The February 2023 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

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The Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame: Roku DVP N1000

Roku succeeded in a chaotic market and despite daunting odds—and then set standards copied by much bigger rivals

3 min read
Photo: Roku
Smaller and Simpler Is Better: Among the innovations that Roku CEO Anthony Wood is most proud of is a super simple remote, later imitated by Amazon and Google.
Photo: Roku

When it was introduced, in May of 2008, the Roku box was pretty far from a sure thing. It wasn’t clear there would be much demand for streaming video when cable, satellite, and IPTV vendors had such attractive pay-TV packages.

Roku’s chances would depend on a set of contingencies that didn’t seem all that plausible at the time. Namely, that fledgling streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and perhaps others would become so terrific that they would give viewers a compelling reason to either ditch their pay-TV subscriptions or fork over extra money for the streaming content, and also that those streaming services would remain independent and therefore need to offer their content on some third-party box. Furthermore, pay-TV companies would have to refuse to support Netflix and Hulu, and any other independent streaming services, through their set-top boxes. (That was actually a pretty good bet, given the bitter competition in the pay-TV market.)

Roku understood that even if all those ifs worked in its favor, it would still need to create a box that was inexpensive compared to game systems such as the PlayStation and the Xbox—which were already capable of streaming video, or compared to the ReplayTV, a standalone digital video recorder (DVR)–a type of set-top box unassociated with any specific cable-TV service. One thing was certain: Roku had to be inexpensive compared to the best-known streaming device at the time, the Apple TV, which Apple had introduced anticipating it would itself start a pay-TV service. All of those systems cost about US $300 or more.

On the bright side, TV viewers who didn’t already have a game player were not going to buy one just to get Netflix or Hulu. And what was the point of laying out what it cost for a game system to get an Apple TV that couldn’t even play Grand Theft Auto? Still, the bottom line was that an independent box had to cost significantly less.

The first Roku box, the DVP N1000, was based on the PNX8935 multiformat source decoder that NXP had designed specifically for low cost, high-definition set-top boxes. Making that device was a bit of a gamble on NXP’s part, as the market for streaming HD set-top boxes barely existed at the time. Roku would help create it.

Roku’s system also included 256 megabytes of memory. It supported both standard definition and high-definition streaming at 720p (Roku soon added support for full HD at 1080p). Introduced at $99, the Roku box hit the market at an opportune time: Netflix’s streaming service and Hulu were beginning to get popular, and people were looking for a device with which to view them.

The N1000 Roku box “started the race to low prices for streaming players which made them mass market,” Roku CEO Anthony Wood told IEEE Spectrum in an email. The company deliberately created an architecture that would ride industry trends toward lower costs, he added. Today, some Roku models sell for as little as $29 (several competitive products are within a few dollars of that).

Wood reeled off a list of qualities in that first Roku box that defined the streaming video device category. Before the N1000, most streaming devices were 17 inches wide or so: “We pioneered ‘Small is better,’ ” he said. Some of the current models are roughly the size of a big man’s thumb. Roku also pioneered the “supersimple TV remote,” Wood said, setting a standard that Amazon, Google, and others have copied.

The N1000 was the first software-updatable set-top box, and it used that capability to add channels. “Users didn’t do anything. It just happened. That was controversial at the time,” Wood noted. Another controversial feature was that the device had no off button. It was worth the initial pushback, Wood says, because it “improved ease of use tremendously.”

Ten years later, Roku is still the leading seller of streaming video devices—both boxes and smaller dongles—ahead of Amazon Fire TV, Google Chromecast, Apple TV, TiVo, Sony, and others.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
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A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay
Blue

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.

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