Wednesday, May 21, 2008

First Netflix Streaming Box Review, $100 and Unlimited Downloads!

Netflix's first streaming box is finally here and it's pretty damn brilliant of a setup. First of all, the box is 99 bucks, and designed by Roku. It's fanless and quiet; has HDMI and optical outputs; and is about the size of five CD cases stacked together. Any Netflix disc mailing plan over $9 gets you unlimited streaming of almost 10,000 titles. Unlimited! 10K titles! Take that Apple TV and Vudu!

You boot up the box, set the network to wireless or Ethernet connectivity. You get a five digit code, head over to using a browser on a PC or other device, log into your Netflix account and enter the code. The Roku box gets your queue and the movie/show cover art. There are HDMI and optical connections on top of the standard video outs, but those cables are not included.

The box itself doesn't have menus. No, instead, you use Netflix's brilliant website to load up your queue. You just use the remote to scan through your instant viewing queue (now separate from the disc queue) select a movie and play. It starts streaming. (Remember, there's no download/purchase program here and the device has no HDD, just 64MB of buffer.) The box is completely quiet, again, due to its fanless design. Movies stream in at different VC-1 bitrates of 500kbps, 1Mbps, 1.6Mbps and 2.2Mbps, depending on connection speed. Quality is not great, even at 2.2 Mbps, but I'm happy enough considering viewing is instantaneous. Note: Unlike Apple TV, scrolling between cover art is not done in an animated way. HDMI res is 480p, while all the other outputs are 480i. Fast forwarding is handled by key-framing movie content every 10 seconds, so you can FF to parts of the movie that haven't been downloaded yet, at three speeds. Once you hit play, the movie buffers for a few seconds and resumes. Speaking of resuming, the player itself does remember where you left off last in a movie and will continue playing from that point. One nice touch: You can score movies from the movie detail page. One bad thing: You can't search the Netflix website specifically for instant titles.

While appearing to have double the collection of Apple TV or Vudu, what do you get in Netflix's 10,000 movie collection? Basically, you get a lot of back catalog (classic movies) and a lot of TV shows (unheard of in rental situations!) right as they hit the market. But you don't get the same blockbusters on day one release that you'd get from Apple TV or Vudu. That makes the Netflix box and disc system a great supplement to those systems, which seem to specialize in new releases. (Kudos to Saul from the NYTimes for discovering this initially.) The business model behind a flat rate unlimited streaming system is unheard of. Sure, they're taking a lot of older content, which is inherently cheaper. But think of it this way: For a nine-dollar-a-month account, you can hold off on buying older DVDs or watching TV shows. A box set of Ghost in the Shell or 30 Rock costs over 50 bucks on DVD or by renting individual downloads, but you can stream many of these episodes for nine bucks a month. Buying the Karate Kid, an old movie not on many download services, costs a few bucks on DVD, but I can just watch it whenever I want as long as I'm a Netflix customer. (And consider that the number of great back catalog titles like that will probably outpace new releases you'd find on Vudu or Apple TV.) It's basically the same as Netflix's current model, but instead of being limited by the postal service, you're limited by your spare time and interest in older titles. (And don't forget Netflix's disc-by-mail service, which still covers new titles.)

The Future
Netflix is planning HD streaming, and this box will support it. When Netflix gets HD streaming content, they'll update the box by firmware to support HD resolutions at higher bitrates of 4-6mbps, including 5.1 surround (everything is stereo now). The menus will also be upgraded to HD res, too. In the future, the Roku-branded box will be upgraded to accept non-Netflix content, too. (And btw, the update on the Mac client situation is that they're just trying to sort out the DRM issues, or lack of a suitable system they can stream to Macs on.)

The box will be sold on Roku's website directly. Worth buying if you're a Netflix customer (or thinking of becoming a Netflix customer) and can find enough titles for Instant Viewing on their site.