Hands on with Roku's new Netflix channel

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Media-player vendor Roku on Thursday began rolling out a new version of the Netflix channel for the company’s standalone streaming-media players. Taking advantage of Roku’s channel-focused software, released last fall, the updated Netflix channel now lets you search, browse, and play titles from Netflix’s instant-streaming library. (The previous Netflix channel let you play movies and TV shows from your Netflix Instant Queue, but didn’t provide a way to browse or search for other videos—you had to use your computer to add movies to your queue.) Roku player owners will get the new channel via a software update. The update also adds a new clock option for the player’s screensaver.

I had a chance to briefly test the new channel, and it’s a welcome update. When selecting the Netflix channel from the channel menu, you’re presented with a grid of “DVD covers”—24 rows of videos, each with (on my TV) five visible items.

As you press the arrow keys on the remote, the rows scroll beneath a selection box, which always remains in the middle of the screen. A floating display shows information about the currently selected video: name, viewer rating, release year, time, MPAA rating, and a short description. When you’ve found a video you want to watch, pressing the Select button presents you with the standard Netflix-streaming options, which differ based on the type of video: play, resume playing (if you previously watched part of the video), choose a different episode (for TV series), rate, and add to or remove from queue.

The top row of videos displays your current Instant Queue, with the number of items in the queue noted at the top of the screen—this was essentially the entire Netflix channel previously, except that it was displayed in list view.

Scroll down a line to access the new options. The first is Search. Select this option and you get a text box that lets you search Netflix’s streaming catalog—and only the streaming catalog—for videos. Like the Apple TV's remote, Roku’s remote has no keyboard, so you must use the arrow buttons to select letters, one at a time, from the onscreen keypad to “type” the movie or TV show’s name. However, search results appear as you type, so you don’t need to type the entire name, and the results are smarter than I expected: when typing st, video names starting with St appear at the top of the list, followed by names with words anywhere in the title that start with St (The Stepford Wives, Cold Storage, and so on).

Oddly, choosing a video in the Search screen doesn’t select it for playback. Instead, you’re taken back to the main browsing screen, but the Search row now shows all the results of your most-recent search. You then select the desired movie.

Just below the Search row is a Recently Watched row, useful for resuming videos you haven’t yet finished. I haven’t used the new Netflix channel long enough to know if this section shows all recent videos or just “unfinished” ones. I suspect it’s the former, which would be useful for rating movies and shows you've finished watching.

Next are a series of browsing rows with categories similar to those you’ll find on the Netflix Website: New Arrivals, Comedy, Action, Independent, TV Dramas, and so on—21 in all. Each row contains a different number of titles, from 10 to 75 in my quick test, but there’s quite a bit of content to browse overall, and the experience is a huge step up from being limited to browsing the queue you set up on your computer.

Finally, below the category rows is a row for Netflix’s “Like” feature. For example, if you recently watched the first season of Californication, the row might be labeled “Like: Californication Season 1” and would display available-for-streaming movies and TV shows Netflix thinks you'd like, such as Dexter, Brotherhood, and Dead Like Me.

(There’s also a setting to show only your Instant Queue, hiding all the other rows. This option could be useful for, say, parents who want their kids to see only the videos the parents have added to the queue.)

In my brief initial testing, the streaming performance of the Netflix channel seemed unchanged, but there’s no question the new interface and options are big improvements. The Roku remote is still limiting, especially when “typing” in the search field, but the Netflix channel no longer feels half-baked—it addresses our biggest criticisms of the original Netflix Player (the version of the Roku player released back in 2008).

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