Roku review

While it's premature to say the end of cable TV is nigh, there are many new ways to enjoy on-demand media on your television - be it television shows, movies, sporting events, concerts, photo galleries or music.

Sure, many new televisions have built-in wireless connectivity to access all this online content -- but inexpensive boxes that connect to your existing TV can also do the trick (and at a fraction of the price).

You're probably aware of the $109 Apple TV, but there's a new player in Canada for the same price: Roku 2 XS.
Here's a quick look at what it is and how it stacks up against Apple TV.

What's a Roku?
Smaller than a deck of cards, Roku is a small black set-top box you attach to your television via HDMI cable (recommended, but not included) or those red, yellow and white composite ("RCA") cables, which are found in the box. You'll also need to connect the Roku to your broadband Internet connection, either wirelessly or via an Ethernet cable plugged into your high-speed modem or router. The unit also ships with a matching black remote.

Once you're connected in one of these two ways, you'll then select what "channels" you'd like to subscribe to. While there are nearly 500 Roku channels in the U.S., the service launches with more than 100 in Canada, which is still a fine start. This includes streaming movies, TV shows and user videos from Netflix, Crackle and Vimeo (including support for top-of-the-line 1080p HD video); live and on-demand sports from the National Hockey League, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and Ultimate Fighting Championship; music from Rdio and TuneIn Radio; photos and videos from Facebook and Flickr; and news, weather and other information from the Wall Street Journal and CNBC. Some of the user-made videos are low-quality, however, including a handful of cooking channels with poor audio, but there's a lot to choose from at least.

Most channels are free to use, while some require a subscription, such as Netflix ($8/month) or NHL Vault ($5/month).

Roku channels

Games, USB connectivity
Unlike Apple TV, the Roku 2 XS also offers a few interactive games, such as Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. In fact, Rovio's mega-popular mobile game Angry Birds is included with the cost of the Roku 2 XS. As with the smartphone and tablet versions, Angry Birds is a physics-based puzzler that challenges you to fling birds out of a slingshot to destroy pigs protected by a fortress. By using the Roku remote to select the right amount of force and direction the birds will fly, you'll attempt to snuff out the swine in as few moves as possible. It's insanely addictive - and looks and plays well on the big-screen.

Something else not found in the Apple TV product is the USB port on the side of the Roku. It allows you to snap in a thumbdrive loaded with music (AAC, MP3 files), videos (MP4/H.264) and photos (JPG, PNG). There's also microSD card slot at the back for additional game and channel storage, if needed.

On the flipside, Apple TV has a few things not found in the Roku 2 XS. For one, Apple TV grants you access to the iTunes store to browse, buy and rent lots of content, as well as dozens of commercial-free streaming radio stations. You can also tap into your PC or Mac somewhere else in your home over Wi-Fi and play all your media in iTunes. Finally, Roku doesn't have a licensing agreement with YouTube, which is a shame, though you can access YouTube on Apple TV.

Roku size

Each at $109, Roku 2 XS and Apple TV both have their own merits.

On one hand, if you're already comfortable with iTunes and have used your computer to purchase movies, TV shows and music over the years, then Apple TV is a good pick as it lets you enjoy it all in your home theatre -- not to mention it gives you access to rentable TV shows and movies and all the content stored on your computer. Setup is a breeze and the interface is, in a word, elegant.

On the flipside, Roku offers a lot more online content - more than 100 channels to start (except for YouTube) - plus it includes the awesome Angry Birds. The Roku also includes cables to connect to your television, a microSD slot and a USB port to play media you might have stored on your keychain (read: no Internet connection required).

There isn't a clear winner in this battle of the boxes, deciding on which one is right boils down to your individual needs and preferences.