I was getting more and more frustrated with my Netflix account. The company was going more and more in the direction of online streaming, but you had to use Internet Explorer to watch online movies and shows.
I knew for a long time that Netflix was going to push online streaming. After all, the whole business model with the mailing of DVDs had to be hugely expensive and incredibly inefficient: you’d spend a vast portion of your revenue on simply postage, no matter what wonderful deal they had with the USPS.
But Internet Explorer only? That surely couldn’t be, especially considering how poorly IE fares these days on the Internet. Turns out the reason is that Netflix chose to use whatever DRM Microsoft is pushing right now, which already tells you two things:
- Netflix is not serious about browser streaming
- We have to expect the usual fall-out of digital restrictions
On the browser streaming front, the obvious is happening: Netflix is pushing direct streaming to devices that are connected to TV sets anyway. That’s your game consoles, mostly, and if you go to the Netflix site, you see all the major platforms represented merrily. There is the PS3, Wii, Xbox. Soon, you’ll be able to stream your Netflix onto your Nintendo DS! (jkftr)
An interesting set of devices, though, are those that are specifically there just for streaming of video content. Of all the ones available, the Roku player looked best, so I got one. I went for the medium version, since the cheap one doesn’t do HD and the only advantage of the more expensive one is the latest wireless standard. I suggest you stick with wired connections, though, since wireless is not as smooth in my experience. (The prices are eminently reasonable for all three, ranging from $79 to $129 retail.)
The guys at Roku did an amazing job. The unit is dead simple to setup, it’s noiseless, and fairly small at about the size of a fat CD case. You plug it into the network, the power, and the TV set (cables provided, except for network) and it starts configuring itself. You can choose from a series of channels – for pay and free – and start linking all sorts of accounts.
You actually can see how much thought went into usability when you start looking at linking. As soon as Roku leaves off and the partner steps in, usability shoots down a few notches. In essence, you go to a specific URL, fetch a code, and type that code either into your computer (if you started the linking from the Roku) or into the Roku unit using an on-screen keyboard.
Frankly, since there aren’t that many interesting channels, the complexity of linking is not a big deal, currently. Surely, though, if you had a lot of channels to choose from (and hence to try out), a little more standardization would be necessary. In particular, having to switch from Roku to computer and back all the time is a real pain.
Let’s start with the good things, since there are a lot more and they are in balance the heavier ones.
The picture quality is amazing. HD shows on the Roku download reliably and without artifacts (most of the time, see below) on a cable Internet connection. The images are vivid, and switching from SD to HD on the Roku is painless and free (as in beer).
The choices of movies and shows on Netflix are great. Not everything is available, but a lot is, and more is added all the time. If you have a Netflix account anyway, then, you save a lot of money because you pretty much can do without the multi-disc subscription and switch to the cheapest subscription they have.
The software is very stable, reliable, predictable, and easy to use. There is one way to get to the menu, there is one way to switch things around, there is one way to navigate. Dead simple and consistent.
Despite the youth of the platform, the selection of interesting and innovative channels is amazing. You can view your Facebook photos (not videos for some reason) online, you can watch selected videos from sharing sites.
I admit I am entirely hooked on the idea and implementation of the Roku player, and most of my negative observations are either comments on the industry or suggestions for improvement.
On the former, DRM is clearly an issue for the service. It starts with the limited selection of movies and shows – something that all Netflix users have gotten used to an which we blame the industry for, not the provider. There were reports of Netflix not getting the latest movies, released to DVD but not provided to Netflix.
Of the movies available, you will get only one version. The extras on the DVDs are missing, presumably for the same reason. There are also no subtitles, which I find extremely annoying.
Something that is a combination of poor implementation and DRM is the fast forward and rewind component. It’s just not useful. What it does is present you with a series of snapshots at regular intervals into the stream, and you skip to the one you want. Sounds acceptable, but it means that you never enter into the stream at a precise location. Additionally, it takes a while to rebuild the stream once you skip – in the end, in most cases you are better off not skipping but watching through, which takes away half the fun of watching a movie to me.
Seriously – who doesn’t want to skip through some of the scenes in most movies? You know, the endless car chase, the bar brawl, the endless kiss? The scene were the protagonist walks through the hulking bowels of a space ship to build tension, just boring you to tears since you’ve seen that a million times before? I think the most important invention of the 20th century is the fast forward button, and there is not an old movie I like to watch without it by my side. Seeing scenes at 2x and 4x speed is hugely beneficial.
Rant aside, you can’t do that with the Roku. First of all, there is no 2x and 4x – just skipping through frames. There are no scene points, either, as we have gotten used to on DVDs: the player skips right into the middle of a scene, and to rewind to the beginning you have to move back, which means rebuilding the stream.
Now, rebuilding the stream takes a while – somewhere between a 10 and 60 seconds. So it’s not that switching web page kind of deal.
On the user interface front, there are several aspects of the player that could use some love. I mentioned the inconsistent and cumbersome way linking is handled. But that’s understandable at this point.
Some things could be improved on the player itself, though. For instance, you cannot use the forward/back buttons to move to a different episode in a series. You have to go through a menu item (“Select different episode” or such). That’s annoying, because switching between episodes is something you have to do every time you want to go to the next episode without watching the end credits.
Lack of subtitles, something I already mentioned, is particularly painful to people that are hard of hearing or to whom the show’s language is not familiar. I hope, since it really makes no difference at all to Netflix or Roku, that feature is going to be added soon.
If you have a Netflix subscription, no current game console, and no immediate need for subtitles, run and get yourself a Roku player! It’s an amazing little gadget, and just the saving in subscription cost will make it pay for itself within a year. If I had three thumbs, the little Roku would get all three of them up.