In the maturing digital media adapter market, there’s a brand new axiom: less is more. The Netflix Player by Roku has just one main feature and no extra frills. Yet for those who want one-click access to movies, there is no better option—and the device will likely only get better with time.
Design and Setup
In a brilliant design decision, the diminutive player–which is no bigger than an average hand and weighs just a half a pound—works with your existing Netflix account. If you do not use Netflix, you have to sign up for at least the basic account with which you get one DVD in the mail for $8.99 per month. There are no other charges beyond the $99.99 purchase price for the box itself. Also, setting up the player through Netflix.com is ultra-simple. The on-screen user interface is very bland but functional. While not nearly as sexy as the Apple TV or Vudu, the Roku delivers your videos fast. The remote, while lacking Vudu’s intuitive scroll wheel, is just as easy to use, and provides basic play/pause/scan functions. Instead of an actual fast-forward or rewind, though, you skip ahead or in reverse, scrolling through thumbnails that look like scenes on a DVD.
Instead of downloading movies to a local hard disk à la Vudu or Apple TV, the Netflix Player streams them over either a wired or wireless Internet connection. To select a movie to watch, navigate to Netflix.com on your notebook and click Watch Instantly. Hover your mouse next to the Play button of any movie you want to add, and then click Add to Instant Queue. The selected title will then appear on the Roku device. We plugged in one HDMI cable, turned on the player, connected it to our Wi-Fi network, typed in a code on our laptop, and were watching a movie before the popcorn was ready. It was the fastest setup we’ve experienced with a Wi-Fi device.
One minor gripe: the player doesn’t actually play high-def movies, even though the 1080p-capable HDMI port hints at (and Roku confirmed) a future quality upgrade to HD. Also, the player does not let you stream movies housed on your PC, listen to music or view photos, access the Internet or YouTube.com, or really do anything but watch movies and TV shows from Netflix. That might seem limiting at first, but when you are relaxing in the living room, the simplicity is a plus.
The Netflix Player also works with such standard-def connections as S-Video and composite. The player comes with composite cables, but Roku also offers an HDMI, component, and Optical Audio cable bundle for $19.99.
Performance: Better than Expected
While they may not be high-def, the movies on the Netflix Player stream at a high, very watchable 2.2-Mbps bitrate. We geeked out to an entire season of Heroes and could hardly tell the difference between the stream and a 1080i version we tested on Dish Network’s ViP622 HD-DVR. There was no jittering or pausing during playback, and the stream even compared favorably to the Blu-ray version of 300 played on a Sony PlayStation 3. The picture on Apple TV looks just a bit grainier for most movies, even a few of their HD videos.
So how is this possible? Roku uses a powerful codec to stream movies with good color quality, high sharpness, and 2-channel audio to save bandwidth. At the lowest quality setting, to accomodate a slow 700-Kbps connection, movies looked blurry and dark, as we expected. The player supports 802.11g, not 802.11n, but Wi-Fi speed is not nearly as important as Internet connection speed.
Movie Selection: Hit or Miss
Unfortunately, the Netflix Player’s one major drawback is its movie and TV-show selection, which matches the Watch Instantly feature at Netflix.com. When we reviewed the player, only 10,000 videos were available, and most of them were indie releases or older movies. The only new major Hollywood release we found was Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. You’ll find entire seasons of shows such as The Office and Weeds, but not recent seasons. Even the older movies are sub-standard: Kevin Costner’s The Postman, is in the top five of the Top Movie list. Ahem.
For now, we prefer the $299 Vudu for its much larger selection of current movies and TV shows, and the Apple TV (starting at $229) because it does so much more than movies. Still, for $99.99, the Roku Netflix Player does what it sets out to do and does it well. If Netflix cracks open the floodgates on its 100,000-movie archive, this player will become a must-buy.