With the holiday shopping season upon us, I thought it might be helpful to share my experiences with recent tech purchases, as many of us are looking at stuff for our loved ones (or ourselves). I'll start this week with my impressions of the Roku HD media player.

OVERVIEW
In a black box roughly the size and shape of a squared hockey puck, the Roku packs a powerful punch. It's a streaming media device and supports all the major services - Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Streaming Video, HBO Go, Crackle, etc. along with literally hundreds of other "channels", premium and free. There are also a number of "private channels" — some of dubious legality — which you can easily program into your Roku using your PC and wireless LAN.

If you're reading this, odds are you own a video game console or TV-connected PC, so you may be asking, "Why do I need this taking up limited space in my entertainment center?" Roku offers a really elegant solution to a number of problems; first and foremost, it is really, REALLY fast. In the time it takes me to boot my Wii or Wii U, which I formerly used for Netflix viewing, The instant-on Roku is already about a minute into whatever program I wanted to watch. It has a tiny footprint, and its only cable needs are a thin power cord and HDMI, so you don't need a ton of space. But perhaps most-importantly, it can be a real money-saver: if you're a cord-cutter like me, Roku is an inexpensive way to combine Netflix, Hulu Plus, etc. and dump cable for good. You don't even have to live without sports - it includes MLB.TV, NBA League Pass and NHL GameCenter channels as well (subscription required).

To give you an idea of how small it is, here's my Roku 2, on the lower right beneath my 32" TV:

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WHAT ELSE?
You can use your Roku and PC as an all-purpose media streaming device — including various proprietary TV network websites, such as Fox and Comedy Central — with the PlayOn app. In my experience, this does not work very well; I hear similar complaints from other users, so I can't recommend it. Of course, I bought PlayOn before the arrival of Chromecast (see below).

DOES IT DO GAMES?
Yes! But again, the Kotaku audience probably has no need for yet another Android-type gaming device. Like pretty much every other electronic device on the planet, Roku can play Angry Birds, along with several clones of games you'll find on any mobile phone, and a few Namco classics like Pac-Man and Galaga. For most of these, the premium Roku 3 motion controller is required — sort of a dime-store Wii Remote. I cannot think of any reason to recommend a Roku 3 based on this alone, so you're likely better off with one of the cheaper models.

OPTIONS
The one reason I can recommend Roku 3 over the lesser models is its Ethernet jack, for those who either don't have a wireless router or prefer the robust connection a hard-wired connection provides. There are three lower-cost models that are all WiFi only, and all do basically the same things except the 720p-output-only Roku LT. I have a Roku 2 on my primary TV and the LT for my other TV, and I'm very pleased with both. I've also given Rokus as gifts twice now, with both recipients being thrilled with the device.

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YOU MAY ALSO CONSIDER…
I don't have any experience with Apple TV, but it does offer a good option for those who want access to their iTunes library on their TV.

The other biggest competition for Roku — and an option I think Kotaku readers may prefer — is the new and very affordable Chromecast dongle from Google. Basically it will stream video of almost any kind from your PC or mobile phone to your TV, and can be controlled via an Android app (Roku has this functionality as well, but I haven't tried it). I have Chromecast on my shopping list, and I'll let you know what I think once I get around to purchasing one.