Combining my love of movies and gadgets, my wife bought the Netflix Roku Player for my birthday. The Roku box joins the Tivo and Xbox to become the third device below my tv that can download movies. So far there hasn’t been a clear winner – I’m still waiting to “ride the light” from the Qwest’s ads nearly 10 years ago that promised “every movie, ever made, in every language, anytime”. Guess that future isn’t here yet, but how does the Roku stack up?
- Price - $99 for the player and free afterwards with a Netflix subscription (which we've had for years and continue to like). The low price puts it in the category of being gift-able. And as Techcrunch says in their review, "free is such a beautiful word".
- Setup - Very easy. Built-in Wifi (802.11g) found my router quickly, with one step online to link the Roku box to our Netflix account. Total time was five minutes from unpacking to watching something.
- Interface - Minimal & simple. The main screen is like a long list of DVD boxes that you can scroll between. Add and removing movies is done on the Netflix website. The remote is simple to use, but is almost too small in your hand (having been spoiled by the perfect Tivo remote). It takes about 10-15 seconds from clicking play to when it starts actually playing. So far I've only once had a hiccup in playback in a couple weeks of usage. Fast-forwarding or rewinding displays keyframes and then rebuffers from the new point (since the content is streaming). Overall, it feels pretty responsive for a streaming service.
- Quality - I think it looks like TV-ish quality widescreen, perhaps around 480i. The Roku FAQ claims that faster connections can get "DVD-quality playback". Even with 4 stars (fastest connection), I think it looks a little worse than DVD. The Roku box is HD-ready (supporting HDMI, Component & optical audio) so perhaps the quality will improve when Netflix has HD content.
- DRM - None! That is a big feature, as the restrictions that AppleTV, Xbox & Unbox have often limit watching to 24 or 48 hours once it's started. I don't feel the need to own movies these days (my current DVDs sit mostly unwatched), but those time limits are annoying.
- Selection - This is where the Netflix Roku service has received the most criticism. The selection could certainly be much better, but we had no trouble finding 40+ items for our Instant Queue. They have few recent releases (and I'd bet the agreements they have will continue to limit it in the future), but there are enough tv shows (Dexter, This American Life, great 30 Rock season 1), independent movies (2 Days in Paris, Lake of Fire) and classics (Bridge on the River Kwai, Ghostbusters) for how many movies we watch. One hole in the service is that they only allow linking the device with a single Netflix profile. We'd split our account into two profiles, and only one could add movies to the Roku box. Now Netflix has announced they are doing away with profiles altogether. They could have handled this much better (they don't even offer a tool to merge accounts). Also, the website should make it easier to find movies that are available for instant viewing -- it feels a little tacked on presently. </ul> Overall, the Netflix Roku player is not (yet at least) the holy grail of on-demand movie services. Instead it is a nice compliment to a Netflix subscription, and makes a great birthday gift!  Update: Now Netflix has decided to keep account profiles after loud customer outcry. But no word if they will allow connecting multiple profiles to one Roku box.