Following and complimenting the Netflix instant streaming video service for the PC, Roku has produced a Set-Top Box offering instant streaming of Netflix video to your home television set. This concept sounds simple: Just play the netflix movies over the internet to your television. Unfortunately, this concept just hasn't been implemented well in the past. Even the movies-by-mail business hasn't gone over for others as well as it has for the online rental king and that seemed rather straightforward. Fortunately for us and in the Netflix tradition, the new service was implemented with a simple and straightforward interface which does one thing - plays video over the internet to your TV.
What you get (physically):
I was very excited to receive my Roku box having waited nearly a month since ordering and countless months before that just knowing the technology exists but had yet to be implemented. It was only a matter of time until someone, mainly Netflix, released such a service.
The Roku arrived in a small purple box with all necessary cables and instructions within. For my installation, I only needed an HDMI cable, but opted to get the high-quality cable pack anyway. The pack contained a fiber optic audio cable, component video cables and an HDMI cable. The cables all looked to be decent quality so I'd say for $20, it wasn't a bad deal.Setting it up:
Hooking up the Roku was a piece of cake: One power cable and one HDMI cable. Have a look at the back of the Roku to see how it connects.
It's all there, and in such a small package! See how it sits right under the bezel of my TV. It's not shown in this photo but the Roku is smaller than a Nintendo Wii!
One thing I was worried about before receiving the unit was its Wi-Fi capabilities. I couldn't imagine a new STB (Set Top Box) would be released without 802.11g or better but it's happened before. Upon turning on the Roku, I saw an option for wireless network configuration and knew I was in the clear.
The configuration screens were very easy. Wireless password, a software update, Netflix account activation and screen width settings. Here are a few photos of the menus:
The way the device attaches to your Netflix account is very clever. Instead of having you log in with a username and password on the box, it just generates a code and has you enter the code on the Netflix website from any computer. For me it took about 30 seconds to go to the activation site to enter the code and the Roku was ready to go.Selecting video to watch:
Ready for limitation number one? You have to use a computer or at least a regular web browser to select the videos you will be watching on your TV. Why? Because the Roku can only play videos that are in your "Instant" queue on Netflix. I didn't think this was such a big problem. We instantly filled up our queue with things we had been meaning to watch but hadn't gotten to yet.
Once I sat back down on the couch to browse my new queue, it looked a little bit like this:
For a low number of items in the queue, this interface would get an A. It's responsive, easy to find what you're looking for and it's pretty. Load and synchronization times were very quick. Video selections seemed to appear instantly on screen when I would put them in my queue. No hassle here.
Once you select your video, you will see a familiar thing: The 5-star rating. Hinging their recommendations upon user-fed ratings, netflix once again works in their ratability interface. Fortunately, they made it very quick and easy to do and I've already found myself ratings things directly off the Roku just because it's easy to do. Good work there. Videos can also be removed from this screen. Another simple but necessary function that works as you would expect it to.
Watching the video
Playback features include Resume (remembering where you left off), Restart (Play from beginning), then fast forward, rewind and pause. The remote control is incredibly simple, offering only arrow navigation, the aforementioned playback buttons and a home button. It's quite clear after starting a movie up that those buttons really are all that is needed to get a good experience.
The first video we started to play took a few minutes to get buffered up, but once playback began, it was smooth and uninterrupted. The test broadband connection was about 2Mbps, which falls right around the current national average in the US. On a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 being best, we only got a 2 for video quality. I was a bit concerned that it would look fuzzy and full of compression (big blocky things moving around) but after watching all of The Orphanage, I must say that I'm very impressed. See this screenshot - the subtitles are clear enough to read from across the room on a 42" screen. Not bad!
The sound was fairly good too. I only listened in basic stereo but the dynamics were there and voices were clear.Conclusion:
One thing I was really hoping the device would have is a hard drive so that it could buffer higher quality versions of the video than you'd normally be able to stream. While Roku and Netflix did say there would be software updates released in the future to increase functionality, my guess is that my hard drive dream will go unrealized. I'm not sweating it though, this little box is exactly what I've been wanting on those nights where the notebook computer heat is too much on the lap in bed.
The big drawback right now is video selection. While there are over ten thousand titles available, it's possible to get through everything you may really enjoy in just a couple of months. I really think they (netflix) need to step up the licensing and video transfer to make this service great. I have to imagine that it will happen sometime in the near future as the instant video on PC has always felt like somewhat of a beta test program to me. Pros: Streams Video, Cheap, Easy Setup, Easy to Use, Good Quality
Cons: Limited Selection, Requires Fast Broadband for High Quality, No Hard Drive
I have to say that I'm very delighted with this device. It's quick, easy and gets the job done. I'm betting the selection will get better sooner rather than later and for me, that puts the pros way ahead of the cons. I'd recommend it if you're someone who already uses the Netflix "instant" service. If not, it may be better to wait until they have a more robust catalog available for instant viewing, but for $99, it doesn't make for a bad early adoption.
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