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If you’ve been following my blog at all, you’ll know that we bought an Apple TV v2. That experience was really, really bad. The details are here if you want them, but suffice it to say that I was impelled back into shopping for a similar device, because the Apple TV simply wasn’t going to cut it.

Enter the Roku XDS. Same price, same general type of device, a fair amount of buzz. Enough to catch my attention, consume a few reviews and comments… at $99, these things don’t exactly break the bank, so, in for a penny, in for a pound, we bought one. This is the story of how that went, often contrasted to the Apple TV v2, as that was what it was replacing. You might want to grab some popcorn.

First, it arrived in a cardboard box. Apple packaging is better – you really get that “oh boy” feeling when you unwrap anything at all from Apple, and the AppleTV was no exception. But there was nothing wrong with the Roku packaging, mind you – it was sturdy, the unit was intact, etc. Just that bit of marketing glitz, flash, etc. that Apple does so well hanging over me.

So I take it in to the Hitachi HDTV that the AppleTv had so much trouble with, plugged in the HDMI-to-DVI cable, the TosLink audio cable, and powered it up. First milestone: A perfect image. Already well ahead of the Apple TV, which created a wavy, horrible looking image. Well. This is good.

It wants to set up the wifi connection. The Apple did the same thing, went perfectly.

Four hours later and a long tech support call with Roku, and complete failure to hook in with either my Linksys access point or one I temporarily raised on the Mac Pro as a test, I gave up. The Roku tech support people told me that I’d have to drop / turn off our firewall – and I told them that I wasn’t going to do any such thing. We allow devices inside the network to open any port they like, and every other wifi device we have in the building manages just fine with that scope of permissions – PSX, PS3, iPods, iPads, Wii, AppleTV, Mac minis, Air, Pro, Macbook Pro, Palm T|X, Android phone, XP laptop… yeah, if the Roku requires me to expose our entire network to the unfiltered Internet – even for a second – then as far as I’m concerned, the wifi is 100% broken.

It wasn’t just failure to hook in, either. The Roku would fail to re-scan for new access points, fail to retry to connect when asked… it was a real mess. Clearly, this needs a lot of work.

So, really not having any other option, we ran a (long) Ethernet cable to the location. Plugged it in, the device configured it without fanfare in about two seconds, and that was that. Hum. Ok, well, yeah. That’s how things should work, isn’t it? And in the end, that’s a much faster connection than the wifi, so really, it’s a win, but still… if your home network is wifi based, you’re in for a ride, possibly seasoned with all manner of malware coming to visit while your router’s firewall is down.

So now we’re connected. Things begin to go smoothly, or at least, as advertised. The Roku has sort of an annoying first-time “handshake” that it requires to add certain channels that are third-party controlled, like Netflix, Internet radio, and so on. It’s a relatively simple matter of going to a web address, entering a code, and waiting a few seconds for the XDS to add the channel. I can’t say I like it much, but as a one-time thing, its tolerable. The mechanism pales compared to the AppleTV, though, as everything is just there and works on that device; but as the Roku offers a great deal more content and channel types, it can be taken in stride. You do get a lot in return for your minuscule effort.

After a few minutes browsing the Roku channel store, I’m a fan. There are all kinds of things that appeal to my (admittedly unusual) tastes. There’s NASA TV, math, science and economics learning materials, old movies galore, even funny old commercials and cautionary films. There’s porn in BDSM, gay and vanilla varieties (yawn… but it’s very good they offer it, very different than Apple’s “we’ll decide what you can watch” attitude), there’s news, Netflix, Internet radio (oh boy oh boy… I loves me some Internet radio), and tons more that while it didn’t interest me, or at least impress me as socially responsible like the availability of porn did, certainly will appeal to many users. And more channels are appearing regularly, as well as more content within the channels. The Apple TV, banished to another room with a more modern HDMI-connected television that it actually understands, hasn’t added anything since we got it; the Roku has added more content in the last two days than I would have time to watch in a month – and they already had more than Apple did when I first installed the unit. Huge kudos to Roku for that.

We’ve spent considerable time with the Netflix app and the Internet radio apps, and have found a few bugs, duly reported. If you search for content in the Internet radio app, it won’t successfully add it as a preset to your preferred stations. We’ll see how they do with bugfixes. Overall, the experience (after the wifi thing) has been almost uniformly positive. Totally happy with the unit, great price, huge functionality.

It is instructive to compare the Roku’s hardware and compatibility with the Apple TV, in the hopes of saving someone else from our experience.

Look at these hardware features:

feature Apple TV v2 Roku XDS
HDMI Yes Yes
DVI capable No Yes
Composite No Yes
Component No Yes
Optical audio Yes Yes
SD No Yes
HD540p No Yes
HD720p Yes Yes
HD1080p No Yes
Analog audio No Yes
Ethernet Yes Yes (with speed and connect indicators)
USB support No (upgrade port only) Yes
WiFi Yes Yes, but needs work
Remote play/pause Yes Yes
Remote FF (dpad) Yes
Remote RW (dpad) Yes
Remote Home No Yes
Remote Replay No Yes
Remote D-pad Yes Yes
Remote Menu Yes (dpad)
Remote Top No Yes
Remote Back No Yes
Remote Loopback (10s) No Yes
Remote Select Yes Yes
Open Source Channel kit No Yes

If you look that table over carefully, I think you’ll see that the Roku basically blasts the Apple TV v2 right out of the water. But there’s more. The Apple TV will only work properly with an HDMI TV that is connected via HDMI; that’s right, they officially don’t support DVI. They’re also limited to 720p; no 1080p, and no SD support at all, hardware or even as 540p. You can’t connect your USB goodies to it, nor is there any indication that the USB port, inconveniently located on the back, will ever be upgraded to such function; whereas the Roku’s USB port is up front and comes with media support.

The Roku is a linux-based device, and you can even telnet into the little box and poke around; it’s port 8080. Imagine that. There are some hidden (not very well) codes for the remote that do some interesting things, too. Upgrades come via the Internet, from Roku. Perfect. Not sure how the AppleTV does it, but as they have characterized the AppleTV’s USB port as “for upgrades”, I’m afraid that might be just how it’s done. On the Roku, there’s a choice in the settings channel to check for upgrades. Again, that’s just what I like to see.

Now, I’m perfectly willing to say that the Roku is not perfect; and these devices, no matter how much content they offer, can always offer more — but I think it is very clear that Apple is an “also-ran” in this particular race, at least with the current version of the Apple TV. They fail on hardware; they fail on content; they fail on several different levels of compatibility; they fail on the whole “walled garden, you’ll watch what we think is ok” front; and so far, they’ve added no content at what I call the channel level; the things offered are the same ones that were there the day I opened the box, while the Roku has been merrily adding goodies constantly.

The Roku also has one feature Apple doesn’t offer, and that is that they offer an open source “channel kit” anyone can use, any time. That’s right, you can cobble up your own channel(s), private or otherwise, and as long as they aren’t straight-up illegal, you can distribute them via the Roku channel system, either publicly or in a somewhat hidden manner (the porn channel is done like that.) This – in my honest opinion – is hugely to the benefit of the Roku owner: and a look through the Roku channel selection backs me up, in spades.

All this, and still, these devices are exactly the same price. Oh, and Roku has devices as low as $60 if you can forgo some of the hardware features. I don’t recommend that, you never know what you might want to hook up, but the option is there if that $30 is of sufficient consequence to you at the time of purchase.

So there you have it. If you’re looking for a stand-alone media streaming device, for my $99, it’s the Roku over the AppleTV v2, hands down.