When NetFlix first came out with their “Watch it Now” feature I thought that it was a big deal (you can read that post here). Here, finally, was a way to be able to watch a good chunk of the NetFlix catalog right there on your PC without having to wait for your DVDs to arrive in the mail. And, best of all, it was free for people who were already NetFlix members.
Unfortunately, in order to play those movies you had to use a special plugin for Internet Explorer, and that meant that you had to watch them on a computer. So, if you’re like me and you wanted to watch those movies on your TV, you had to be able to hook your PC (I used a laptop) up to your television. It worked, but it wasn’t exactly convenient.
Next came the vmcNetFlix add-in for Media Center (read my post on that here). This add-in allowed people who were running the Vista version of Windows Media Center to watch the NetFlix streaming videos inside of Media Center instead of through Internet Explorer. Even better, it allowed people who had Media Center Extenders (like an XBox 360) to stream that content to their TV without having to have a PC in the living room. That worked better, but it still required a PC (running Media Center) and a set-top box (the XBox 360 or other Media Center Extender).
But now there’s a way to watch NetFlix streaming videos without using a computer at all. It’s from Roku, and it’s called the NetFlix Player. Let’s check it out.
The Roku NetFlix Player is a tiny (about the size of a paperback) set-top box that attaches to your home network and outputs video directly to your television. It allows you to stream NetFlix content and display it directly onto your TV. No laptops, no Media Center Extenders — nothing is required for video playback except a valid NetFlix membership, a home network with a broadband internet connection, and a television.
The device can connect to either your wired or wireless home network. The setup procedure for both is quite simple but does require you to have a DHCP server somewhere on your network (just about every home router and wireless access point has this capability turned on by default). If you’re using the wired connection there really isn’t anything else which needs to be set up. If you’re using a wireless connection you’ll have to supply the SSID and, for those access point which have been secured, you’ll also have to supply the password during the setup.
Once the NetFlix Player establishes that it can connect to your home network it will check to make sure that it can connect to the internet and, specifically, to the NetFlix website. If there are no problems it displays a 6-character code. You have to use a computer to log into your account on the NetFlix website and enter that code which then binds the player to your NetFlix account (a one-time operation).
As as physical connections go the NetFlix player comes equipped with an ethernet connector, composite, s-video, component, and HDMI video connections, RCA-style audio jacks and an optical (Toslink) connector. If you can’t connect this device to you television it may be time to seriously consider getting a new TV.
While you’re on the NetFlix website make sure that you have at least a few movies in your “Instant” queue. NetFlix now has two different queues for you — the “DVD” queue, which is where the DVDs which get mailed to your house come from, and the “Instant” queue, which is where you maintain the list of features you’d like to access through the NetFlix Player. The NetFlix Player will show you all of the items in your Instant queue but doesn’t give you any way to add additional content to that queue so you’ll still need to use a computer to do that.
The user interface for the NetFlix Player is extremely simple to use. There a only a few options under the Setup tab, like setting the display type (4:3 or 16:9) and the network connection information.
The Instant Queue tab shows everything which have placed into your “Instant” queue on the NetFlix website. At this point the interface shows you all of the entries which you’ve entered in the same order that they’re in on the website. There are no sub-categories like genre (Horror or Drama), type (movie or TV show), or even the ability to search for a particular title by name — just a “flat” listing of all of the content. If you don’t have many entries in your Instant queue it probably won’t be a problem but if you’re queue is full (you’re allowed 500 entries) then I can see how this may become an issue. I’m sure that this is an area which Roku will be making some changes.
There are some additional features which make navigating your content a bit easier. For instance, if you choose a TV series the player will show you all of the episodes on the disc you’ve chosen along with the names of the episodes. That allows you to just pick one episode instead of having to watch the entire disc. Overall, the interface is quite attractive, intuitive, and simple to use.
Once you select the video stream you’d like to see things get interesting. The first thing that happens is the player checks to see what kind of speed you’re getting on your internet connection. There are a number of factors which can affect your speed, including the maximum bandwidth which you’re allotted by your ISP, other activity on your home network, and, if you’re using a wireless connection, the strength of your wireless signal.
Once the NetFlix Player determines what your bandwidth capabilities are it decides between 4 different streams of different quality offered by the NetFlix streaming servers (0.5Mbps, 1.0 Mbps, 1.6Mbps, and 2.0Mbps). The idea is that the player want to give you the stream with the highest video quality which your connection to handle but doesn’t want to choose a stream which is going to result in a lot of pauses as it buffers the stream while you’re trying to watch your video. NetFlix recommends that you have a minimum of a 1.5Mbps connection in order to assure a smooth experience with the NetFlix player.
After the player decides what stream it’s going to use in contact the NetFlix server and asks for that stream. The player will buffer a bit of the stream before the video starts just in case there are a few network slowdowns or other hiccups while you’re watching your video. The buffering can take anywhere from about 10 to 30 seconds. If your connection slows down while you’re watching your video to the point where the player needs to keep buffering the stream it will “dumb” you down to a slower (and lesser video quality) stream.
Compared to a DVD the highest quality image is just a bit soft and occasionally shows a tiny bit of pixellation from the encoding process, especially during abrupt scene changes, but even the worst-quality video stream is certainly “watchable”. The audio is also passable, although at this point the audio for all of the videos is only analog (PCM). All in all the audio and video quality are quite good, especially considering that the content is being streamed over the internet.
That being said, the real promise of this player might will be realized when NetFlix starts serving High Definition content. Roku has said that their box can handle those HD streams and that they’ll be rolling out a firmware update when NetFlix starts their HD streaming. They’ve also said that you’ll have to make sure that you’re using the HDMI connection and that your equipment can handle the HDCP copyright protection in order to take advantage of that HD content but, with a very few number of exceptions, every TV that has an HDMI input should meet those requirements.
Wrapping it up
So there it is. Roku’s NetFlix Player does just what it says it does — it gives you the ability to watch streaming content from NetFlix right there on your television. The setup is painless, the UI is well-done (if a bit Spartan at this point), and the whole process, from beginning to end, is quite smooth. Considering that the box only costs $100 and will be able to handle the HD feeds that NetFlix has promised to deliver, if you’ve every wanted to be able to watch video streams on your television instead of on your computer then this is the device that you’ve been waiting for. Give it a shot — you won’t be disappointed.