Roku’s Netflix Player: Nifty Box but Not Much Worth Watching

The Netflix Player by Roku, a television set-top box that streams play-on-demand videos and movies from mail order DVD rental titan Netflix, launched late last month to generally wide acclaim.

In fact, Roku reportedly sold out two weeks after its launch, though the company has said it has shipments coming in from China weekly.

So with all the fuss, how well does the Roku player actually perform? Is it really just shy of totally awesome? Can you really set it up in just a few minutes? And most importantly, is it worth US$100?

No Easy Answers

The answers to all of these questions are more complicated than might seem warranted at first glance.

The issue at hand is that the Roku device is just a piece of hardware that’s worthless without the service, which is Netflix’s streaming video on demand.

Similarly, without the Roku, Netflix’s service is just another PC-captive streaming video option.

First, the Service

Netflix’s video-on-demand service is essentially free — at least, it’s an add-on benefit to being one of Netflix’s 8 million-plus DVD-renting customers. The cost to use unlimited Netflix moving streaming is just $8.95 per month, which also lets you rent one DVD at a time from Netflix’s catalog of 100,000 titles.

To use the Netflix streaming service with the Roku player, all you have to do is connect the box to your TV, connect your Internet connection, remember a short code word, and activate your Netflix account via a Web browser. It’s super easy — about five minutes is all it takes.

Netflix automatically creates an Instant Queue from your DVD queue, giving you the option of streaming DVDs you were planning to ordering via the mail. It’s quite handy. To add movies to your Instant Queue, you’ve got to use a Web browser — PC or Mac — to select them. You can’t select movies from Netflix’s library from your TV — just the queue you set up for your television viewing experience.

Selecting a movie from your couch is easy enough — you’re presented with a horizontal scrolling list of titles and cover photos. Selecting a video is easy and intuitive. It took me about two minutes to master without looking at the remote — and it took a 10-year-old child less than 30 seconds.

The video playback resolution is DVD quality — 480p, but it’s also dependent on the speed and quality of your Internet connection. Netflix recommends at least 1.5 Mbps service (which is a step up from low-end 768 Kbps DSL).

So, Netflix does well with the simple, intuitive interface. You’re going to be surfing the Web or looking at family photos with this service — it’s all about streaming videos, and it’s easy to master.

Disturbing Lack of Content

The biggest problem with the service right now is the lack of content. You’d think 10,000 titles would be plenty. It’s not. There are gobs of old movies with titles you won’t recognize — and descriptions that won’t entice you to play them.

This is the best example to illustrate the nature of the problem: Of the Netflix Top 100 movies rented by customers, only two are available for instant streaming playback — “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “March of the Penguins.”

That’s right, just 2 percent of the Top 100 movies available from Netflix on DVD are available for streaming.

That’s just sad.

Of course, this isn’t exactly Netflix’s fault. The problem lies with Hollywood and a maze of distribution rights and limitations latched to newer movies and televisions shows.

For instance, how do you monetize a downloadable movie rental and transfer a share of the profits to the appropriate players? How do you track down all the appropriate players and secure digital streaming rights in the first place?

The last thing a Hollywood studio wants is to turn a movie loose and then have someone come flying in from New Zealand with a lawsuit in his pocket.

With standard DVD rentals, it’s not so tough. Basically, while Netflix is on the right track with unlimited streaming content, there are a lot of back-end issues beyond the company’s control.

Next, the Box

The Netflix Player by Roku is surprisingly small — about the size of a paperback novel, if novels were square. The design is spartan black plastic, neither ugly nor pretty. The included remote control is small and oversized at the same time — and it is most definitely ugly. Still, it’s easy to use.

The rear of the box is packed with video connections, which is a pleasant surprise considering the low $100 price tag. It comes with a standard composite AV cable in the box, and whatever kind of TV you have at home — high-def or standard, you should be able to connect it.

The other connections are HDMI (high-definition media interface), Component Video, and S-Video. While the audio is only stereo right now, a firmware update from Roku should be able to deliver 5.1 surround sound in the future.

Similarly, the box itself will support HD streaming content, but Netflix isn’t delivering HD content — yet.

For Internet access, it features a wired Ethernet port and built-in WiFi, 802.11 b/g.

Putting It All Together

In combination with the Netflix service, the Netflix Player by Roku is a darn good deal — but only if you a) like enough of the 10,000 available titles to make it worth your while, or b) are willing to be an early adopter and wait for Netflix to start offering more on-demand movies.

In terms of speed — from selection to actually watching a video — the setup seems snappy enough, and even the download that gets things rolling is pretty fast, generally less than a minute and much less than the time it takes to place a DVD in a DVD player, stare at the FBI warning, wait for the DVD previews and menu animation to get done, etc.

In this respect, I’m already a big fan of the ease of use that comes with Netflix’s on-demand service.

Netflix also does a nice job of remembering where in the movie you last stopped watching — quite handy — and it also provides a list of what you’ve already watched when you return to your Netflix queue in your PC browser.

Video Quality

The video quality varies, and worse yet, it varies for no apparent reason. As you start the streaming download process, four empty circles show the level of video quality you’re going to receive when the show starts playing.

Netflix says this quality is determined by Internet connection speed, but I haven’t been able to determine how — at least, not through my setup. I’m using a 3.0 Mbps DSL connection, which means my typical effective speed is about 2.2-to-2.7 Mbps, and I’m using the WiFi option instead of a wired Ethernet cable.

At one moment, a movie might start streaming at a three-circle level of quality — which is easy on the eyes, as seen on a 42-inch Panasonic plasma HDTV, by the way — and then partially through the movie it could drop down to a two-circle level of quality.

A quick speed test on an Internet-connected computer still showed fast access, so what gives?

Similarly, if you start one video, it might play at a three, but if you switch and go immediately to a different video, that video might play at a two or even one level of quality. Again, for no apparent reason. Two is acceptable for viewing. One, however, is painfully blurry. I can’t handle it — it’s as if my eyes are constantly trying to find a focal point, and of course, they won’t be able to.

On the flip side, once Netflix got started, it tended to remain stable more often than not.

There’s one last note on video quality: HDMI vs. composite AV didn’t seem to make an appreciable difference in quality — it seems to be all about the Internet stream, and perhaps, something in the hands of Netflix.

No Parental Controls?

I was surprised to see one video at the top of the Top 50 instant viewing list, ranked presumably on viewer popularity — a “Kama-Sutra” instructional video that shows off 50 positions, some of which may even be in 3-D (I’m not sure; I just added it to my queue.)

The point here isn’t so much about eclectic customer interests, though, as it is about parental controls — if Netflix has any, they aren’t easily found. Parents will want to pay attention to what they place in their queues . . . and, of course, what their children are watching from the couch.

Overall, it’s pretty easy to recommend the Netflix Player by Roku, particularly for existing Netflix customers — the overall functionality and performance is surprisingly good, even though the 10,000 titles are disappointing.

The one area where Netflix’s new service runs shy is new titles and video quality — for customers willing to pay it, the $249 Apple TV and iTunes Rental Store combination would likely be a better fit.

Some potential customers may want to wait for set-top boxes made by other manufacturers that should be coming out this year, including some rumored to be coming from LG. Netflix says it’s working with TV manufacturers, Blu-ray player manufacturers, and game console manufacturers to get their devices ready for instant streaming from Netflix.

Netflix, however, also notes on its Web site that the Netflix Player by Roku “is likely to be the lowest cost Netflix-ready device for the foreseeable future.”

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