Review: The Netflix Player by Roku
September 12, 2008
Oh, Netflix Player ($99), how do we love thee? Let us count the ways. For those of us who have a deep and meaningful relationship with our Netflix queues, the opportunity to remove the wait--and the possibility of scratched, damaged, or lost DVDs-is something of a dream come true.
Pros: Easy to set up, unobtrusive, no new wires, instant gratification
Cons: Limited content, video quality depends on quality of broadband connection
For those of us who have a deep and meaningful relationship with our Netflix queues, the opportunity to remove the waitand the possibility of scratched, damaged, or lost DVDsis something of a dream come true. Enter The Netflix Player by Roku ($99).
Designed specifically to work with a users Netflix queue, the Netflix Player, which runs on Linux, provides instant access to an additional 12,000+ movies and television episodes over a broadband Internet connection without any additional charges from Netflix. We tested the Roku Netflix Player on a home 802.11n draft-2 WLAN using cable (5Mbps) for backhaul and a 36 five-year-old flat-screen television.
Setting the stage
Setup was surprisingly simple. The Getting Started guide walks users through the set up process with clear instructions and large illustrations. The Player is controlled by a small nine-button remote, which requires two AAA batteries (included).
From start to finish, our setup took approximately two minutes and consisted of turning the television on, plugging the Player into a wall outlet near the TV, navigating through a few setup screens on the TV, and then entering a five-digit code into a Web page using our computer.
Users will need to have their Mac IDs and PSK or other security key or passphrase handy in order to grant the Player access to their WLAN. (Wired users will need to provide their own Ethernet cable to connect the Player to their router.)Showtime
To say that the Roku Netflix Player rocks is an understatement. Being able to watch back-to-back TV episodes without commercial interruption and without having to wait for that little red envelope to travel back and forth from your mailbox to the shipment center with a measly three episodes on each disc is a godsend. Unfortunately, while there are 12,000 Instant Play movies and television episodes available to choose from, the pickins are actually fairly slim. However, there are some real gems to be found. We discovered the greatness of 30 Rock, the new Dr. Who, and finally experienced some classics, such as Soylent Green and Murder by Death. And since theres no extra fee and no wait involved, you can take a chance on some longshotsand if they turn out to be awful (Cheerleader Ninjas, anyone?)no harm, no foul.
The quality of the video over our network was DVD-quality. In more than one hundred hours of viewing, we never experienced a hiccup.
To view a movie or TV show using the Netflix Player, users must first visit Netflix and add movies to their Instant queue. Clicking the Watch Instantly tab at the top of the Netflix home page brings up a page of suggestions, newly added options in a variety of categories including, From Your DVD Queue, British TV Dramas, (Netflix thinks we're British) and New Movies to Watch Instantly. Just press the blue Play button beneath the movie or TV shows thumbnail image and click Add to Instant.
After adding a movie or TV episode to their Instant Queues, users can then browse through them on their TV screen using the Roku remote. Browsing is straight-forward and intuitive. The Home button (which features a house-shaped icon) takes you to the home page. The Select button makes selections. The left and right buttons allow you to scrollyou guessed itleft or right through the on-screen menu of choices.
The Instant Queue is displayed on the TV screen as a horizontal row of movie poster thumbnails. As users scroll through them from left to right (or right to left) the center thumbnail is enlarged and the movie title, running time, and rating are displayed beneath it. All in all, its an excellent way to browse selections.
Pressing Select on an enlarged thumbnail brings up the Movie Details Screen, which displays a brief summary of the film, its genre, director, star rating, and year of production. At this page, users can also give the movie a star rating, play it, remove it from their queue, or watch a preview.
Shots from the balcony
Our only gripes are small, the largest of them being with the pause, rewind, and fast forward features. This is the only place where our Player experience diverged from a DVD-quality experience. As with a DVD, moving forward or backward is done by frames; there are three rates of speed. But in order to do either, users must wait for the content to reload, a process which will vary depending on your network speed and which naturally interrupts the viewing experience. While the video is being retrieved, a progress bar is displayed as well as a quality rating.
Pausing is a disappointment because portions of the screen become blocked by a sizable pause icon roughly one-third of the way up the screen, as well as a nearly screen-wide progress bar beneath it, which displays the number of minutes viewed and the number remaining. If a user has paused so as to inspect a detail in the framefor instance, to search the underbelly of a shark for a Dharma Initiative symbolthe loss of so much screen space could be irksome.
On the upside, once paused, the video will remain so in perpetuity. One can pause a movie, unplug the Player, and then, hours, days, or weeks later, plug the Player back in and once selected, the film will resume where it left off at the last viewing.
Our only other problem with the Player: if you lose or damage your remote, or forget to bring it with you on vacation (as we did), the Player becomes no more useful than a shiny black brick.The size is right
The Player is small and can be moved from room to room easily. Promotional materials describe it as being roughly the size of a paperback book. Since its a perfect square this description is a little askew, but you get the drift. At roughly 5x5x2 it's closer in size to an unabridged book on CD. Whichever size comparison one goes for, the point is: its not large. We moved the lightweight device from living room to bedroom, depending on our mood, and the Player remembered all our network settings, even after being unplugged for days or weeks. We attempted to use it on vacation in a hotel room with Wi-Fi, but alas, having left the remote at home, our experiment ended before it began.The extras
Because the Player is optimized to work specifically with Netflix, it cant be used to play streaming video from any other source, but it does benefit from the elimination of a need for a hard disk. Built-in connectivity means service upgrades happen automatically to keep the device current.
The 802.11b/g-enabled device worked beautifully on our WPA-PSK-protected 802.11n-draft network. We didnt test its Ethernet capabilities. Video and audio connections include HDMI, component video, S-Video, composite video, digital optical audio, and analog stereo audio.
Since the Player was introduced in May, roughly 2,000 titles have been added to the Instant play list, with more coming each month.
The Netflix Player by Roku is a worthwhile investment for truly committed Netflix users who can consume more in a month than their mail-based subscription will allow. Using the Player over a WLAN makes for an excellent viewing experience, so long as your network quality and broadband connection are strong. And, should your Wi-Fi fail you (gasp!), you can always revert to Ethernet. While the selection is limited--only 12,000 of the more than 100,000 titles in the Netflix library are available--that number is always growing and there are enough worthwhile gems to make investing in a Roku worthwhile. In a nutshell, we love The Netflix Player by Roku--it really butters our popcorn.
Naomi Graychase is Managing Editor at Wi-Fi Planet.com. Currently atop her Netflix Queue are Rebus, Torchwood, and the new Dr. Who. As far as the Netflix recommendation engine is concerned, she's clearly British.