Netflix a player?

If you’ve kept an eye on this blog you know that on occasion I crow about my Apple TV. I’ve had one of the things since the beginning and it’s gradually displaced my DVD player as the primary media player in my AV system. After one of these crows I can expect a trickle of “I don’t get it” responses that usually begin, “Why would I spend $229 on one of these things when…” followed by something that includes the word DVD, Blu-Ray, computer, VHS, Blockbuster, Netflix, BitTorrent, or, inexplicably, tuna.

As the Apple TV is, in my eyes, all about convenience plus a reasonable dollop of quality, my response also has its predictable element—that element being “Yeah, but…” to account for the peanut-butter smeared by kid on disc, cost of high-def media and player, octopudinal complexity of connecting and configuring a computer for a TV and AV receiver, “tapes? you’ve got to be kidding”, $4-a-gallon trip to the video store, lack of instant gratification, scrutiny by the authorities, and “what!?”

On the other hand, the Apple TV continues to have a serious vulnerability and that vulnerability is content. Apple’s done the right thing by making deals with the movie and TV companies to distribute their content from the iTunes Store but, as the Glorious 63-Day 1,000 Rentals Delay clearly demonstrated, the media companies aren’t exactly putting their best feet forward to move this deal along. New and compelling content is making its way from Hollywood to the Store, but it feels like it’s a grudging journey.

Which leads us back to Netflix. Of all the other-than-Apple-TV options mentioned, Netflix is the most difficult to argue with. The selection is amazing and although you may not get your movies instantly, anyone with a measure of patience and the ability to plan 36 hours ahead will find it hard to knock its convenience. If only something could be done about that wait.

Something could. And something has, in the form of Roku’s Netflix Player. This is a $100 box about the size of something that people describe as the size of a paperback book but is, in reality, a gray square box with an IR receiver on the front and ports for analog audio, S-video, , composite video, component video, HDMI, optical audio, and Ethernet on the back. Inside it includes 802.11b/g wireless networking (no wireless N support), probably a circuit board or two, and some air.

No hard drive?

No hard drive.

Because it’s all about the stream. The Netflix Player is simply a bridge between your TV and Netflix’s Instant Watching service, a service that offers 10,000 videos (movies and TV episodes). To gain some pleasure from the box, Roku suggests that you have a broadband connection that runs 1.5 Mbps or faster. “Or faster” is important because the quality of what you see scales depending on the speed of your connection. If you get only that 1.5 Mbps, what you see will resemble a VHS tape. Suck in a reliable 4 Mbps, and, claims are, you’ll get near-DVD quality. (Currently Netflix doesn't offer streaming content in HD, though it hopes to.) Should your connection be interrupted you’ll see a whole lot of nothing until the data starts moving again—no hard drive, no big ol’ buffer. When the content does stream, it should be ready to play in under a minute.

The box isn’t computer independent. You have to set up your movie queue from within your web browser just as you do for regular Netflix queuing. (To be fair, to get the most from the Apple TV you also need to spend some time with your computer and iTunes.)

Other than purchasing the box, there’s no additional charge for streaming content provided your Netflix account includes unlimited DVD rentals (such plans start at $8.99 a month). Although this Instant Watching feature is available to everyone with an unlimited Netflix account, up until now it’s been useless to Mac users as it requires Windows Media Player to watch these videos on your computer. With the Netflix Player Mac users finally see a measure of parity from this service.

Hitches? Sure. Unlike the Apple TV, this box is only for watching streaming content. I use my Apple TV to watch DVDs I’ve ripped, browse my iPhoto photo library, check out my friend’s Flickr streams, and listen to my iTunes library. Netflix Player is a one-trick pony and with its built-in Macrovision copyright protection technology, my best guess is that it’s going to be very discerning about what it will and won’t play.

Unlike the music industry, which has come to accept that copy protection is for losers, the movie industry loves it a heaping hunk of copy protection and Netflix isn’t about to jeopardize its relationship with the cigarello-chomping movie moguls just so some schmoe can watch his ripped DVDs. On the bright side of that coin, however, that chummy relationship accompanied by the media industry’s petulant partnership with Apple may mean that Netflix is able to deliver a larger and broader selection of content than can the iTunes Store.

At a hundred bucks a box? With no additional charge for watching all your eyeballs can bear?

Man, that’s hard to argue with.

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