Review: Roku Netflix Player

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve heard this all before, right? For years now, everyone from computer companies like Apple to OS companies like Microsoft to content providers like NBC have been trying to figure out the secret formula for delivering downloadable video.

Could it be that all we really need is the right middleman? Say, a company that has 8 million subscribers who already rely on them for video rental. If you haven’t already guessed, we’re talking about Netflix here. But is it possible for the Bay Area based company to ditch DVDs all together and move to online distribution?

My answer is a qualified yes. On the technical end, this small set top box is dead simple to configure and use with my existing Netflix account. Plug it in, hook it up to the HDTV with an HDMI cable, plug in an Ethernet cord, and then use a confirmation code to link it to your account. I was running within five minutes.

The box streams movies from Netflix — it doesn’t download them. I was able to get the 1.0 Mpbs stream in my testing, which resulted in perfectly acceptable video quality. Higher quality streams are available, and over time, HD streams will show up, which the box can handle.

Choosing content to watch is done on your computer, using the familiar Netflix interface. Anything that’s available for instant viewing can be added to the player’s queue — in fact, the box checks your DVD queue and adds any available content to the Roku player automatically. The upside is that browsing the amount of content on Netflix is much easier on a computer than TV; the downside is that you’ll find yourself wanting your laptop by your side.

What’s not to like? Well, the choices are still limited. Netflix has 100,000 DVDs available, but only 10% of them can be procured for streaming. Also, fast forwarding and rewinding is a bit of a chore, given the limitations of video streaming, although the player smartly displays a visual time line of scenes to help with navigation.

The great thing for current customers is the cost: $100 for the box, and then $0 a month extra. That’s right — if you have an “unlimited” Netflix plan, you can stream as many movies as you like for the same flat fee you’re already paying.

The score below is balanced between the ease of use and quality of the hardware, and the dearth of content available. If every piece of media in the Netflix catalog were streamable, this would be a 10 for sure.

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