A couple of weeks ago, I ordered a Netflix Player by Roku -- a little box that lets Netflix subscribers watch the company's video-on-demand selections on a TV set. We already had a media computer hooked up to our TV, but it runs on a Linux platform so we couldn't use it to Watch Instantly on Netflix, which is Windows-only. The Roku player was priced at $99, which is a little steep for a gamble on whether the quality would be acceptable and whether we could make it work with our increasingly bulky TV/media setup, but we decided to give it a shot.
The box, which is about the size of a large paperback, arrived last weekend while I was at the farmers' market, and by the time I returned with tomatoes and peaches, my husband had hooked the box into our TV setup and activated it through our Netflix account. He tells me this was a very easy thing to do, although we're talking about someone who spent time the night before creating a fancy diagram of our devices and cabling input/output so he'd know exactly where and how to hook up the Roku box. (We also have a digital TV tuner, two DVD players, a VCR, and the media computer.) Here are the ups and downs we've discovered so far about the newest addition to our home's TV/media setup.
Easy to use. The remote control is simple and intuitive. I was able to figure it out on my own in no time. The onscreen Netflix interface is also easy, but you can only watch movies or TV shows that you have put in your Instant queue already. So you need to do some prep work via your computer before you can watch what you want.
Good picture quality. The quality depends on the strength of your broadband connection, since the movie is being streamed over the Internet. Our network connection (typical cable) gave us the highest quality level the Roku player could provide. It's not as good as a top-quality DVD, but better than what we see on TV stations (and better than it looks in the photo above). Sometimes we see a brief glitch or blip onscreen, but those are rare.
Bonus offerings. I found short films available through Watch Instantly that you can't get on DVD through Netflix, which looked very good on our TV: animated films One Rat Short and the Oscar-nominated Madame Tutli-Putli, and the Zellner brothers' Aftermath on Meadowlark Lane (which I found hilarious). I hope Netflix will offer more shorts this way.
No limits on quantity from Netflix. You can watch movies and TV all day long, if you want -- Netflix has not yet set limits on how much video-on-demand you can demand from them. However, as I note below, you do have to consider other factors.
Roku may expand the player. Roku's agreement with Netflix apparently makes it possible for them to open up the player to other video-on-demand services too, like Hulu and YouTube.
Limited selection. This is currently the biggest drawback to Netflix's video-on-demand program. If you like current Hollywood releases or trendy TV shows, Roku's Netflix player won't work for you at all. The few available newer selections favor low-budget independent films, especially documentaries. I wanted to watch The L Word -- the first season was available only on DVD, but the following seasons had Watch Instantly capability. One of Super High Me's distributors is Netflix's Red Envelope, but the movie is available only on DVD right now was not available to Watch Instantly on the same date it was released to DVD. Is there a waiting period for some movies before they hit Watch Instantly? Finally, some Watch Instantly movies have an expiration date -- for example, Night of the Hunter won't be available after July 1, I'm not sure why.
We easily filled a queue with 60 selections -- indie docs, older exploitation films, old TV shows, and classic movies -- but my husband is a voracious late-night viewer and I'm wondering how quickly we'll tire of Troma films and Xena episodes and want more current fare. We do still have our Netflix DVD subscription to use for new releases -- a combination of new hot movies on DVD and older/indie stuff on Watch Instantly may hold the key to success for Netflix. For us, the Roku player setup is what we have instead of cable TV for watching old TV shows and movies.
Bandwidth use. We currently have unlimited bandwidth from our broadband internet provider. However, that company is also a major cable TV provider, and what will they think about video-on-demand services like the Roku player that people like us are using instead of cable? Will this increase the possibility of internet providers instituting tiered services and charging more for heavier bandwidth usage? My husband estimates that a 90-minute movie or show uses up about 1.45 GB of bandwidth. If we were stuck with, say, a 40 GB/month limit, the honeymoon would be over. Companies also might consider slowing down service for heavy-bandwidth users.
So far, the Roku player has turned out to be a terrific deal for us, and we're very happy we took the plunge. In six months or a year, will we feel the same way? I'll have to check back in and let you know. But I think we'll get our $99 worth out of the Roku even if its entertainment value falls by the year's end.
In the meantime, if you haven't heard enough about Roku's Netflix player, check out Hacking Netflix, a blog that provides details on all aspects of the company's services (including its competition). The only question that I can't find the answer for: how do you pronounce "Roku," anyway?