(CNET) -- If you're a Netflix subscriber you may have noticed that in the last year or so the company has rolled out a Watch Now option that lets you instantly watch some of the movies and TV shows in the Netflix library on your Windows PC with a broadband connection.
More recently, in upgrading its digital offerings, Netflix has taken things a step further by separating out the Instant Queue from your DVD Queue.
While the all-you-can-eat streaming video option is a nice perk for users (it's available to any subscriber on the $8.95 per month plan or better), the real dream for many people is that instead of watching movies on your PC's monitor, you cut out the computer completely and go right to your TV.
Well, with the Netflix Player by Roku ($100) that has become a reality.
Before we get into just what the box does, it's probably worth mentioning a little bit about Roku for those who may not have heard of the company.
After releasing a handful of well-regarded streaming audio products earlier in the decade, the SoundBridge M1001 and the SoundBridge Radio, Roku had gone quiet in the consumer space for the past couple of years.
However, Roku's founder, Anthony Wood, was the founder of ReplayTV, an early competitor of TiVo, so he knows something about streaming video. He had been working internally at Netflix for several months to develop the little black box reviewed here.
Netflix opted against producing its hardware in-house, giving Roku the opportunity to bring it to market instead. (Competing Netflix-compatible products from LG and two yet-to-be-named partners are scheduled to hit later this year.)
From a design standpoint, there isn't much to critique. Measuring 1.75 inches tall by 5.25 inches wide by 5.25 inches deep, the box is slightly smaller than your typical cable modem, but instead having just an Ethernet port on the back, it's equipped with all manner of audio and video outputs: HDMI, component video, S-Video, and composite video ports, as well as digital optical or the standard red/white analog stereo outputs.
Currently only stereo sound is available, but 5.1 surround sound could be added via a future firmware upgrade.
For optimal video quality, you'll want to stick with HDMI or component video. However, you will have to supply those cables since the Netflix Player includes only a standard composite AV cable in the box.
We were happy to see the presence of composite and S-Video jacks, as well an aspect ratio (standard or wide screen) toggle--which lets the Netflix Player connect to any old TV, not just HD sets. (Apple TV can only connect to HDTVs.)
The remote is about as simple as it gets: in addition to a five-way directional pad, play/pause, fast-forward, and rewind keys, there's a "home" button that takes you to your list of queued movies. The remote works well enough, and since it's a standard infrared model you can easily program its functions into any worthwhile universal remote.
Once you have all your cables connected, you plug the AC adapter into the box, wait a few seconds for the box to start up, and make your way through the simple setup wizard using the included remote.
You're given the choice to connect to your home network via a wired or wireless connection and can fairly easily switch from one connection to another if your wireless connection is spotty. If you have a secure wireless network (WEP or WPA), you simply key in your security key via an onscreen virtual keyboard.
The first time you set up the box you're given a special code. Entering it on the Netflix site will link the box to your account. Once the code is entered, your box is activated in less than a minute, and whatever is in your Instant Queue online will immediately populate the Instant Queue on your box. (The Instant Queue is available to all Netflix users as a separate and distinct list from the main DVD-by-mail queue, so you can manage both lists independently.)
Add a movie to your Instant Queue online and that movie will appear within seconds on your box. However, you can't add titles or navigate Netflix's vast library from the box itself; you can only search for and add titles via your computer. (But because the videos are streaming from Netflix's central servers, not your computer, you don't need to have your computer powered on while you're watching the Netflix Player.)
Because you're just using the standard Web site interface, queue updates can be added on any Windows, Mac, or Linux PC, using any browser. We appreciated that Netflix and Roku kept things simple.
The load time for videos isn't exactly "instant," but depending on the speed of your Internet connection, they buffer and launch in less than a minute. What adds a little time is the innovative way Netflix is enabling fast-forwarding (and rewinding).
Since there are no chapter breaks, you're forced to zip forward and back through the video using the corresponding keys on the remote. What's cool is that you navigate the video through a series of hundreds of snapshots of frames in the film (the thumbnails correspond to 10 second-intervals in the video).
The system works well and you get used to it fairly quickly. We also appreciated that if you stop a film midway, the server remembers where you were, so you resume watching where you left off.
You can start watching the film on your computer, then resume on the Roku--or vice versa. Likewise, if you invest in multiple Netflix Players, you could pause a movie in the living room, and then pick up where you left off in the bedroom. (Currently, Netflix lets you have four boxes plus four computers linked to each account.)
As for video quality, it's not bad--but it's not terribly good, either. Depending on your connection speed, your video is currently streamed at one of three bit rates, with the highest maxing out at 2.2Mbps. We sometimes started at 1Mbps but on the three broadband connections we tested the box with--two were at home (cable modems), one was at work--all of them ramped up to 2.2Mbps fairly quickly.
We got an occasional dropout from one wireless connection we were using, but overall the connections--and video--remained solid. That said, a fourth test using a low-grade DSL connection resulted in the low-resolution stream, which was effectively unwatchable. In other words, if your broadband stream can't maintain a 1Mbps or (ideally) 2.2Mbps connection, the Netflix Player isn't for you.
Currently, the box outputs video at 480i resolution. Roku representatives told us that the box is capable of higher resolutions--up to 1080i HDTV--but for now, with most people constrained by bandwidth limitations, 480i is what you get.
The picture is generally quite watchable, but it is soft and exhibits some occasionally noticeable video-processing glitches. (Geeks, take note: the movies are streamed with the same VC-1 codec used on Blu-ray Discs and Xbox Live Marketplace's video downloads.)
We watched video on TVs ranging in size from 19 inches to 50 inches. While there wasn't a huge difference in sharpness on any of the sets, the picture did look slightly better on the smaller TV.
Still, as long as you sit far enough away from a larger TV, the picture will seem OK. Just don't expect the same kind of sharpness you'd get from a high-quality DVD. Think in terms of watching programming on one of the stations that your cable company doesn't devote quite enough bandwidth to, and that's the sort of picture you'll be looking at.
While we're usually sticklers for performance, our biggest gripe about the box is that -- as of this writing at least -- there simply isn't a ton of compelling content to watch.
Only a small percentage of recent releases are available for instant watching along with a few popular TV series such as 30 Rock, Heroes, Weeds, and The Office. (However, we did like how a whole season's worth of episodes are available for the choosing, without needing to worry about which episode is on which "disc.").
The rest is a hodgepodge of classics mixed with a few major hits of recent years, a smattering of interesting foreign and independent film releases, Nick at Night favorites such as Adam-12, a couple dozen decent documentaries, some OK family-friendly fair, and a bunch of movies that get less than two-and-half stars from Netflix viewers.
While we'd like to see Netflix beef up more recent releases, there's also an opportunity with youth programming, because of how convenient it is for parents to have a box full of content to fire up without fiddling around with discs that inevitably get scratched up by the kids. Also, children don't care all that much about image quality--at least in this reviewer's experience.
Its worth pointing out that many of the movies that we know are available as wide-screen DVDs are only available in their cropped 4:3 proportions -- which is really irritating if you have a wide-screen TV.
Another big annoyance: at least one of the TV selections we chose -- Season 2 of Miami Vice -- listed four episodes (out of 23) as "only available on disc." As with the general dearth of content, this is almost certainly not the fault of Netflix, but it's a frustration nonetheless.
However, none of this stuff is a real deal-breaker. Roku representatives are quick to note that Netflix is continually making deals and acquiring new titles to grow its online library.
Within six months, we expect the selections will be more robust, but for the moment anyway, we want to dampen people's expectations a bit so they don't think they're getting something they're not.
But because the Instant Viewing selections are now surfaced so well on the Netflix site, it's pretty easy for subscribers to determine whether they'll have enough content to make the hardware purchase worth their while or not. If you can't find, say, 40 or 50 worthwhile selections, you'll probably want to hold off on the Netflix Player--at least for now.
In the final analysis, we really liked the Netflix Player by Roku and think in many ways it's a groundbreaking product. Someday, the argument goes, most of the video content we watch will be delivered digitally, but for now, we live in a mixed-media world, with DVD and Blu-ray Discs still maintaining a dominant spot in the rental and sales hierarchy.
For a relatively affordable price of $100, this little black box lets Netflix owners play more in the digital realm without spending extra for pay-per-play downloads as you do with Apple TV or Vudu.
True, those digital-delivery solutions offer better picture quality than the Roku box, but they cost two and three times as much.
More importantly, for those of us who've already factored Netflix's subscription fee into our monthly budget, the Roku box lets us enjoy more content at no extra charge beyond the price of the box itself. In other words, it's pretty much giving you access to video-on-demand content for nothing, and it's pretty hard to compete with free.
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