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The Tiny Mighty Roku

Roku 2 XS
| MSRP $99.99

This tiny black box is a mighty box as far as entertainment choices go. (And we do mean tiny – it fits in the palm of your hand) While it’s not perfect just yet (we’ll outline its flaws in a moment), it’s still a reasonably-priced way to stream HD shows to your TV, with a few extras you might not expect.

Running off of a modified version of Linux, Roku’s operating system does have a few bugs. While the unit we reviewed was brand new out of the box, it started acting up fairly shortly after installation, stalling on channel selections and occasionally freezing up entirely. That’s not to discourage you, though – that’s merely the plight of the early-ish adopter. None of our friends had even heard of Roku yet, although plenty either owned or knew about the similar but different-featured Apple TV.

The Roku 2 XS arrives with a few channels installed, including the most welcome Netflix (which has a modern, easy-to-use interface), but you can go to the Roku channel store and download plenty of others, some free and some for a fee. That said, a lot of the free channels are … well, you get what you pay for, we’ll just say that. Some of them are excellent (TwitTV, Amazon (from which you can stream movies), Pandora (through which you can access your already-existing Pandora music account or start a new one) and several of the Weather Stations), while some of them are just not worth the effort it takes to use the remote. And we could do without the gazillion sports and religion channels that we have to sift through to get to all the other stuff, but perhaps that’s just us.

An interesting feature of the XS that isn’t available on the other two Roku models (the Roku 2 HD and the Roku 2 XD) is its ability to play games as well as stream content. While so far this is fairly limited – the highlight being Angry Birds, which is admittedly fun with the Roku 2 XS’ wireless RF remote – this element has potential for more gaming down the road, but it’s going to take a little work on Roku’s part, as several of the other games so far (Pac Man, we’re talking to you) are more aggravating than anything else, as the controller and the games don’t communicate as well as they should.

What gives the Roku 2 XS more ticks in the ‘win’ than ‘lose’ column are a few basics. One, it streams Netflix wonderfully. Two, the box itself is unobtrusive and extremely simple to use (when it works.) Three, you can snap an SD card into your Roku 2 XS, which means you can showcase your own videos right on your TV. And finally, it actually can be pretty entertaining searching through the channel store to try and find something worthy; some of the more under-the-radar channels we liked include Classical TV (curated performing arts videos), CLOC (which displays a simple but effective LED timepiece on the screen), Drive-In Classics and Pub-D-Hub (featuring retro drive-in movies, cartoons, vintage commercials, and other quirky surprises), and the always-interesting NASA TV.

Oh, yeah, and you can view your Flickr and Facebook photos on the Roku 2 XS, too. Sounding better all the time, isn’t it?

If you can keep in mind that when Roku hypes ‘over 350 channels!’ there are probably only about 25 that you’ll actually be interested in – and if you can have a little patience when the operating system gets temporarily wonky – you’ll be fine dropping under a hundred bucks on this fun little gadget. – Kristi Kates