Update: Hulu Plus coming to Roku this fall

UPDATE 9/28/10 – Roku and Hulu announced today that the premium Hulu Plus service will become available on the Roku line-up of boxes sometime this fall. That will certainly make the Roku XD reviewed below an even better bargain, although we’re not sure that Hulu Plus as its currently configured makes much sense.  It’s nice to have a full catalog of programs available, but studies have shown that the $9.99/month pay service currently available to PS3 owners features only a few programs not available on the free service. Also, with many of the most popular NBC shows soon to be available on Netflix, it’s questionable whether Hulu Plus will have many takers.  Follow this link for the full story over at PC World.

ORIGINAL POST: ROKU XD Streaming Media Player – The biggest bargain in tech?

Here at StuffWeLike headquarters (our living room), we’ve been fans and users of Roku products for a long time. For instance, Roku’s discontinued Soundbridge M2000 has been handling heavy duty music streaming service to our home audio system for at least five years. Our second Roku product was the Roku HD Netflix player, which has been serving up at least one movie per night since we installed it over a year ago.

Last week, Roku (www.roku.com) released a round of updates to its lineup of media players. We’ve been testing the $79.99 Roku XD model and can recommend it without reservation.

All the Roku boxes are tiny: under 5 inches square and 1.2 inches tall. The XD features 802.11n Wi-Fi with WEP, WPA and WPA2 support, 10/100 Base-T Ethernet, 480i Composite and 1080p/720p/480p HDMI output, analog audio output and 5.1 digital audio over HDMI.

The new XD is the functional equivalent of the older HD-XR, but sells for $20 less. Besides the slightly smaller size, the only other apparent difference is the new remote control which includes more functions.

We had high hopes for the upcoming iOS-based Apple TV when we indulged in fantasies of a living room device that could tap into the App Store. Those hopes were dashed during Steve Jobs’ presentation of the new ATV, but we’re holding out hope that the recent shipping delay means Apple is reconsidering its strategy.

We have similar high hopes for the $199 Boxee Box, expected to be available in November. We’re fans and heavy users of Boxee on Mac, Windows and the Apple TV and we have no doubt this will be a spectacular product. Unfortunately, D-Link hasn’t yet announced whether Netflix will play on the box and Boxee continues to play a game of cat and mouse with Hulu when it comes to their content.

No such issues with Roku. It doesn’t play Hulu, period. But since streaming Netflix is its primary function, Roku manages that task flawlessly. We’ve used Netflix on nearly every possible player, including the PS3, and the quality of the Roku’s playback on both a Wireless G and Wireless N network is consistently good.

Other channels we can’t live without are Pandora, TWiT, Revision 3 and Mediafly. YouTube and Vimeo channels are also available. And Roku offers premium content from Amazon Video on Demand, MLB.tv and many others. Frankly, most of the additional free and pay services are rather limited or amateurish, but the lineup has been expanding rapidly and should improve over time.

Set up of the Roku XD is very simple. Plug it in, help it find your network and register the device. To add most channels, you are given a code which you then enter into that service’s corresponding website. This authorization links your box to your accounts at Netflix, Pandora and the others. It’s a bit tedious repeating the task over and over again for each service, but it beats entering in long usernames and passwords with the remote control.

Navigation is simple with the included remote, which has several new buttons for instant replay, back and options. One of our pet peeves about the Roku is that the interface is almost too simplistic. We’d really like to see options for sorting channels and distinguishing between video and audio services. Individual channels are also very simplistic; only Netflix attempts to offer a searchable catalog. We hope that more channel developers expand the capabilities of individual channels beyond displaying the title, skip and thumbs up/down for each program.

None of the Roku boxes have on/off switches, but they run silently and very cool and are always available for you to switch to and begin streaming. Among the most highly touted new features is support for 1080p streaming, but we were unable to test this with any of our services. The $99 XD|S box features a USB port for attaching external storage that could include 1080p content.

All in all, the Roku Players are all extraordinary values and if you don’t have wireless N or expect to stream 1080p content, you can save additional dough and buy the $59.99 Roku HD.

Any of the Roku player models compare very favorably with the upcoming Apple TV unless you’re very interested in renting iTunes content or streaming your existing library of purchased programs. The Roku channel selection is sure to continue expanding more rapidly unless Apple enables apps on their new device. The Boxee Box will probably be a better all-around media center, but it will also cost at least $100 more.

The lack of a Hulu channel is a drag, but starting this week most NBC content will be available on Netflix as well. We can also hope that Hulu gets around to creating a Roku channel once it releases its Xbox 360 version early next year. Right now, if you want to watch Netflix, Amazon and other streaming media instantly, easily and affordably, the Roku XD is your best bet.

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