Gear: June 2008 Archives


June 26, 2008

Mrs. EG and I just ordered one of the new Roku Netflix players. If you haven't seen one of these before, it's a hardback book sized appliance that ties into your Netflix account via your home Internet connection (ethernet or WiFi). I ordered it on Sunday after seeing one at Terence Spies's house.

The fulfillment and out of box experience is pretty good. I ordered it on Sunday and had it on Wednesday morning. I pulled it out of the box and had it wired up to my TV and Internet in 10 minutes. The box booted up, asked me whether I wanted wireless or wired, downloaded a firmware update, and then gave me an access code. You log on to Netflix's web site, enter your code, and a few minutes later, the box announces it's ready, offers you access to your Netflix instant queue, and you're watching video on demand. I spent more time figuring out where to plug in the wall wart, routing the cables through my audio stand, and getting an ethernet jack live in the room than I did getting the box running.

Video quality is pretty good, even through S-Video (my DVD player is using my only component jacks), and it's really nice to be able to just decide you want to watch something and be watching it a minute later. The selection is kind of limited, and slanted towards older movies and cheesy 80s TV shows (plenty of Magnum and Quincy), but if you just want to relax and watch something, there's plenty available, and the fact that browsing is so low impact means you can take a chance on stuff that you ordinarily wouldn't be willing to accept Netflix's latency to try. Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter, anyone? An additional benefit, at least for now, is that there's no additional charge over your basic Netflix account—actually, I dialed down my subscription because I wasn't really keeping up anyway. I wonder how long that will last.

That's the good news. The bad news is that it's clearly a first generation product. For starters it's slow. From the time you select what you want to watch it takes about 20 seconds of waiting before the video shows up. I know that sounds nitpicky, but since that happens pretty much every time you want to change what you're watching, even fast forward or rewind by a minute, it starts to get annoying after a while. At some level you're limited by the speed of the network, but you could also do a lot better with more buffer and lookahead. For instance, the box could download the first 5 minutes of everything in your queue, so it would always be 5 minutes ahead. This would allow instant play and limited fast forward. And if you kept the entire movie as it was being watched, you could do complete rewind. This delay is doubly irritating because once it's started streaming stuff into the buffer you can't interrupt it until it's started playing.

Obviously, this would require a lot more storage than the box has (256 MB from what I understand), but that could be easily fixed by adding an external drive. Easily, I say, except that the Roku doesn't have an external USB or Firewire jack, so it won't accept an external drive. This is too bad, really, because if they had just added a jack, external storage would just be a software update. You could still use a network-based NAS, I suppose, but that's not really as cheap or convenient1.

The other (sort of strange) problem I've found is this weird interaction with my TV. I have one of the early Sony WEGA TVs with the anamorphic squeeze feature. For some reason, the TV decides that the Roku is sending out anamorphic images and squeezes everything down, making everyone look just a tiny but fat. If you tell the Roku to emit in 16x9 rather than 4x3, the aspect ratio comes out OK, and stuff in widescreen looks fine, but stuff in 4:3 comes out centered on the screen with about 3" of black border on each side. Not terrible, but sort of annoying. Not sure if this is a problem with the Roku or a problem with the TV—though my DVD player works fine. I don't see any additional settings in the Roku, but maybe there's some way to reconfigure my TV: a little web searching shows some potential angles to try, though I can't say I'm super-excited about putting my TV into service mode.