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Roku introduced the first set-top box for streaming Netflix movies to the TV set a year and a half ago, and the little $100 device was an instant hit -- as was Netflix’s streaming service. Since then, the company has expanded the box’s capabilities a bit, adding support for high-definition video and the ability to stream movies from Amazon.com and baseball games from MLB.TV. But all that appears to be table dressing for what Roku plans to do in the near future.
This morning, the company added two variations on the Roku Digital Video Player (now called the Roku HD) to the mix: an $80 standard-definition box, which is designed for smaller or older screens, and the $130 Roku HD-XR, which adds 802.11n capabilities and a USB port. The latter isn’t enabled yet, but it suggests that the player will be able to support movie download services such as Roxio’s CinemaNow -- a nice solution for people who want better picture quality than their broadband connections currently support.
I’ve been playing with an HD-XR on loan from Roku, and like its predecessor it’s a breeze to set up -- remarkably so, considering that it’s a networked device. The picture quality was very good for Netflix and Amazon, although I was disappointed to find that my 5 mbps broadband connection from AT&T wasn’t fast enough to handle either source’s high-def streams. The most intriguing thing was the promise of a ‘Channel Store’ where users can go to add more sources of online video. The player’s start-up guide gives instructions for using the store, but it’s not yet enabled. The company says it will add the store ‘later this fall’ as an automatic update to all its units, but it provided no details about the contents.
Company executives have talked in the past about their ambition to provide a platform for all manner of online video. Unlike some other set-tops, the Roku players support Adobe’s Flash video format, which Hulu and many other sources of video online use. Of course, Hulu’s owners have been notoriously reluctant to support Internet-on-TV technology for fear of harming the cable TV companies that figure prominently in their business models. But there’s intense interest among tech companies in providing a bridge from the Net to the TV, so it’s going to happen with or without the networks’ support. For example, DivX and Rovi, two software developers with broad partnerships among consumer electronics manufacturers, also are positioning themselves to provide a platform for online video in set-tops and TVs, as are Boxee, Apple and Microsoft.
One other quick point: I fully expect telephone companies to partner with a set-top maker like Roku. Nothing made me want to upgrade to an even higher tier of DSL more than seeing the admonition on screen that I couldn’t play the HD version of an Amazon movie. AT&T and Verizon might not be keenly motivated to team with Roku, given that they’re trying to sell their own versions of cable TV, but there are hundreds of other smaller telcos that don’t have that kind of conflict. That’s fertile ground not just for video-on-demand players like Roku and ZillionTV, but also full-blown cable replacements such as Sezmi, which is expected to begin deploying in Los Angeles soon.
Updated, 10:20 p.m. Oct. 28: Roku informed me that a software bug may have prevented me from watching streams in high definition the first time I used the device. As it happens, the company was right -- having left the box on for a while, it now streams in HD (wirelessly, connected to an 802.11g router) without a flinch. And the picture quality is quite good, although my less-than-acute vision makes me a charitable audience when it comes to HD images.
-- Jon Healey