Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Netflix/Roku review

The Netflix set-top box I ordered came in this weekend. It's about the size of a small CD box set, all clean straight lines, black with a single white LED on the front. Ordering it, I'd had two concerns: technology and selection. Would the box be able to deliver a clear, steady picture, or would there be dropouts as it dealt with our local broadband connection? Can you have 10,000 titles to choose from but nothing to watch?

First, the technology works. Nicely. The hardest part of setting up the box was moving my honking big old-school TV so I could hook up the cable (and then negotiating the TV's menu to get it to show the right input). The second hardest part was putting in my WEP key in its full hexadecimal glory. This is really a problem with the router -- I've had to do that with everything I've hooked up. Roku makes even this about as easy as can be, especially considering that all you have to work with at that point is a screen and a remote with nine buttons.

Once it's connected, watching movies is easy. Netflix gives you an "Instant" queue, parallel to the regular one. You can flip through the contents of that queue on the screen. The titles show up as DVD cover images with a text caption. When you select a title, you see the description. If you pick something with multiple parts, like a TV series, you can easily select the episode you want, or the next episode if you've just finished one. Once you make a selection, the box spends a few seconds filling its buffers and you're off and running.

I'm not a "show every last sub-pixel" videophile, so your mileage may vary, but for my money the picture was just great: sharp and steady and at least as good as the regular cable feed. I kept waiting for some sort of glitch but so far it hasn't happened.

You can pause just like a DVD. Fast-forward/rewind is a bit different. You see a series of stills taken every so often either side of where you left off. You can scan through these just like you can scan through your queue. It would be nice to be able to scan through the contents of the buffer, so you could go back a second or two to replay that line you just missed, but for finding your place it seems to work well.

What about the selection? That's largely a matter of taste, of course. The current catalog tends heavily toward older releases and direct-to-DVD fare, lots of Night of the Obscurities II: The Relapse and such. Even so, with 10,000 titles to choose from, a high chaff/wheat ratio isn't necessarily a problem. That latest release you want almost certainly won't be there, but many older hits will be, along with back episodes of popular TV series and a smattering of interesting-but-not-blockbuster offerings.

Netflix makes no bones about the "Instant" selection being more limited. From their point of view it's a supplement to their DVD service, and that's still the main attraction. If you want that latest release, you'll have to put it in your regular queue and wait for the DVD to show up.

On the other hand, they say that they're working to expand the instant offerings. From the looks of it, they're doing this even as I write. The bottleneck seems mostly to be negotiating with the studios, who largely seem to be playing wait-and-see. My guess is that if the box turns out to be a hit -- which it might very well -- the studios will be more forthcoming, at least with older releases. Realistically, though, the box will continue to be the poor cousin for a while.

I could also imagine a "premium instant" service, where for more than the base $10/month you could get more choices, but that probably will have to wait until the studios are comfortable with the technology.

So should you get one? I'd say take a good look at the selections on Netflix and if it looks like you can find enough there to justify $100 for the box (and $10/month if you don't already belong to Netflix), go for it. Netflix says that this Roku box is "likely to be the lowest cost Netflix ready device for the foreseeable future". I hate that kind of sales pitch, but in this case it's probably true.

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