Roku Netflix box rocks, but where's the content?

The scoop: Netflix Player by Roku, about $100.

The Netflix Player

Click to see: The Netflix Player

What it is: A very small set-top box that connects to a TV and home broadband network, via Ethernet or Wi-Fi, the Netflix Player by Roku offers Netflix subscribers the chance to watch movies or TV shows offered by Netflix through the TV instead of having to wait for DVDs delivered in the mail. It's an extension of the service's watch-on-a-PC offering, but now you can watch on a TV. The box includes several video outputs, including composite, component and HDMI. After connected, users can build an "Instant Queue" of content at the Netflix Web site, and then watch the shows on the TV.

Why it's cool: If your Netflix DVDs are collecting dust on the top of your entertainment center, having the ability to watch movies instantly over broadband might be more appealing than returning a DVD and waiting for it in the mail.

The box was extremely easy to set up, and the small size of the box made it unobtrusive in our living room. Kudos to Roku for designing an easy-to-use remote control that allowed for quick setup, even with WPA2 password input to get onto my secure wireless network. Another nice touch – Netflix subscribers don't need to pay additional fees in order to use the instant viewing feature.

In testing the box, we experienced no latency with the streaming, once the content buffered initially (and when we tried to jump forward or rewind), it was like watching a video on our DVR. While we didn't get the same video quality as we would have on a DVD, it was still good quality.

The big selling point for the box is the ability to watch entire television seasons instantly, rather than picking and choosing individual DVDs and then waiting. If you want to watch episodes 1 and then 12 of "30 Rock," for example, you can do that instead of watching Disc 1, returning it and then waiting for Disc 3 to arrive.

Some caveats: A big caveat at the moment – content available for instant viewing pales to Netflix's DVD options. While the company claims to offer more than 12,000 instant movies and TV episodes, most of the content is older movies and shows that you'd probably not watch anyway (really, does anyone want to watch the third season of "Gimme a Break!"?). Browsing through the instant viewing choices was like going through the $2 DVD discount bin at the pharmacy. Another difference is the lack of "bonus content" that comes with DVDs, such as director commentaries and bloopers.

But Netflix isn't alone in this dearth of content. Competitors, including Apple, Amazon and other movie download services are having the same problem convincing content creators (movie and TV studios) to provide updated content (or even good movies). While it's cool to have a lot of content available, Netflix subscribers will still appreciate being able to get their DVDs delivered to them.

Bottom line: The box is more like a complement to Netflix's DVD service than of a replacement. If the company can get more updated and relevant content (especially newer movie releases and lots of more TV episodes), then the value of the box increases exponentially.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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