Technology

A $99, No-Frills Player from Netflix


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Editor's Rating: star rating

Seeing is believing with the video-rental company's foray into hardware, in partnership with set-top box maker Roku

As I watched the first few minutes of a TV program on the new $99 Netflix Player, I grew worried that the DVD rental service had gotten something horribly wrong with this foray into Internet video downloads.

The player, Netflix's (NFLX) first stab at consumer hardware, was designed in partnership with set-top box maker Roku. I had fired up the first episode of Sleeper Cell, a cable series about terrorists plotting on American soil, and watched the first minute in dismay. The picture was so grainy it made me wonder how both companies could be confidently predicting they would compete with the likes of Apple (AAPL), TiVo (TIVO), and Vudu, whose elegant video-streaming boxes have been on the market for some time.

After that first minute, though, I became a believer. The box stopped the stream for about a minute as it optimized the picture based on my Internet connection and setup, then came back with a picture so crisp and clear that I practically cheered. The video looks to be about DVD-quality, though it may have been helped somewhat by a new Samsung high-definition television that does a decent job of up-converting images to the set's native 1080p resolution.

Setup Is Quick and Simple

After about a week with the Netflix Player, I came away convinced that despite certain flaws, this device is the first to deliver a truly enjoyable digital download experience with none of the preconditions and expense that have discouraged consumers from embracing these products.

Upon taking the remarkably compact device out of its box, setup was quick and simple. With your purchase, you get a component cable with red, white, and yellow connectors that works well with older analog televisions. I used a spare HD multimedia, or HDMI, cable to connect the box to the HDTV.

To use the service, you need a relatively fast broadband service. You can connect the box to the Internet using either your Wi-Fi wireless router or an Ethernet cable. I recommend the hard-wired connection to avoid the occasional wireless interference, which is no big deal with Web browsing but can easily mar a video.

You Must Subscribe to Netflix's Movie Plan

Anyone familiar with Netflix will be familiar with the player's on-screen menu, which mimics the company's Web site in graphics and design. You need to activate the box via the TV with a five-digit code that you get from your account on the Web site. While the download service is free, you must subscribe to one of Netflix's unlimited movie-rental plans, which begin at $9 a month.

To get started, you go to the Web site on your computer and choose the movies and TV shows you'd like to watch, placing them in your "Instant Watch" queue. Netflix has thoughtfully upgraded its site to let you search for content that is available for download, narrowing significantly the list of more than 100,000 titles currently on offer for mail-order rental. You can even search for a particular genre, such as action or comedy.

Back on the TV, you simply press the home key to reach your list using a compact nine-button remote control that borrows a page of simplicity from Apple. You use left and right buttons to scroll through the DVD cover art. To refresh your memory about why you chose a particular title, you can press the select button and view a story synopsis, the leading actors, director, film rating, and running time. Using the up and down arrows, you can rate the video or remove it from your queue.

Changing the Paradigm

Once you hit the play button, it takes just 20-30 seconds for the title to begin streaming. You can't store the films to a hard drive, but the box has built-in memory to cache enough content so that the video stream remains stutter-free. I cut off the box's Web connection by removing the Ethernet cable and the video continued to run for just over two minutes before cutting off.

My sudden embrace of Netflix's instant movie service with this device is all the more remarkable when you consider that I have never once downloaded a Netflix video to watch on a computer since the company introduced that capability in early 2007. My office firewall blocks playback, and I've never had much hankering to watch a movie on a computer screen at home when there's a TV so readily available. What's more, the Netflix download library of slightly more than 8,000 titles seemed woefully inadequate when weighed against the inconvenience of watching them on a small PC screen.

But the paradigm changes with the addition of the big screen. Over a lazy Memorial Day weekend, the Netflix Player and this seemingly limited selection actually became a plus. Many of the older titles on my list of requests for DVD rentals by mail had been buried at the bottom for some time, always pushed lower as I added newer releases to the top of my preferences. But now I found that many of these older titles had become available for streaming. I moved those videos, including episodes of The Munsters and the British version of The Office, into the Instant Watch queue and zipped through a number of them.

Stopping a Stinker in Midstream

I also added movies that I'd been on the bubble about, including Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Since you can only have a certain number of DVDs at a time, and it takes two or three days for new ones to arrive, I worried that such titles may not have been worth that "investment." But with instant streaming, you can stop a stinker and move on to another choice in seconds without limit or extra fees.

That's a key advantage over rival services such as Apple TV, Amazon (AMZN) Unbox (through TiVo), and Vudu, which demand up-front payment of $3.99 to $4.99 a title—and limit the time window you have to watch a movie once you download it. Another nifty feature available while searching Netflix for instant movies on your computer is the ability to search through the top 25 downloads overall and the top 50 in different genres.

With the Netflix Player, you can't actually purchase a movie. But I'd wager that many people would be perfectly happy most of the time with a single viewing. You can always download a video again.

Good News For Couch Potatoes

It would certainly enhance the service if Netflix dramatically increased the stock of movies available for streaming. And the company would knock one out of the ballpark if it could get studios to offer new releases for download, though the economics of this proposition make such a move unlikely in the short term.

Even so, the company's hybrid of mail-order and download rentals—delivered at relatively low cost and easy to use—sets a new standard for the industry. It will force competitors to reexamine the much-maligned subscription model and spur a new round of innovation in the marketplace. Already, Netflix is working to build the technology directly into big-screen televisions, and it plans to offer HD-video downloads soon. That's good news indeed for couch potatoes.


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