By Michael Rau
June 2, 2008
Okay - Here's my question.
If you want people to accept a new and unfamiliar technology, what's the best way to do it? I'd suggest keeping it as simple as possible.
First and foremost, this is what comes to mind when discussing a new device being offered by a small but well respected maker of Internet appliances called Roku. It's called the Netflix Player, and it provides about as simple a way to “rent” and watch movies and other programming at home as I can imagine.
As the name implies, it's tied directly to the Netflix video rental service. Although they're widely known for their online rental system for DVDs, Netflix has also offered a service for a year or so that allows subscribers to stream programming on their computers - not a method which I consider an enjoyable way to watch a good movie.
The new Netflix Player changes that experience by allowing you to feed these same video streams to any TV.
First, let's look at the appliance itself. It's just a small black box, 5 ¼ inches square by 1 ¾ inches tall. On the back are a variety of in and out ports. And that's it.
You plug the device into a power source, route in your high-speed Internet connection, and then run an appropriate cable to your TV. Unlike the Apple TV device, or the similar VUDU appliance, both of which, without finagling with a bunch of converters, will only connect to an HDTV via an appropriate port, the Netflix Player will connect to pretty much any TV - even the ol' Silvertone… But it also has state-of-the-art porting, including HDMI, DVI, and composite connections.
Once the device is hooked-up, you log on to your Netflix account, choose the “Watch Now” option, and move an available movie into that queue. On your TV, on the channel or port where you've assigned your Netflix Player, you'll find an interface with your account information and the list of programs assigned to your “Watch Now” queue. Click the movie, give it a minute, and it'll start to stream on your TV. Simple, huh?
To use this service, you need two things:
First, you have to buy the device. It's available now directly from Roku (www.roku.com) for $99.00. Then, if you're not already, you'll have to become a Netflix (www.netflix.com) subscriber.
If you've looked at Apple TV or VUDU, the first thing you'll notice is that the Netflix Player is significantly cheaper. The reason is simple. Whereas the former two devices download, store, and then playback digital video, thus requiring hard drives to store the files, all the Netflix Player does is serve as an interface to stream video through your TV. You never store the files locally.
Consequently, since unlimited “rental” of the streaming programming is part of your Netflix subscription, as opposed to purchasing or renting a video by the unit, the after-you-buy-the-gizmo costs are significantly lower.
There are some drawbacks to the system. First is the issue of programming availability. Only about 10,000 titles are currently available through Netflix for streaming (as opposed to over 100,000 DVD titles available for rent). The Apple iTunes store offers many more, while VUDU only offers around 6,000.
This is a matter of working out licensing agreements with distributors - a process at which Apple is way ahead of the rest of the pack. But Netflix adds new titles constantly and will eventually catch up as program distributors gradually acknowledge the direction of home video viewing and recognize the importance of this type of venue.
Another big drawback is in video quality. The Netflix stream is greatly affected by your Internet connection's available bandwidth and right now, their streaming programming runs in 480i resolution (standard definition) and in 4:3 aspect ratio as opposed to 720p (extended-definition) 1080p (high-definition) and the 16:9 widescreen format in which all movies and more and more TV programming is filmed.
The quality of the video is okay. It looks like that from a commercially-produced VHS tape - a little fuzzy around the edges. But if you've gotten spoiled by HD, it'll definitely disappoint you.
One more drawback - albeit a minor one - is the fact that you can't play locally stored files via this device like you can with the Apple TV appliance.
Netflix' basic $8.95 per month subscription plan, although only allowing you to rent one DVD at a time, provides you with unlimited access to these streaming programs. Obviously, as they make more titles available, this will become an even better value.
I still think there's evolution in the air for Apple TV, with it eventually morphing into more than it currently is - such as becoming a complete multimedia appliance as I suggested in my original review (Apple TV is a good idea that doesn't go far enough -http://dailypress.asoundidea.com/Columns/032607.html).
VUDU, I can tell you very little about, except that it's quite expensive.
In contrast, the Netflix player is beautiful for its simplicity. You just plug it in and watch movies.
Wanna try out digital streaming video? Now, $99 once and $9 a month will get your foot in the door.
Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.
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