Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Gear: Netflix Roku Streaming Video Service

Netflix sent out an email this morning advertising their new set-top streaming video device from Roku (an excerpt):
You can now get some movies and TV episodes streamed instantly to your TV via the Netflix Player by Roku, available for purchase today for only $99.99.
This is great on many levels. First, it recognizes that HTPCs are not and will never be the mainstream method to get online video to a TV. The concept has been around long enough that if the public were going to embrace HTPCs, they would have already. Second, the price is right. No one wants another box sitting under their TV no matter how small. But for $100, a lot of people may say, "Eh, what the hell." This is going to put the online, on-demand streaming world right at the fingertips of a lot of people that wouldn't have otherwise considered it. Third, the remote (right) has just nine buttons, a pretty good indication that this device is designed with simplicity in mind.

Netflix already operates a web-based streaming service called Watch Instantly that's packaged as a free extra with any subscription. Unfortunately, it's relatively useless without an HTPC to get the video to your TV. However, if you do have an HTPC, it's a very nice service. After a one-time application download, Watch Instantly is pretty intuitive and easy to use. The movie selection is a little weak but the TV show selection is decent. Every once in a while, I'll throw on an episode of the A-Team and relive my childhood. (Wow, that show is awesomely cheesy!) Quality depends on both the source (e.g. A-Team is an old print and doesn't look very good) and your internet connection speed. Any level of broadband connection is likely to get you their highest quality stream, which is a touch below DVD-quality.

It's probably a fair assumption that the Roku box will just port directly into the Watch Instantly system, so interface aside, it should function very similarly.

A couple questions:

Does the simplicity hinted at by the basic remote make it's way to the visual interface? It better.

HD-quality streaming may still be years away, but can this device handle it? Or will a new device be necessary? Unless Netflix is subsidizing the price, at $100, my guess is the latter.

Who designed this sucker? The design is way too clunky. Did they even glance at the Apple TV box? This isn't a direct competitor to the Apple TV, but it's in a similar market. Sure, small is important, but people want sexy/sleek/shiny/stylish in their living room, not drab and blocky. Hopefully future iterations improve on the exterior.

I'm excited to see what kind of market there is for a device like this.

UPDATE (8/7): I probably should have googled this product before writing because it appears that it's been out, at least for media reviewing, since the end of May. There's a particularly good review by David Pogue over at NY Times. He answers my first two questions above: yes, the interface is very simple, and yes, it's capable of decoding and displaying HD-quality streams in the future. WOW. For only $100, this is a pretty impressive piece of technology.


jdb said...

If you have an XBox 360, you don't even need this device. Coming with the fall update to the 360 if you have a Netflix account you can access the streaming stuff from Netflix right through your 360. No extra little box needed.

I was thinking about the Roku until Microsoft announced this. Even better, it'll just need a software update to someday handle HD.

CorrND said...

Yeah, there definitely seems to be a convergence toward set-top boxes for streaming video. I remember once-upon-a-time, everybody thought all your entertainment needs were going to come through one box, the HTPC. Though I love mine and the variety of tasks it can perform, I think that ship has sailed.

The Xbox360/Netflix deal is a nice bonus if you've already got the 360. But if not, only $100 for this Roku could be tempting to some!

Erik Huntoon said...

One other note about the Xbox, I just read yesterday that the base model Xbox is due for a price drop to $199 next month. That would be the model without a hard drive, but that would still allow for streaming the Netflix service when that goes live.

The negative for the 360 / Netflix deal is you have to have an Xbox Live Gold membership, which costs roughly $50 a year if you pay 12 months at a time. I already pay this for the privilege to play online, but that may be enough to hinder how accepted the service becomes vs. paying a one time $99 price and getting the same service as you can with the Roku.