Visual Media

Roku + Netflix

Real movies-on-demand

Real movies the instant you want them have been expected for … well… at least 100 years. You think of a movie, then you can watch it. This trick has been tried scores of times over the past decades, but never seemed to work. Clunky boxes. Expensive contracts. No choices. Weird constraints. Lousy pictures. But now, finally, the trick works.

The Roku box from Netflix allows you to watch movies on your TV whenever you want to, for no extra charge, in DVD quality. It is a tiny thing that sets up in a few minutes. If you have wi-fi in your household it will link up to that so you can put the box near your TV. For achieving such a complex task it has a remarkably simple interface and no-fuss approach, very similar to an iPod. We were watching a movie within ten minutes of opening the shipping box.

You use a small clicker to control your Netflix queue on your TV. Movies are streamed (no waiting beyond a few seconds at the start) in unexpected big-screen TV quality. I don’t know how they do it. It is miles better than the streaming on those little YouTube boxes. There is no noticeable stutter, blobs, lags, or hiccups. But it ain’t hi-def, either.

The service is a joy to use. You manage your queue — adding and re-ording flicks — on your computer, and the Roku box automatically syncs up. Back at the TV you click through the instant choices, pick one, and in a few seconds the movie starts. You can pause, change movies, and resume the first where you left off.

Here’s the kicker: you can watch as many movies (no ads) as you care to. There is no extra charge beyond the basic Netflix monthly (and you can still get them mailed to you as DVDs if you prefer). Ten movies a month or a hundred. Anytime. This thing is dangerous.

Here’s the only caveat: so far only about 10% of the total Netflix catalog is available for instant download. But that total is naturally swelling by the day.

The Roku box is cheap at $100. You can watch all the instant Netflix movies for free without it, if you want to hook your PC up to a large screen, or watch on your monitor. Since the Roku is so small and wireless we can move it to our projector and stream movies to the big wall.

It’s a nicely done cool tool.

-- KK 06/27/08

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