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Hands on: Roku rocks as it slims down, adds 1080p support

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Roku announced Wednesday that the company is revamping its line of three set-top boxes for streaming video. All three models come in a much smaller case, similar to the new Apple TV and about the size of two CD jewel cases. Some models also gain support for 1080p video output, while the top model can stream MPEG 4 files directly from a USB drive.

We got to spend a little time with the top-end Roku XD|S, which is competitively priced at $99.99. This model comes with all the A/V connectivity you might need, including HDMI, component video (using a special cable), composite video, digital optical audio, and analog stereo audio. For networking, it includes Ethernet and dual-band 802.11n WiFi. It supports up to 1080p video output, and also includes a USB port for hooking up a hard drive or flash drive to play back video from MP4 files (MOV support is promised in a later update).

Sitting in the middle is the Roku XD at $69.99, which drops the component video, optical audio, and USB ports. This model has 802.11n WiFi, but is limited to the 2.4GHz band. The XD is still capable of streaming 1080p video, though so far the only Roku-compatible source streaming 1080p is Vimeo. Roku told Ars that it’s up to channel operators to support 1080p streams, but the option is now open to them.

(It’s also worth noting that the old top-end model, the Roku XR, will gain 1080p and USB drive support in anupcoming software update.)

Roku has dropped the standard-def-only Roku SD from the line. Instead, the new lineup starts at $59.99 for a slimmed down Roku HD, which maxes out at 720p resolution. Like the old HD model, it’s also limited to 802.11g WiFi. It can output HDMI digital audio and video, or composite video and stereo analog audio. This “budget” model also includes a simpler remote—the same one that came with the previous generation boxes.

As we mentioned, our test unit was the top-end XD|S, which comes packaged with a slim power brick, composite video and analog stereo RCA cables, and a new remote control with some additional buttons (more on that in a minute). We would have liked to have seen an HDMI cable in the box—even a cheap one would do for most consumers—but savvy shoppers can rustle up an HDMI cable for less than $20. Roku also sent along a small flash drive with several 1080p movie trailers so we could see just how well that content looks on the 42″ Vizio HDTV we had on hand.

Having used previous Roku models (I’ve tested all three in the past, and I own an original Roku HD), their small size was already impressive. The revamped models, however, are even smaller—they could be easily dwarfed by a full-size hard drive case. I haven’t seen an Apple TV up close and in person yet, but based on the pictures we got at the product’s unveiling, this new Roku is a little bit bigger in outline, but a little slimmer as well.

Like previous models, setup is about as simple as it could be. Plug in the power supply, connect your AV cables (HDMI makes this especially easy), and hit “OK” on the remote. The software guides you through setting up the network connection, and optionally configuring the video output for SD, 720p, or 1080p. You’ll have to go to the configuration menu later to activate 5.1 surround sound—having the option to change this during the setup process would be nice.

Roku uses a simple alphanumeric code system to connect your device to the various services that require authorization. The first thing you set up is your Roku account. If you have a previous Roku device registered, your preferred channel setup will sync to your new device. Unfortunately, you’ll still have to authorize the device with Netflix, Amazon Video On Demand, Pandora, and other services. You’ll want to have your laptop (or other mobile device) handy for entering the authorization codes. This process can get a little annoying if you have a lot of channels—it would be nice if Roku could figure out a way to authorize the device in one step by linking it to your Roku account.

Once you’re set up, however, everything is as simple as before. The Roku software is designed to be very easy to use, and most of the navigation is done with up, down, left, right, and OK. The new remote, which is included with the XD and XD|S models, adds three new buttons to mix. A “back” button moves the UI back to the previous level—typically you drill down into options using the OK key, and you can press “up” to go back up. The back button does the same thing, but conceptually it will probably make more sense to most users.

Read more: arstechnica.com