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First impressions of $100 Netflix box

May 20, 2008  |  Rick Lehrbaum
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Netflix and Roku have jointly announced a tiny set-top box (STB) said to offer unlimited streaming of DVDs and TV episodes on Netflix members’ TVs. The $100 “Netflix Player by Roku” is confirmed to run a customized version of Linux, along with robust DRM (digital rights management) technology.

Netflix already provided a service for members to instantly watch DVDs and TV episodes on their PCs. That capability required the presence of Microsoft DRM via Windows XP or Vista, however, and did not support Mac or Linux users.



Netflix Player by Roku, front and rear

The new STB works in conjunction with Netflix’s website. Using a PC, members add movies and TV episodes to a special Netflix “instant queue.” Once the instant queue is created or updated from the PC, users can browse the list of queued content from their TV via the STB by means of the STB’s remote control (pictured below), select an item for viewing, read synopses of DVDs or shows, and even rate movies immediately after watching them. The remote also provides fast-forwarding, rewinding, pausing, features.

Interestingly, the STB does not include a hard drive for caching the video locally. Although Netflix claims that its technology includes “optimization… [that] eliminates the need for a hard disk drive associated with video downloads,” it remains to be seen how well the device streams DVDs with typical DSL download rates, especially when connected via WiFi. The device also performs automatic software upgrades.

Key specifications of the “Netflix Player by Roku STB,” as listed by Netflix, include…

  • Video and audio connections:
    • HDMI
    • Component video
    • S-Video
    • Composite video
    • Digital optical audio
    • Analog Stereo Audio
  • Network connections:
    • Wired Ethernet
    • WiFi (supports WEP, WPA, and WPA2)
  • Size approx. 5 x 5 x 2 inches
  • Accessories:
    • Remote control (including 2 AAA batteries)

    • A/V cable (yellow/red/white RCA)
    • Power adapter
    • Getting started guide



Rear panel connections

First impressions (updated May 31)

Not surprisingly, I wasted no time ordering one of these nifty devices. In the order acknowledgment, which was sent from a Roku email address, I was told, “You can expect your order to ship from our warehouse in the next day or two.” This initial email was followed by another, apologizing that “Interest in the Player has exceeded our expectations and as such, we are experiencing some delays in shipping.”

About ten days later the device finally arrived. Within about 30 minutes I had unpacked it, plugged it in, followed its easy-as-pie activation procedure, and was happily watching my first Netflix instant download on my TV.

The unit surprised me with its small size, despite the fact that I knew its dimensions in advance. Roku really appears to have done a great design on it. It’s powered via a compact “wall wart” and generates very little heat.

One complaint, though is that there’s no power switch. Perhaps the device goes into a low-power standby mode when idle, but in deference to global warming concerns a power button would be a welcome addition! My solution is to unplug the device’s power cord when it’s not being used; the unit boots up quickly when I plug it back in.

So far, the device has performed flawlessly, and the video quality seems quite satisfactory. Other than the lack of a power button, the only other shortcoming at this point is the limited number of movie and TV series titles that are available for instant viewing out of Netflix’s vast video library. However, Netflix has promised that more will be coming, so for now I’m content to watch what’s available and look forward to the future.

And hey, for just $99 (on top of Netflix’s modest DVDs-by-mail service monthly fee) it’s quite a bargain!

Further info

For further details on the device, visit the Netflix Player by Roku FAQ on Roku’s website.

(advertise here)


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