Roku makes its Netflix channel better -- a lot better

Two years ago, I reviewed the brand-new Roku player, a small $100 device which allowed users to watch their Netflix instant-watch videos on their TVs via either an Ethernet cable or Wi-Fi. Since then, Roku has added a variety of other partners to their service, including Pandora, Amazon Video, NLB.TV, and (most recently) Radio Paradise. But they hadn't updated the software for their Netflix channel, and it was starting to look old.

Better late than never. Roku has finally redesigned the channel, and I have to say, it's a major upgrade of the Roku/Netflix experience.

The difference is immediately apparent when you go to your Roku Instant Queue page, which shows the list of all the videos that you have in your Netflix Instant Queue. Previously, the page showed a horizontal progression of cover shots for each of your videos, with the name underneath. In order to see any information about the video, you had to click on it to go down to the next level.

Now a "speech balloon" gives you information about each video as it passes through the center position on your screen, including the title, rating, user rating, year, number of episodes, MPAA rating and a description. Very handy, since those of us with a lot of entries in our Instant Queue can sometimes forget why we put a video there in the first place.

But that's a minor fix. What is much more interesting is that your initial Netflix page doesn't just contain the single line of your Instant Queue selections. You can also press the "down" key on your Roku remote, which leads you to an onscreen Search button -- and to the ability to search the entire library of Netflix "Watch Instantly" videos from your TV.

Roku search

When you "press" the Search button (using the Select key on your Roku remote), you get an onscreen keyboard which lets you spell out the title you're searching for by using the cursor keys and the Select key on your remote. As you "type," titles that correspond to your entry start appearing in a box on the right-hand side. Found the one you're looking for? Cursor over to the list and hit Select. (Incidentally, your search terms will remain listed in that box until you clear them.)

You are then taken back to the main page -- and now, underneath your Instant Queue, is a new Search Queue that contains the video you chose, and other videos that are similar to your selected title in some way. For example, when I searched on "Ken Burns: The Civil War," the Search Queue contained not only that video, but other Ken Burns films and other documentaries on the Civil War.

Netflix on the Roku

Choose any video in that queue and press select. You can either start watching the video immediately, or you can put it in your Instant Queue for later viewing. The Search Queue will remain until you do another search (which you may want to keep in mind if you've just done a search you don't want your kids to see). 

But wait -- there's more. Underneath the Search Queue are additional queues of videos recommended by Netflix based on what you've been watching. This won't be anything new to Netflix users -- it's very similar to the way Netflix recommends videos on its site.

Searching through your Instant Queue

One of the things that Roku users have probably been asking for most often -- I know it's what I've been hoping for -- has been a way to organize or search on their existing Instant Queue. Anyone who has more than a few videos queued up will find that it became a real chore to try to find the ones they want.

While Roku hasn't specifically added a search for users' Instant Queues, if you search for the title you want using the general search, it will appear (together with other suggestions) in your Search Queue. Click on the video, and you're brought to that video in your own queue.

There are other improvements -- for example, scrolling through the queues is much smoother and faster than it was.

Of course, there are also features that I'd still like to see. For example, I'd appreciate the ability to search on the name of an actor or director, or on a subject, rather than just on a title. While the new search works nicely, a way to organize my Search Queue would still be useful. And last, and certainly least -- I wish the analog clock that you can use as a screensaver wasn't quite so ugly.

But all in all, Roku has done a great job in improving its Netflix interface. I give it four and a half stars.

Current Roku users will be updated to the new version starting tomorrow and continuing through next week.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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