Netflix Set-Top Boxes, Brought to You by Roku

Well, for those of you wondering which small provider would provide the hardware for Netflix’s digital download service, the suspense is finally over. It’s Roku, a startup better-known for making streaming music hardware. Founder Anthony Wood went over to Netflix last year to help build the digital download service, and then worked with team members brought from Roku to help create a device that consumers can hook up to their televisions (using composite or component video cables, HDMI or S-Video). Earlier this year, however, Netflix decided it didn’t want to be a proprietary hardware vendor after all, and so Wood and the team building the set-top box went back to being part of Roku again.

The Roku box gets the content from Netflix servers to the user’s television screen using the consumer’s Wi-Fi network or an Ethernet cable hooked to the box. I’ve been testing the box for the last two weeks, and with a price tag of $99 (through the Netflix and Roku web sites), I’d be tempted to buy it if only Netflix’s selection for online streaming weren’t so limited. At 10,000 items, it outsizes the existing online streaming competition, but Neflix has more than iTunes et al to battle; it’s competing against video on demand and existing DVD rentals.

Tim Twerdahl, VP of consumer products for Roku, says the selection will improve, but I was disappointed to find few new releases and a bunch of the same content I’m already watching via Hulu. By the way, if Roku could make it easy for me to port my Hulu content to my TV, I’d buy it in a heartbeat. Twerdahl says they’re working on that.

Setting up the box took about 20 minutes, with most of that time spent figuring out that it wouldn’t work when plugged into my AV adapter, and the rest spent typing in the 26-digit WEP key for my Wi-Fi network. Once the box is set up, Netflix account holders simply start adding movies to their Instant Queue and watch them show up on their Netflix home screen on the TV.


After that, use the remote to skip through choices and select one.

Confirm the selection and then the movie begins streaming. Mine typically took 30 seconds to start playing, at a transfer rate of 2.2 Mbps. The entire movie doesn’t screen at once, but I only experienced buffering-related pauses in the action once or twice during the testing period.

The whole setup is small and fits easily into a TV cabinet. Since it’s delivered over the Internet there is some pixelation on some action scenes, which Twerdahl says is the result of the compression used by Netflix to deliver the service to PCs. For the most part, however, content looked fine on my TV.

Other than the pleasures of instant gratification, the experience had a few nice features, such as the ability to fast-forward and rewind while looking at images of the action rather than moving a slider bar.

It’s also easy to transfer the box to other TVs in the house. I liked how simple the box is to use, but like many entrants into this game, I don’t think the content justifies spending the money on hardware. But if you’re a heavy believer in Netflix and more content eventually making its way to Netflix’s online streaming service, this device may be for you.

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