For the past couple of years I've had a Mac Mini connected to our television. We use this to watch Amazon Video On Demand, and a couple of shows on Hulu. We very, very rarely watch a DVD. And I've got a couple of DVD rips stored on a local file server that we sometimes watch. In most respects, the Mac Mini has worked just fine for us. We have a couple of Safari bookmarks defined for our favorite Hulu shows, and having a wireless keyboard makes searching Amazon trivial.
There are a few shortcomings to using a Mac Mini, though. First, the wireless mouse is not quite as handy to use as a regular remote control. It's actually a little awkward to sit on the couch and mouse around. The wireless keyboard is handy, overall, but it usually sits on the mantle just under the TV. The only reason to use the keyboard is to search for something specific, so it's often not worth the effort to bring the keyboard back to the couch. Once the search is complete, the keyboard is no longer necessary and needs to be put someplace out of the way. So more often than not we simply stand at the mantle, inches from the tv screen, and crane our necks up to see what we're typing.
The other shortcoming of the Mac Mini is that streamed content is not in HD. Amazon only streams HD content to devices, not to web browsers. This isn't a huge deal, but every now and again it would be nice to be able to enjoy the 720p capabilities of our television.
I've fiddled with both Boxee and Plex as front-end interfaces to the Mac Mini. Both allow us to more easily use the Mac Mini remote control, rather than the keyboard or mouse. Both also have smartphone apps, allowing us to use those as remote control devices. Both both Boxee and Plex have a substantially different focus than what I need: they both focus on local media playback first, and streaming second. I no longer want to have enormous disk capacity in my house spinning non-stop to store the movies we occasionally want to watch. I want to leave all that media "in the cloud" to be consumed on demand. For a variety of reasons we've elected to Amazon VOD over Netflix, and this, also, presents a problem for Boxee and Plex. Both have Netflix apps, but neither has a good Amazon app.
I'd been thinking about buying a Roku device for some time. It's significantly smaller and draws less power than the Mac Mini. It has a real remote control -- which is its only input device -- so we could retire the wireless keyboard and mouse from the living room. It's 802.11N, which is a good bit faster than the 802.11G of the Mac Mini. And it receives true HD content from streaming providers.
On Wednesday evening, we bought a Roku 2 XS. I selected this model specifically because it has a USB port, which allows us to easily play local files.
Setup was a breeze. It took less than 10 minutes to get it connected to our wireless network and registered. I added our Amazon VOD account without any trouble. I also elected to sign up for a week's free trial of Hulu Plus.
This last was something of a mental challenge for me. We've been enjoying the free version of Hulu for some time now, though we only watch a very limited number of shows. We don't re-watch shows, and we're not terribly interested in the full catalog of shows available through Hulu. Given this, and the fact that the paid subscription to Hulu Plus does not remove commercials, we didn't feel that $8 a month was a good value for us. Unfortunately, the Roku devices do not access regular Hulu, only Hulu Plus. This means that if we want to keep watching these shows we need to get a Hulu Plus subscription.
Alternately, we could pay Amazon $2 per episode if we really object to Hulu Plus. I'm not opposed to paying for content that I enjoy, but I have no need to "own" any episode of any television show. As I stated above, we simply don't re-watch them. If Amazon offered a lower priced rental for each episode, rather than the $2 purchase price, I'd happily give them my money. Since Amazon does not offer this, a Hulu Plus subscription for $8 a month appears to be the better value for us.
We took Hulu Plus for a spin, and enjoyed it. The HD content is noticeably better than the SD content we've previously been streaming. The commercial interruptions are still annoying, but it feels like they are less frequent. I haven't tested this to find out.
One of my big fears about the Roku was that the interface would be an impediment. It's not just me and my nuclear family that will be using this. My father and my mother-in-law will also have occasion to use this, and it needs to be intuitive for them. Boxee and Plex would have failed these folks pretty spectacularly. Similarly, the Sony SMP-N100 that I reviewed last year had a terrible interface. Thankfully, the Roku interface is easy to use, and entirely self-explanatory.
The channels to which you subscribe are, in fact, applications that execute on the Roku. So when you select the "Hulu Plus" channel, it launches the Hulu Plus app. This takes a few moments to start, and then another few moments to negotiate a login, and then another few moments to load the initial content. The whole process isn't quite so long as to make you bored, but it's unfortunately noticeable.
A nice add-on for the Roku 2 XS is that it plays games. It comes with Angry Birds, which I'm sure will get some play time. I also added a free version of "You Don't Know Jack" which proved as entertaining as I remember that title being. The full version of YDKJ is $5, which is pretty easy to swallow. The games certainly aren't a primary reason to buy a Roku, but they'll no doubt be a fun addition to gatherings and parties.
The Roku remote uses radio, rather than infrared, so no line of sight is required. This is a wonderful feature, as it allows me to tuck the Roku away, out of sight. There are also smartphone apps for the Roku, which make it easy to install additional apps and channels from anywhere in the house.
It's still early, and I haven't exhaustively tested the Roku, but my initial impressions are extremely positive.