Can the Netflix Player take on the Apple TV?

The Apple TV, with its easy access to the iTunes store of videos, may have a competitor -- Roku's Netflix Player, which enables consumers to watch their instant-play Netflix selections on their living room TVs. Like the Apple TV, the Netflix Player is built for media fans who may not be technically ept, but who want to build themselves a media center based on Internet access.

However, there are some distinct differences. The Player doesn't download and store media files itself (which is how Apple TV operates); it simply streams them from Netflix via your network connection and onto your TV screen. The actual device is so small (1.75 x 5.25 x 5.25 inches), it will fit almost anywhere around your set and not be noticed. It connects to a power supply and to your TV input; the product comes with a composite cable, but can also use S-video, component, and HDMI (and the "Getting Started" documentation actually lets you know which will give you better quality video and audio).

Netflix Player

Unlike most of the "easy-to-use" software and hardware that I've had to wrestle with (Microsoft's first Windows Media versions come to mind), this one really is simple to install. As soon as I hooked it up and found the right input channel on my TV, I was presented with a setup wizard that found my connection, asked me to put in my network security key (using a nicely simplistic onscreen keyboard and the device's small remote), downloaded an update, restarted the system, and then gave me a five-character code that I was asked to enter into Netflix (using my computer). I entered the code, and immediately both Netflix (on my computer) and Roku (on my TV) told me that I was activated.

Setup took under 15 minutes from unboxing to watching.

Instant Netflix

The Netflix Player gives you access to any of the Netflix movies that you've entered into your Instant Queue (while the service has offered its "Watch Now" feature for a while, the existence of a queue for those films is relatively new). You click on the movie icon for a description of the film; click again, and it starts to play.

I chose several films from my queue and found that the quality of the picture, while not of the highest (I was using the included composite cable over a WiFi connection, which could have had something to do with it) was quite satisfactory. The quality of the stream on my home network was, on the whole, good; there was at least one time when the image stuttered a bit; and when I ran a Youtube video on my computer simultaneously, the download (on my computer) was slightly slow. But on the whole, not at all bad.

You have limited control of your queue via your TV; you can choose a movie to watch, rate it, or delete it from your queue; if you want to add movies or otherwise work with your account, you have to do that via your computer.

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The Netflix Player also automatically bookmarks the movie so that you can continue from where you left off (although it's not foolproof -- when I walked away from my set once for about 90 minutes, came back, and tried to start from where I'd left off, the system sent me back to the beginning).

On the other hand, Netflix has come up with rather an inventive method for fast-forwarding through streaming video -- as the company encodes its titles for instant watching, it records a still frame every 10 seconds; when you download the movie, you also download JPEGs of those frames. This allows you to "fast forward" through those JPEGs. When you've chosen the point you want to start at, you have to wait a minute or two as the video downloads -- but it works.

Is this an Apple TV killer? Possibly. I imagine that the Netflix Player will actually appeal to a completely different audience: those who prefer to pay a monthly one-price-fits-all in order to, essentially, rent as many movies as they like, as opposed to those who want to purchase their films at a separate price per download.

Me, I'm in the first camp. I like the freedom to sample videos, or decide halfway through that I want to "walk out" on a film without regretting the price I paid for it. I will admit that the selection of films that Netflix offers for streaming (as opposed to their selection of CDs) is still pretty limited; those who purchase the Netflix Player will be pretty much taking it on faith that the library is going to expand.

But at a one-time cost of $99 -- and especially if you're already paying Netflix's $8.99/month fee -- the Netflix Player is pretty much a no-brainer.


Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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