Last month, Netflix released a set-top box to accompany the "Watch Instantly" section of their website. It's called Netflix Roku... and it's awesome.
If you already have a Netflix subscription, but don't use the streaming video section because you hate watching tv on your computer: this is for you. If you sometimes hate the two or three day lag in between when you return your Netflix dvds and the next batch of dvds arrives: this is for you. If you at one time had the expensive movie packages on digital cable that came with a myriad On Demand section, but no longer could afford the extra $40 a month: this is for you.
For me, all of the above applies. We'd just downgraded our cable from a super deluxe package that afforded us all the crappy B-Movies and 80's hits that Cinemax could offer. And at $3.99 a rental, the pay-on-demand portion of our cable service -- while chock full of "new releases" -- was always just a little too unrealistic for us to use regularly. On top of it all, our DVD player has finally bitten the dust. And, while we have two other DVD players in the house, none of them played data-written discs like our Liteon did, which meant we'd lost the capability to burn downloaded tv shows (ahem) to DVD and play them on the tv.
Enter the Roku. I'd been wanting to sign back up to Netflix ever since the cable downgrade. With Roku, you can choose the cheapest "unlimited" package they have to offer ($8.99), get DVDs one-at-a-time, and get streaming movies and television shows that are limited only by how many videos Netflix has uploaded (around 10,000.) The price of the box was $99 (about $117 for me, with Ohio sales tax), and there are no service fees from Netflix. Just the price of the membership.
At first, I was unhappy to learn that the box wouldn't enable me to surf Netflix.com from my television. Apparently Roku (the company) couldn't find a simple way to integrate surfing the 100,000+ titles on Netflix's site, so they require you create a separate "Watch Instantly" queue on Netflix's website via your normal desktop or laptop computer. Okay, fine. As long as I can put as many things as I want on the list (and I can -- my queue currently is at 127 titles), surfing around while at work and adding things to my queue is not as big of a deal as I would've thought.
Next, I was sort of unimpressed with the current selection of tv shows offered for streaming. Aside from "Heroes," "30 Rock," and "The Office" (hmmm... NBC seems to be on the ball, here), there are hardly any programs made after 1993. However, if you want all the "Coach" and "Airwolf" you can possibly stand, you'll be happy. (I made my peace with the selection after I found I could add all the "Quantum Leap"s and original "Battlestar Galactica"s.)
I did like the ease of which you can set up the box. You plug it in to the tv, you plug in your internet (or, if you have wireless [and I do], you enter your wireless password), you log on to Netflix on your computer, and you're done. That's it. That's the setup. Some have criticized no one wanting a third or forth entertainment appliance in their living room -- that's just crap. When you see the size of the Roku, that complaint will seem ridiculous. It's smaller than a clock radio and blends in to my entertainment center better than I had expected. The downside to having another piece of equipment is that there is yet another remote.
The thing that most delighted me is probably the silliest thing about it -- the menu screen scrolls like the "cover flow" option on a video iPod. Since that's my favorite thing about my Nano, I enjoy the similarities in my online movie delivery.
Despite my crappy digital photo, the video quality of both the menu and the movies are better than standard broadcast quality. On a regular tv, you won't be able to tell it's not from a real DVD. It may take a few seconds longer to load a file than it did with digital cable's On Demand, but not so much that you'd take notice. And I approve of the "thumbnail timeline" that appears when you rewind or fast-forward.
In the end, I looked at it this way:
Do I like watching tv on my computer? No. I frakkin' hate it.
Is $9 a month for classics like Blade Runner and all the documentaries I've been missing since I canceled Netflix worth more than the extra $38 I was spending for Starz On Demand? Yes, seeing as I can watch those movies as much as I want with no expiration date. (I just have to leave them on my Netflix Watch Instantly Queue.)
Can I still get newer stuff that isn't available yet through the box? Yes, because I still get Netflix DVDs with the program.
So, it eventually adds up to win. It remains to be seen how much Netflix will start to add to their coffers or whether the Roku will be a hit with mainstream America the way it was in my house. For the price tag of $99, it's cheaper than other set-top boxes being offered, and there was money left over from my stimulus check to do something responsible, like pay the bills.
What scares the crap out of me is this article from the New York Times. Apparently Time Warner (the cable provider we switched to, to save money) is beta testing in Texas a "pay as you go" sort of system for their broadband service. The lowest "plan" is 5 gigs. That means with the new Roku box, on the cheapest Netflix plan and the cheapest per-byte internet service, you could watch maybe one movie... per month.
Their highest plan has a 40-gig cap (per month), and then you're paying a dollar a gig after that. Basically, if you're surfing the net, blogging, checking email, maybe downloading some music from iTunes, and you're trying to stream videos (even from a free site like NBC.com), you're going to be paying monthly overage charges.
Time Warner claims that only 5% of their customer base is hogging up over 50% of their available capacity -- is there really so few people catching up with their tv shows on their laptops? They try to make it sound like this new system will punish the EVIL ILLEGAL DOWNLOADERS and will barely affect normal, law-abiding surfers. Really? Because these days the number of people I know who not only don't have land-telephone-lines, but don't even use their televisions to watch television, is increasing. If I had to guess at a reason why, I'd say people not only enjoy portability, they like setting their own schedules.
I predict extra charges for extra bytes will be about as popular as unexpectedly seeing an extra $70 on your cel phone bill because people have been sending you text messages like the world is on fire and they're unable to speak. And, as someone who works nights and does most of her tv viewing at 2 am, I don't feel like I'm unfairly burdening Time Warner's broadband service. Let's just hope their beta test fails miserably, so I can fully enjoy my Roku for at least long enough that it pays itself off.