The title just about says it all.  With any Netflix account of about $9 per month or more, the new $100 Netflix Player by Roku effortlessly connects to your high-speed wired or wireless network and then to ANY TV and streams content to watch and enjoy seconds after choosing what it is you want to watch.  This is a one-time purchase costing not one penny more to use above your current, eligible Netflix account.

I received my Netflix Player by Roku box yesterday and within five minutes I was watching a movie.  It was that simple.

There are outputs for composite video, component video, S-Video, HDMI, standard audio with a pair of RCA jacks and digital optical audio out.  There is an Ethernet connector as well as built-in 802.11b/g Wi-Fi.

 

Connect to ANY TV and to you’re A/V receiver, if you have one.  If not, don’t worry about it – play the audio through whatever you have, whatever you now use, be it TV or other speakers.  It ships with composite audio/video cables.  Buy your own HDMI to connect to your HDTV, best priced from www.monoprice.com.  (For example, get a 10-foot cable delivered for about $10!  Don’t spend more, which you most assuredly will if you buy from ANY of the usual electronics retailers.)

I connected it using HDMI on my HD display, plugged in the power adapter and selected that input on the TV.  I saw the startup screen that indicated the setup routine. I selected the wireless option and it immediately saw my wireless network.

Once selected, it asked for the password to join the network, which I entered using the remote control, up, down, left, right through the alphabet and numbers, pressing Select to choose all the right characters.  When finished, I moved the select box to show I was done.  In about no time, I was connected. Next, I was asked for my activation code.  I read in the simple foldout manual that I would need to log on by computer to my existing Netflix account and enter the activation code generated by the box.

 

Once entered, I clicked Activate and in a nanosecond, I was in. The box automatically downloaded an update and indicated it would restart. The TV screen went blank and I waited. I waited one minute and nothing happened, so I popped the power plug from the back of the box and inserted it again.  The box restarted, I saw the screen with a few preloaded instant-view movies ready for me to watch.  I used the UP button to get into settings, selected that my set was native 16:9 display and not 4:3, turned off the remote sounds (I do this on all my stuff, phones, remotes, and cameras.  I want them SILENT.) That’s it, really, in less than five minutes.

I looked back at the laptop screen in my Netflix account and started to browse the selections available for this instant viewing.  All the genres are there and there are said to currently be more than 12,000 selections available, from movies to documentaries, children’s and family fare, classics, television shows, comedy, drama, numerous independent films I was pleased to see available, even gay and lesbian-themed content.  Another WOW!

Here is where I found my only less-than-the-best feeling.  Among the now 12,000+ titles are few of the “A” titles available from the rest of the Netflix catalog.  At this time, these are the only titles licensed for direct streaming to our TVs.  You see, there are still some anti-piracy issues to overcome. A few bad eggs have spoiled the party because it is possible to take the output from the box and record it, which is not what this box is all about.  If Netflix offered their best, top features and other content, it would certainly be pirated.  Such a shame!

I searched again last week and discovered an awesome find, last year’s biopic about Edith Piaf, La Vie en Rose, for which the movie’s star, Marion Cotillard, so deservedly earned and Oscar.  This is further evidence that the instant viewing selections are continuing to improve.

Online at the Netflix site, the company is offering more categories that help users find interesting content.  Horizontal scrolling is available to search new movies in general, new TV shows, and then new releases according to all the genre listings.  It’s getting better and better.

Still, this Netflix by Roku box is awesome, and it works just as simply and well as I’ve said. Oh, and they only send standard stereo sound through the box at this time, so don’t expect Surround Sound yet.  This, too, will most certainly change (another without foundation prognostication on my part).

All viewing selections are made online using your computer while logged on to the user’s account. Select the title, hold the cursor over the Play button which opens a drop-down “Add to Instant Queue” to click and in just a few seconds, if you are watching on the Roku main screen at the same time, you will see that title added to what is available through the Netflix by Roku box.  I love this!

The picture is respectable and totally watchable and enjoyable.  Not quite as good as DVD quality and certainly not High Def, but these are currently tradeoffs.  With our 6 Mbps DSL service, content streams as fast as it can, fast enough for Netflix to provide their best of four different levels of signal quality. Remember, content is streamed in real time so the connection had better be fast enough to set the quality to the highest level.  Slower connections will get progressively lower quality video.

(If they eventually offer High Def content, I would imagine they will need to offer higher cost hardware that can buffer larger amounts of data ahead of viewing and it will take some time to bring in enough data in advance of beginning viewing.  I do not think this box can handle it.  In addition, I can only imagine (and I really am just speculating and could be entirely incorrect) that a better way to allow for High Def viewing may also be through a wired or wireless 802.11n upgrade.  Since so few consumers have what it takes at home to stream over 802.11n, I can see how it may take a while to make available any High Def content.  In addition, Netflix will have to encode their content in High Def in order to serve it up. As it is now, the company must encode in four different quality levels to serve the current needs, and that takes lots of time per DVD. I know this geek-speak is lost on most of you and likely of little interest to the rest of you, but I wanted to provide some additional thoughts on this product that may be mildly interest to some of you.)

When a title is clicked/selected in the main screen, and then clicked /selected to play (this is SO easy), a progress bar shows the progress toward the time until viewing begins.  At the same time, the box is downloading and saving on a time line little thumbnail images every few seconds throughout the presentation. Since the video is streamed and you are not watching a DVD, there had to be some method of showing portions that may be of interest should the viewer wish to skip forward.  This is cleverly done, though it cannot be seamlessly done.  That is, there is going to be some delay between selecting that forward point and the player beginning to play from that forward point.  Content must always be buffered.  So, it is important for users to remember how this box and the system works, very unlike watching a DVD, whether watching forward or wanting to do the equivalent of rewinding.  It’s just not going to work that way. I say get over it.  This box is cool!

If I stop watching something, the next time I go to it in the Netflix by Roku screen, I am given the option of resuming watching where I left off. Niiiiiiiiice!

Even without much of their “A” content, I found lots to like.  We like to watch classic TV shows, ad there are several from which to choose, seasons and hours upon hours to watch.  I love documentaries and there are numerous Ken Burns PBS documentaries as well as countless others. I love the classic movies, and there are plenty to occupy my time here, too.

I figure it this way.  The box costs only $100. I already have a Netflix account, which I love, so using the box provides near-instant gratification and I don’t have to wait for a disc to come in the mail.  Use is unlimited. There is no additional charge to view as much as I want, as often as I want.  Each time I view something and do not have to wait and do not have to drive to get it or to return it, I am money ahead.  Paying only $100 becomes a bargain for something so immediately useful, easy to set up, easy to use, and easy to love.

I’ve read that some think consumers will not like having a set-top box like this.  I think not. Those pundits are nuts.  The box is tiny and unobtrusive.  The remote is SO easy to use. I’ve already set up my Harmony One universal remote to control it.

I think this Netflix by Roku box is going to be a huge hit.  It’s highly recommended and if you are not yet a Netflix account holder, this is a great reason to join Netflix now.

I also think the Netflix by Roku box is a good choice for students’ entertainment at home or in dorms.  I’ve not tested one in a dorm situation, but I will this fall when I have that opportunity.  Technologically speaking, there is nothing to suggest an issue.  However, some colleges and universities may cap the amount of data that can be downloaded or transferred to any particular computer address (this is the IP address of the Roku box), one way they can impede the bulk theft of music over the Internet.  Of course, this is a legitimate and legal transfer of, perhaps, a couple of gigabytes of data, more or less, with each video viewed.  My advice is to go ahead with the purchase for a student in a dorm, but do it when school starts and not much before.  That way, if the school limits bandwidth, you and your student will know right away and the product can be easily returned within its 30-day money back guarantee period.  Make sense?  Oh, and don’t forget that your student will need a TV or computer monitor with video inputs and speakers in order to watch movies.

For a home-based student, this should not be an issue.

What is the future for Netflix’s streaming products?  Other ways to do the same thing were previously announced.  LG Electronics and Netflix announced there will be a product in the second half of 2008, but there were no other details in the announcements.  I suspect the LG product would be one that, perhaps, includes a networked Blu-ray player with streaming Netflix content capability as an added service.  It’s just a guess, but I am certain it will have to cost more than this Roku box, which I think is just about right the way it is.  I am also certain we will see other hardware incorporating this technology and capability from Netflix

For those of you who are not already aware of it, Netflix already provides to Windows owners the opportunity to stream content for viewing directly on their computers.  Sorry, Mac users.

Think about getting an additional box for another TV in the home.  I know of no restrictions preventing more than one box per account.  If you’ve got a vacation home, take the box with you anywhere in the US where you have access to broadband for the box.

I can’t wait for Netflix to figure a way to deliver more of their content, to deliver Surround Sound and even to find a way to provide a High Def experience in a product like this new box.  However, again, this $100 product is already well worth the money.  Get best prices on the latest Roku players at Amazon.

Congratulations to both Netflix and Roku on a superb first effort!  What a terrific gift idea!

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