Reviewed: Roku Netflix Player

Discussion in 'DVD Video' started by Ablang, May 31, 2008.

  1. Ablang

    Ablang Guest

    Roku Netflix Player

    http://www.pcworld.com/article/id,146147/article.html?tk=nl_texrvw

    Inexpensive streaming box makes it simple to access movies in your
    Netflix Instant Queue.

    The concept of on-demand video is not new. Nor is the idea of
    delivering video to your TV via the Internet. But Roku's $100 Netflix
    Player transcends those two individual ideas by combining both into a
    simple device that works as billed to stream standard definition video
    to your television.

    Video: Netflix Streams to Your TV

    The Roku Netflix Player represents the first salvo in Netflix's push
    into the living room with streaming video. Previously, the Web-based
    movie rental company had announced at CES that it was partnering with
    LG to provide a box, too. But Roku's is first to market--and as such,
    garners all the notice.

    Compact enough to fit in with other gadgets in your living room, the
    Netflix Player is unremarkable black, five-inch square that stands
    just two inches tall. The device sits between your television and your
    Internet connection (wired or wireless 802.11 b/g). The back of the
    device is packed with ports, but doesn't overwhelm: The unit outputs
    HDMI, composite, component, and S-Video ports out the back, along with
    SPDIF and analog stereo audio.

    The installation screen warns you that set-up make take three minutes;
    in reality, though, it may take longer if you're not also by your
    computer. Set-up went smoothly, but in order to activate the Netflix
    Player, I had to log into my Netflix account on my PC, enter an
    activation code provided by the box, and then return to the unit.

    Entering an access code isn't the only thing you'll need to power up
    your PC for: Roku says it made a conscious decision to keep the
    Netflix Player as simple as possible by only allowing you to browse
    titles in your Netflix Instant Queue (Netflix currently offers over
    10,000 movies and television shows for immediate viewing). That means
    this TV companion will likely provide less of an impulse experience
    than, say, the Apple TV--which lets you browse options directly from
    the device--or even than, say, a cable service on-demand system like
    Comcast offers.

    But, the counterpoint--and Roku's reasoning--holds that Netflix users
    are regularly in their accounts, browsing for titles to add to their
    disc delivery queue. Using the Instant Queue is simply an elegant
    extension of that, and it keeps the on-unit navigation down to a
    manageable minimum.

    For regular users of Netflix's service, the Roku Netflix Player makes
    sense. Beyond the $100 cost of the box--a far more casual purchase
    than the $229Apple TV or $299 Vudu--you'll need to subscribe to one of
    Netflix's four plans (the first plan that makes sense for this box is
    the $8.99 plan for one DVD at-a-time and unlimited hours of "instant"
    viewing on your PC or through your box).

    I found simplicity to be the ongoing theme with the Roku Netflix
    Player. The remote fit comfortably in my hand, and has a minimal
    number of keys: A Home button to return you to the main screen, a five-
    way navigation (four directional arrows and select), and three buttons
    beneath that for rewind, play/pause, and fast forward.

    The software interface was simple and straightforward, too. Navigating
    through my Instant Queue choices was easy, too: the left-right
    directional arrows let me breezily scroll through options. The
    device's settings were buried, though; fortunately, you won't need
    these often, but if you do, you'll have to first find the settings
    menu (hidden away and accessible only if you intuit to press the up
    arrow, as subtly shown on the screen).

    The player has 256MB of RAM, and stores its software in ROM. It does
    some video scaling, too: According to Roku, the box receives the VC-1-
    encoded Windows Media file from Netflix, decrypts and decodes the
    file, and then scales it so the image fills the screen top-to-bottom,
    or side-to-side, as needed.

    Netflix has four quality settings for every Instant film, and those
    settings--each at a different bitrate--represent different quality
    options the service delivers, depending upon your network bandwidth.
    Roku recommends users have at minimum a 1.5Mbps connection; movies
    average a bit-rate of 2.2Mbps. The player uses algorithms to analyze
    the available bandwidth and the film's bitrate, and adjust the
    playback quality accordingly.

    Personally, I found the image quality underwhelming--but not much
    worse than my digital cable connection at home. Over a wired
    connection, the image quality on the movies I tested was (mostly)
    passable: I saw minimal artifacts, but the image looked flat, with
    muted colors. Some standard def content was downright blurry: the
    opening credits for some films and television shows were difficult to
    read. Clearly, I wasn't watching Blu-ray quality 1080p images with the
    depth and detail I've become accustomed to in high-def.

    Still, the image quality was better than I'd expected considering the
    Roku was outputting at 480p to a 50-inch Pioneer plasma television,
    and better than many full-screen streaming experiences I've had--
    included with Netflix--on a PC. Roku outputs content by default at 4:3
    aspect ratio; when you change the display setting to widescreen 16:9,
    Roku says it outputs anamorphic 4:3 content, so your TV can stretch
    the image properly.

    One neat addition that's unusual for the world of streaming media:
    Roku worked with Netflix to create a way to mimic fast-forwarding and
    chapter marks on a DVD. Netflix took still frames every 10 seconds of
    every video it offers; when you playback a movie, the device not only
    buffers the film, but it buffers those JPEGs, too. When I fast-
    forwarded through a film, I could quickly scan frames (JPEGs) to find
    my desired spot; I then waited the 20-30 seconds (give or take,
    depending upon your connection) for the playback to reset to that spot
    and catch up.

    Although the Roku Netflix Player is, for now, limited in its
    functionality, Roku says the device is surround-sound (as opposed to
    stereo) and HD-ready (a software update may be required). The company
    also says it's looking into other service delivery partnerships.

    As it stands, the Roku Netflix Player may be a great companion for the
    living room, den, or bedroom--if you're already committed to Netflix,
    have bandwidth to spare, and don't mind watching variable-quality
    images. If Roku can add more functionality to the player going
    forward, this device's usefulness will increase multifold.
    Ablang, May 31, 2008
    #1
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