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Roku 2 evolves into the best streaming media device

Roku was one of the first digital media players to hit the scene, and it remains among the best, according to reviews. Low cost, simple operation, good performance and a wide library of content providers -- more than 400 -- are reasons why. The company has since revamped its lineup, replacing the first-generation Roku player with the second-generation Roku 2. Streaming capabilities are similar, with a few notable upgrades.

Among those, the ability to play basic games is drawing the most attention. Though this is available in all versions of the Roku 2 player, the flagship Roku 2 XS (*Est. $100) ships with a Wii-like Bluetooth motion controller and a full version of Angry Birds. Additional games cost around $5 each, and they include fun but not exactly cutting-edge titles. Instead, think of classic arcade games such as "Pac-Man Championship Edition," number and word games (sudoku, of course) and casino games (blackjack, video poker and Texas Hold' em). For those who can't get enough of "Angry Birds," there's "Angry Birds Seasons." The remote is also available separately (*Est. $30), and will add game play to lower-priced versions of the Roku 2. Reviews say that games play pretty much as you would expect them to, and that while the controller isn't as sensitive as the one that comes with the Wii, it gets the job done.

The Roku 2 digital media player is available in four versions. The most basic is the Roku LT (*Est. $50), followed by the Roku 2 HD player (*Est. $60). At the higher price you get 720p HD support, Bluetooth support for the optional gaming controller, a microSD memory card for storing games, Roku channel information but not content and built-in Wi-Fi (802.11b/g/n). The next step-up Roku 2 XD (*Est. $80) adds support for 1080p HD. The top-of-the-line Roku 2 XS bundles the aforementioned gaming controller. It also adds a USB port for playing back videos, music and photos, and an Ethernet connection for those who want to connect their digital media player directly to their networks.

The Roku LT is for those who are fine with 1080p resolution and are certain that they don't want to play games with their set-top streaming box. It lacks the microSD memory card slot and Bluetooth compatibility of the Roku 2 players, so game play options are limited -- no Angry Birds, for example. However, it is otherwise similar to the Roku 2 HD, and it offers the same 720p resolution.

Regardless of which Roku 2 player you opt for, the content lineup is identical (save for games) and impressive. You can find a full list at the Roku website, but the headliners include Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Flickr, NHL GameCenter (out-of-market live hockey games), Ultimate Fighting Championship and lots more. In addition to "official" Roku channels, there's a growing community of "private" channels featuring user-generated content, including YouTube. Much of the most in-demand programming requires a separate subscription, but some free content is available.

One disappointment is the lack of DLNA support, so you can't easily stream content from your own PC, though there are third-party solutions available. Because of that, if streaming media from your PC is as important as getting over-the-top media from the Internet, some other digital media players might be more satisfying. Wi-Fi connectivity issues with the Roku line that were reported earlier seem to have been improved with firmware updates; however there are some wireless routers that simply play better with Roku than others. Roku maintains a list of confirmed compatible wireless routers at its web site.

Most reviewers cover the XS version of the Roku 2 player, but if you don't need all of its features, most comments regarding usability and performance can be applied to the other Roku 2 digital media players as well. Critical opinions are largely positive, but not as universally so as with its predecessor, the Roku XDS. Still, the Roku 2 XS earns an Editors' Choice award at CNET and strong reviews elsewhere.

Not everyone's a fan, however. You can color PCMag.com as unimpressed, for example. Will Greenwald writes that while the Roku 2 XS is easy to set up and use, and offers a ton of content with streaming options available in lots of other consumer electronics gear, the digital media player "doesn't seem as useful as it did years ago." However, citing its value, PCMag.com is notably kinder to the Roku LT, joining CNET in giving it an Editors' Choice award.

Apple TV makes a comeback

When it was launched, no one quite knew what to make of Apple TV (*Est. $100) -- including Apple itself. Yet Apple TV re-launched in September 2010 as a slimmer, cheaper and more focused digital media player, much to the delight of critics. In March 2012, Apple TV was revamped yet again. The major change in this version is a more powerful processor, which lets it display streaming video at 1080p resolution. All of the other changes are to iTunes  -- see our take on iTunes video in our report on video streaming -- and firmware updates can be updated to older players to take advantage of those. As IGN.com's Scott Lowe and other experts note, that means that the only real benefit over the previous Apple TV model is 1080p support.

Apple TV certainly offers a lot of positives for those already committed to the Apple lifestyle. Apple TV is the only digital media player that connects to iTunes and lets you stream that content to your living-room TV. It also supports Apple's AirPlay, which means you can stream media from your iDevice (iPad, iPhone or iPod touch). Media on your computer can also be streamed to Apple TV via iTunes, as long as it's in an iTunes-friendly format. Though you couldn't previously view purchased content on an Apple TV, new iCloud support in iTunes lets you store that content on line so that it can be accessed by any iDevice and removes that restriction. The Apple TV remote gets some yawns, but there's an app to turn your Apple mobile device into a sophisticated controller for Apple TV, so critics don't ding that too much.

Like other Apple products, setup is "fast and easy," reports PCMag.com's Will Greenwald. Apple TV includes both wired and wireless network support. There's an HDMI output and an optical digital audio output, but no support for analog video or audio. The iTunes update has streamlined the user interface so that it will look instantly familiar to anyone who's ever used an iPad, iPhone or iPod touch. "On many devices, it's not immediately obvious how to search for videos or find the Netflix app, but the Apple TV couldn't be more intuitive, says Joshua Topolsky of The Verge.

Still, while critics say Apple TV is a terrific choice for iTunes/Apple devotees, others might not be as enamored. The big issue is content. Aside from iTunes, you won't find much as Netflix is the only other premier content provider. That limits current-season TV to ABC, Fox, Disney and BBC Earth, and not all programs from those broadcasters are in the iTunes store. On the other hand, the library of both current hit movies and catalog titles available through iTunes is pretty extensive (see our report on video streaming for more on that). Out-of-market Major League Baseball, NHL and NBA basketball games are also available. Other providers include YouTube, and Flickr, and you can access podcasts and Internet radio stations.

Boxee bounces back

For a digital media player to be a success, it needs to hit three difficult notes with some precision. It has to be easy to use; it has to provide content sources that most people crave; and, because video streaming can be found built into a host of other gear, it needs to be a good value. At its debut, the D-Link Boxee Box (*Est. $180) originally missed those marks by a good margin, critics say. However, upgrades and deals with providers have sweetened things.

Though Hulu Plus remains unavailable, lots of other TV content can be found -- more than 40,000 TV show episodes, according to D-Link. In addition, apps missing from the Boxee Box at launch have begun to appear. Those include Netflix, Vudu, NHL GameCenter, MLB TV and more, and third-party developers are creating hundreds of apps to bring more content, as well -- some mainstream, some decidedly niche.

Functionality is also on the upswing. PC World reports that updates have "generally improved the Boxee Box's overall web performance, while addressing a number of usability problems." Notably, while web searches at launch turned up tons of old and obscure content, or content that couldn't be accessed , the Boxee Box currently "presents as much current content as you could ask for, drawing from various commercial and web sources," says PC World's Yardena Arar. Accessing locally stored media has always been a strong point as the Boxee Box has very robust file format support. Most say setup is easy, though PCMag.com grouses that it's also "tedious."

Some issues remain. One is a remote control that features a standard layout on one side and a full QWERTY keyboard on the other. While CNET reports that this looks like an excellent solution to navigating web content from your living room, numerous design flaws -- like making it easy to push the front side keys while using the backside keyboard -- make it a dud in real-world use. The Boxee Box also has a built-in browser for navigating directly to websites with video content, but some top sites like Hulu.com (the free, web-based version of Hulu Plus) block access. In addition, browsing is inconvenient, PC World says; the Boxee Box remote lacks a pointing mechanism, so you can move the cursor only by using arrow keys or a navigation wheel.

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The Boxee Box by D-Link HD Streaming Media Player
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Roku LT Streaming Player (Old Version)
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