Roku, NetfliXbox and the Future of TV

After playing around with the Roku Netflix streaming box review unit this weekend, I was ready to plunk down 99 of my hard-earned dollars to get one, even though Microsoft has announced that my Xbox 360 will soon do the same thing. And while everyone keeps focusing on the negatives of the Netflix streaming service on either box, it seems that they actually work the way TV should.

This fall, Xbox users (with a gold Xbox Live membership) will be able to access the 10,000 titles Netflix makes available to “Watch Instantly” on their TV sets. Just like the Roku, Xbox will stream the content, though unlike the Roku, Xboxes have a hard drive that could be possibly be used for downloading content at some point.

Yes, the gripes about Netflix’s service are all true. That “10,000 titles” stat is awfully misleading as most of those films are crap. The service is not in HD (though it still looked great), and on my HD TV, the colors all looked washed out.

So what, I freaking love that little Roku. And even better — my wife loved it (the first test for any set-top box).

It took two minutes to set up, it was easy to navigate and there were no hiccups during a marathon Friday Night Lights viewing session that ate up most of the weekend. And truth be told, I think that Roku is probably a better option than the NetfliXbox. It’s smaller, quieter (the Xbox cooling fan is annoyingly loud), and so, so easy to use.

But what the Roku really does is open your eyes to what the future of television should be. Pay a monthly subscription, watch what you want, when you want.

Sure, right now Netflix’s vision of the future of video entertainment is mostly bargain basement B-movies. The company has to know this is a problem and is hopefully working on a solution. So take off your hater pants and put on your happy, optimistic ones. It’s 10,000 titles now, but what about when that number grows to 100,000 or a million? It’s all there to watch as much as you like. Watch episodes of 30 Rock on your big TV set, where it looks good, and you don’t have to pay $1.99 for each episode or take up any hard drive space.

Mark Cuban suggested today that the video cloud should move from the last mile onto the existing TV distribution node. There the content could be transcoded to the right format to fit your TV, as well as be beamed via existing channels.

This, he argues, would save on bandwidth and could even eliminate the need for a personal DVR. It’s a good idea, and the Roku is a good first step in this direction. Netflix stores all the content, you just access it when you want. But the streaming issues need to be solved because while it worked well for me, others have reported bigger bandwidth issues. Plus I’m not interested in Comcast jacking up my ISP fees for using the Internet to get movies instead of its VOD service.

I don’t necessarily agree with Cuban’s assertion that coordination between video sites and distributors would be easy. If cable and satellite companies’ previous behavior is any indication, their ability to play nice and create an easy system for enjoying web video is unlikely to turn out the way we might be hoping.

Regardless, through the Roku I’ve gotten a first taste of my video future and can’t wait to see what’s to come.


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