The Roku 2 XS Streaming Player hands on

My $100 Roku 2 XS arrived yesterday, and as promised here are a few of my more immediate thoughts. I've only owned the device for one evening so clearly this shouldn't be treated as a comprehensive review.

The first impression you'll get from the Roku 2 is "Wow, is this thing tiny!" Intellectually I knew it was 3.3" x 3.3" x .9" but when you have it sitting in the palm of your hand it really strikes you how small it is. It's not as long as, and only slightly wider than, my cell phone.

Inside the box you get the Roku 2, a proprietary composite video/audio cable and a power cord. The XS model comes with the "Enhanced Remote" and a couple of AA batteries. Other models come with the standard Roku remote. The "Enhanced Remote" uses radio rather than IR so doesn't require line-of-sight, but there's an IR receiver on the Roku 2 for use with the "Standard" remotes as well as universal remotes.

Set-up was a cinch. I connected to my home receiver via HDMI cable, and chose a wired network connection. After that it was a matter of popping batteries into the remote and plugging in the Roku. There's no power button on the device; it's always on but the included manual claims it draws less power than a night light. On the front of the device is a small, rather dim status light (dim is good on an always-on device). On the back are ports for the HDMI and proprietary A/V cable, a microSD card slot, a recessed reset button and the power jack. Unique to the XS model is an Ethernet jack and (on the side of the unit) a USB port.

When you power up the Roku 2 for the first time you'll get a code that you have to type in over on the Roku website. For this you'll need a Roku account, and unfortunately they seem to insist you enter a credit card number when setting this up (or you can link to a Paypal account). Your Roku device will reboot once you've set up your account, but seemingly only at the end of the sign-up process so it looks like there's no way around entering a credit card if you want to use the Roku. The credit card requirement should be made clear to potential customers before they make a purchase, in my opinion.

After your account setup is complete, Roku suggests a few Channels to get you started (I picked Crackle and Flixster) and then the unit reboots. When mine came up it already had Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Pandora, NASA TV and Rdio installed. Now this is my second Roku and I had all those channels on my old one so I'm not 100% sure if all of these come pre-configured or if it was picking up some (but not all) of the channels from my other Roku. Either way, you'll probably want to visit the Roku Channel Store and add some more Channels to get the most out of your Roku Media Streamer (I added the MOG.com and TED.com Channels).

I gave Netflix a quick test and after signing in to my account I was streaming 1080P content, as promised. Good deal, but what I was really curious about was the game aspect of the new Roku 2s. So it was off to Angry Birds, which comes with the XS model.

Angry Birds is the current poster child for casual gaming and as such it's available on many platforms, and I've played it on most of them. I honestly wasn't expecting much from gaming on the Roku 2, and as I waited longer than expected for the game to load I thought my fears were confirmed.

But I was wrong. Once the game loaded, it played perfectly. There was no calibrating or other fiddling with the remote. You moved it and an on-screen cursor moved. The OK button on the remote acts as the basic 'do it' button, but there are a couple of auxiliary buttons (A and B) specifically for controlling games. This version of Angry Birds is customized nicely for the Roku using the symbols from the remote buttons in the game's UI. For example, to restart a level you use the "Rewind" button on the remote, and on-screen where Angry Birds vets expect the restart button is an image of the "Rewind" button.

I'm a gamer, and sitting on top of the TV I was playing Roku Angry Birds on is a Nintendo Wii Sensor Bar, used to facilitate motion controls on the Nintendo Wii, and a Playstation Eye, used to facilitate motion controls on the Playstation Move. The Roku doesn't need any kind of add-on to handle its motion controls. It just works, this small remote talking to this tiny device. It kinda felt like magic. Now granted it doesn't have the fidelity of the Playstation Move and the Roku 2 isn't going to be running Call of Duty, but for its intended purpose — bringing easy to play casual games to the Roku ecosystem — it's great.

Of course, Angry Birds is just one game; we'll have to see if Roku can really lure enough developers to the system to turn it into a 'platform.' There are some other games in the Roku Channel Store but they're built for older Rokus and don't take advantage of the motion controls; they're frankly kind of primitive.

So that's about as far as I got during my first night with the device. To sum up, I didn't like that the Roku 2 uses a proprietary cable for composite video and analog audio out, and I really didn't like that they asked for a credit card in order for me to create the account required to use the device. I was really impressed by the tiny size of the Roku 2 and by how well the gaming worked. Setup was easy and it's nice to be able to use the absolutely silent Roku 2 for HD Netflix playback (prior to this, I used a Sony Playstation 3 for HD Netflix streaming). So far, I'm quite pleased with my purchase.

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