November 26, 2011, 8:38 AM — The home entertainment category in our Cool Yule Tools holiday guide used to be a part of the "After Hours" section, but with the explosion of high-tech features in the consumer electronics space, there's a multitude of devices that will keep you entertained after a long day of work. Here are our picks for gift ideas that can keep you entertained and connected when you're home:
Products reviewed in this category:
Roku 2 XS streaming media player, by Roku
Play:3 wireless music system, by Sonos
Sound Step Recharge stereo speaker system, by Sound Freaq
Roku 2 XD streaming media player, by Roku
Diamond V-Stream Full 1080P HD Wireless PC to TV
Fanny Wang On-Ear headphones, by Fanny Wang
EarPollution Throwbax headphones, by iFrogz
EarPollution CS40S headphones, by iFrogz
MegaPlex MG-850HD projector, by Epson
Vulkano Flow, by Monsoon Multimedia
iA17WZC App-enhanced color changing stereo FM Alarm Clock Radio for iPhone/iPod, by iHome
Embrace stereo headphones, by BlueAnt Wireless
SuperBeam Phones (SB-405W) USB stereo headset, by Andrea Electronics
AeroBeam WHD6215 Wireless HDMI Kit, by Zyxel
NTV200 NeoTV Streaming Player, by Netgear
Mohu Leaf Indoor HDTV Antenna, by Mohu
iKurv docking station, by Speakal
Peel TV remote and iPhone app, by Peel Technologies
JBL OnBeat loudspeaker dock by Harman
I've enjoyed the Roku Internet TV set-top box for several years now, each version the company creates adds new features that make it a more valuable piece of your networked home entertainment system year after year. The latest high-end version of the products is the Roku 2 XS, which adds the ability to play games on your TV with a gesture-based controller. The system includes the popular game Angry Birds, which should appeal to the younger members of your family (it doesn't take long to figure out how to use the remote control to fling back the slingshot and fire the birds at those dastardly pigs).
Like other Roku units, the system connects easily to your TV via the included AV cable, or you can purchase a separate HDMI cable for connecting to a high-definition TV (recommended). To connect to the Internet, the system includes an Ethernet port or built-in wireless (802.11-based networks). Configuration is handled through the remote control, and it doesn't take too long to get up and running.
The high point of the Internet TV services that the box supports are Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon instant video, which are all subscription-based services, so you will need to pay extra to access these services. However, Roku also does a good job at providing access to free content, including access to Facebook photos, flickr, Pandora and others. In fact, it's very entertaining seeing some of the free services available, there's some really obscure content out there on the Internet that you can access. Roku also does a very good job at creating licensing deals with new content providers, it recently announced deals with Sony's Crackle service, for example. Keep checking and you'll find new content on a regular basis. A USB port on the device also lets you attach an external USB drive or hard drive so you can watch movies or photos from that device.
The box itself also got smaller in its latest iteration, it's now smaller than an Apple TV box, if you place it on a cabinet next to or under your TV you may soon forget it's there if you start placing other items next to it or on top of it (such as game boxes, DVDs, etc.).
If you want to buy a great gift that only will keep getting better year after year, be sure to pick up a Roku 2 XS. If you don't want the high-end version, Roku also makes two other versions that are less expensive yet still provide the same content (except for the Angry Birds).
Cool Yule rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Keith Shaw