Review: Hands-On With Amazon On The Roku, Close To 300,000 Units Sold

This morning, Roku officially announced that the Roku digital video player can now stream movies and TV shows from Amazon's Video On Demand offering. I've been playing around with the beta for the past few weeks and while the interface is very nice, HD quality videos from Amazon aren't offered. That said, if Roku can continue to add more content partners for the device and improve the video quality, I think they have a very good chance at having a total of half a million boxes sold by the end of this year.

Setting up the Roku box with your Amazon account is easy and requires you to add a five digit PIN. Once done, you're up and running and searching through movies and TV shows is pretty simple. The Amazon offering on Roku allows you to browse Amazon's Video on
Demand menu right form the TV, which is something currently not
available for Netflix content. The only real problem I found was that there is no way to skip through a long list of movie titles. You have to scroll through them one by one and if your list is really long, it can take awhile.

Unlike the Netflix service on Roku, users who want to get content from Amazon need to pay $3.99 for a 24 hour movie rental or $1.99 to purchase TV shows. Initially that may surprise some Roku owners who have always thought of the box as providing free content via Netflix, but Amazon's Video On Demand offering is not an all-you-can-eat service.

While the video quality was good for most of the videos I watched, it could definitely be improved. I have seen some Roku users speculating on discussion boards that the Roku is not powerful enough to stream HD quality movies, but we know that's not the case. Three months ago, Roku announced that HD quality videos were now available for the Netflix streaming service, so the lack of HD content from Amzon is a content problem, not a technical one. In addition, while the Roku supports stereo audio, there is no support yet for surround sound.

While still priced at only $99, the Roku is a really nice affordable box, but is still quite limited with regards to the content one can get on it. As with any offering, the content available for viewing will dictate Roku's success in the long term. While I expect Roku will announce more content partnerships this year, the key is for Roku to get some major content owners on board. They need to get some major broadcasters or someone like Hulu to agree to make their content available to the Roku. While Roku has talked about going after the major broadcasters, it's a sure bet that they won't license their content for free. That means that any content offering on the Roku from a major broadcaster will enable some form of advertising tied into the service, which might be ok if done correctly.

While I don't have an exact number of units sold, I do know that to date, close to 300,000 Roku's have been sold since it first launched in the market last year. I think that's a pretty successful start, but when compared to the Xbox 360 which to date has sold 13.3 million consoles in the U.S. alone, the Roku still has a long way to go before it is thought of as the primary device one uses for playing back movies and TV shows. While I have a TiVo, Xbox 360, Apple TV, Vudu, Roku and broadband enabled Blu-ray player, the Xbox 360 is still the device that is my first choice, based on video quality and the catalog of content available.

Over time, I think the Roku box will compete less with the Xbox 360 as both devices primary roles and price points are very different. But for now, the Roku is competing with the Xbox 360 in my household.