The Rokus are absolutely phenomenal streaming video boxes. They're affordable, take minimal setup, and pipe in Netflix (most importantly), plus myriad other movie services. In HD! The new wave's out—so what's new? Virtually nothing. And that's fine!
Why It Matters
Freeing ourselves from the cost and banality of broadcast television thanks to internet video has been one of entertainment's greatest boons. But we want it on our TVs, not just our laptops. The problem? "Smart TVs" that aim to provide this suck. Like, really suck, a whole lot. Roku doesn't. A dedicated streaming square serves up videos and movies far more gracefully than anything crammed into a television, and can breathe new live into any set with the right ports. Roku's been at the fore of these transformative bricks for years now, only recently threatened by a bunch of other boxes, like the Google TV (not so great) and Apple TV (pretty great). The Roku 2 is their retort. The new generation. The No, put OUR little black box in your living room statement.
If you've used any previous Roku before, there will be zero learning curve. The same horizontal sliding tile interface remains. Select what you want. Search letter by letter. It's simple, decent enough to look at, and it works. The remote's sturdy and simple, though not quite at Apple's zen master of control minimalism. But it does have an accelerometer and gyro built in! More on that later. Really, the hardware is forgettable. In a good way. It's a minuscule black box that will sit under your TV, likely blending in with all the other black boxes you own, and then shut off automatically when you're through with it. You don't want to know it's there. The software's what matters—and the Roku 2 is as easily maneuverable as its predecessor.
Roku is a content beast. It has virtually everything you want—Netflix (the biggie), Pandora, Crackle, Facebook, Vimeo, Amazon Video on Demand. It's got news feeds! NBC, CBS, FOX, NASA (live from space!) BBC, and the like. It's got a lot of strange stuff you most likely don't care about, unless you're interested in streaming video content on Greek politics, gem sales, the weather in Indiana, or the Florida public school system. But hey, niches are okay, and Roku's willingness to offer up all sorts of wacky obscurity is part of its charm. The things that matter are easy to get to. The errata's there if you feel like settling a debate on Slovenian defense policy. All of that video panoply is readily clickable. Adding a channel (say, Al Jazeera) to your favorites puts it on the menu your Roku 2 boots directly into, so it's only a few menu slides away. Want more? Just go to the channel directory and add more. Simple.
Video quality varies, but where it shines, it blinds—Vimeo's HD offerings were particularly gorgeous.
And all of this is now crammed into a wonderfully ripped-off Apple TV form factor. I mean really, they look nearly identical. We should be fine with it! Again, this isn't a piece of hardware you want to notice. Let it be invisible and silent, like an obedient child.
The Roku 2 is essentially the Roku 1. The differences are beyond marginal. The highest end model—the Roku 2 XS—plays 1080p video. But so did the highest-end Roku 1. They've tossed in ethernet support (why?), USB support (why?) and SD card support (why?)—none of which enhance the Roku's goal, which is to stream video from the internet to your TV to your gaping eyeballs.
Sadly, the Roku 2's biggest change is that it now—hold on to your god damn suspenders, because they're about to get scorched off by gamma rays—plays Angry Birds. Yes, the exact same Angry Birds you play on the toilet, or on the subway, for a few minutes at a time. Now you can play it in your living room with the motion-sensitive remote. It works fine. Do you want to play Angry Birds in your living room? Maybe! I certainly didn't care about it, and it's sure as hell not reason enough to buy a Roku 2 if you've got an earlier model. Roku says more games are on the way, but I suspect this SDK will be about as popular as mouth herpes, as the box takes quite a while to even load Angry Birds. This is not—nor should it be—a gaming machine.
Oh! Roku's lack of YouTube support is as flagrant and disappointing as ever.
Should I Buy It?
This is simple. If you don't have a Roku, the Roku 2 is a fantastic streaming video box. If you do have a Roku, but want 1080p support, just buy a discounted Roku 1. The sequel has all the great qualities of the original, but zero incentive to trade up.
Specs: Roku 2 XS
Channels: 300+ (Paid and Free)
Connectivity: Ethernet, Wireless b/g/n
Storage: USB port, SD card