakout composite AV cable (3.5mm to yellow/red/white), so--unlike Apple TV--they'll work with nearly any old TV, not just HDTVs.
In addition to including the Roku Game Remote and the full version of Angry Birds, the $100 Roku 2 XS is the only one that includes an Ethernet port, should you choose to go wired. It's also the only one with a USB port, so you can play local video, audio, and photo files. (Roku products technically support DLNA, but there is currently no official "channel" for accessing content residing on PCs elsewhere on your network--though Roku representatives hinted that we may finally see that changing in the future.)
Netflix will get some notable tweaks on the new Roku models. Dolby Digital Plus surround will be supported, as will English subtitles on the many Netflix programs that now offer closed captioning. Likewise, 1080p video will be available on the upper two models (on programs that are so encoded). In other words, the new Roku models will be delivering many of the Netflix extras that have currently only been seen on the PlayStation 3.
In addition to the Netflix upgrades, Roku is highlighting an improved Facebook channel, a new Major League Soccer channel, Epix (which requires you to already have an Epix cable subscription), AOL HD, and FoxNews.com Live (the live online streaming content, which differs from the cable channel).
On the gaming front, expect Angry Birds Seasons and Angry Birds Rio to join the original game in the near future. Owners of older Roku consoles are out of luck, however, as the games will only be available on the new Roku 2 boxes.
I was able to spend a couple of minutes playing Angry Birds on the Roku 2 XS at a recent briefing. The Game Remote's motion control was quite sensitive, but it was a bit odd to play the game without using a touch screen. No, it wasn't as smooth as a Wiimote, but the gaming here is more of a value-added than a core competency. Meanwhile, the interface of the Roku 2 is effectively identical to that of current Roku models--it's the same basic functional UI that gets the job done, but won't win any awards for polish or presentation.
The current $100 Roku XDS is the CNET Editors' Choice in the bargain streaming-video space. In our opinion, it edged out the Apple TV because it delivered far more programming choices for the same price. It seems the Roku 2 line will be at least as good, if not slightly better for those who want some light gaming. Apple could, of course, eventually flip the switch on adding more channels, apps, or even games to the Apple TV--but until it does, Roku has the advantage, at least for those who don't need AirPlay compatibility.
CNET will have a full review of the new Roku 2 line later this month, as soon as we receive the final hardware. In the meantime, are you interested in the Roku XDS, or do you have an experience--good or bad--with previous Roku products? Share your comments below.