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Ken S 12-04-2008 09:33 AM

Weighing Devices for Your Netflix Delivered via Web
From The Wall Street Journal - December 04, 2008


Netflix was a pioneer in the business of movie rentals -- getting consumers to rent DVDs online and mailing them out in cheery red envelopes. Recently, it has put a lot of effort into a service that delivers movies digitally over the Internet to subscribers, preparing for a day when getting movies on a physical disc will become outmoded.

People today use the Netflix service on their computers, but Netflix has cut a series of deals with hardware partners to make the service available on TV sets through an array of devices.

Most of these devices were designed to do other things: a videogame console, high-definition Blu-ray disc players, a TiVo digital video recorder. So to see how well the service works on these devices, I've spent the past couple of weeks comparing the Netflix experience on Microsoft's Xbox 360 game console, on LG Electronics' BD300 Blu-ray disc player and on a set-top box from Roku called the Netflix Player. The last, as the name implies, is designed mainly for Netflix service.

The devices suffer from a relatively skimpy selection of videos on the Netflix Internet service. Netflix has more than 100,000 titles for rent on disc, but about 12,000 titles for viewing through its Internet service at the moment, and there's often a months-long delay after a movie's release before it shows up online. Television shows generally turn up more quickly, with a handful, like NBC's "Heroes," watchable the day after they air.

Still, I find the Netflix service very appealing, especially for catching up on episodes of TV series, such as "30 Rock," that I missed when they aired. Unlike the iTunes Store and other sites that charge users $1.99 per TV episode and $3.99 to rent a movie online, the Netflix Internet service is free to subscribers to its DVD service on one of the company's "unlimited" rental plans, which start at $8.99 a month.

Depending on how fast your Internet connection is, Netflix videos begin playing almost instantly, though you can't keep permanent copies.

Connecting the devices to Netflix through my wired home network was easy in all three cases. I used a wireless home network -- more common in homes than the wired variety -- with the Roku device, the only one of three products that comes with built-in Wi-Fi (it worked well in this mode). People who want to use the Xbox 360 with a wireless network will have to spend $70 or so on an external Wi-Fi adapter. LG recommends people use only a wired home network to connect to Netflix from its player, including adapter kits that cost about $100 for transmitting data over home power lines.

All the devices require you to create a list of movies you want to watch from a computer, just like Netflix subscribers set up "queues" of DVDs to be delivered by mail. The Xbox 360 offered by far the most elegant-looking interface for browsing through videos in my Netflix queue, letting me glide through a long row of cover art representing the movies and TV shows I selected on my PC.

In contrast, the Netflix menu on the LG Blu-ray player and Roku device were more static, making it more awkward to navigate the expanse of titles. Netflix became available on the Xbox 360 in November as part of a more sweeping software upgrade, delivered over the Internet, that remade the graphical look of the system.

The quality of most of the videos on Netflix is, to my eyes, about DVD quality, though Netflix is adding some titles in high-definition to its Internet library. HD titles were available for viewing only through the Xbox 360 when I was testing the service. Roku and LG say they will make software updates available online this month that add HD support to their devices.

The Xbox 360 also has some annoying quirks when using it as a movie player -- including a noisy fan I found distracting. The game controller that comes with the Xbox 360 is clunky for playing movies, so users will need to invest in an inexpensive additional remote-control design for media. The Roku and LG players, in contrast, were totally silent and had acceptable remote controls for watching Netflix videos.

I experienced the most serious glitches with the LG Blu-ray player, which occasionally dropped the video signal to my television set as I was watching a movie. LG says the loss of video signal could have been due to the connection I used to hook the player to my TV, though I've never had a problem with other devices using the same connection. The LG Blu-ray player also took the longest of all the devices to install software upgrades from the Internet.

While there are some differences in the Netflix experience on the Roku device, Xbox 360 and LG Blu-ray player, none of them is so great that they should trump other considerations -- like a desire to play videogames or watch HD Blu-ray movies -- in deciding which system is the best fit.

The LG Blu-ray player is available online for about $300. The cheapest Xbox 360 model is $199. (To get Netflix through the Xbox 360, users must be "gold" members to the $49.99-a-year Xbox Live game service.) But if what you're after is primarily Netflix movies, and you've got room near your TV for another box, the $99.99 Roku product is the best value.
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Notice, this article like many others never address the bandwidth requirements nor the penalty imposed by the ISP's for downloading vast amounts of data.

btheater 12-06-2008 12:51 PM

Re: Weighing Devices for Your Netflix Delivered via Web
Anyone had any experience with the Netflix service since this article? The little bit I read seems pretty positive.

rlpiii 01-25-2009 08:25 PM

Re: Weighing Devices for Your Netflix Delivered via Web
We picked up the LG BD300 this weekend. I watched a couple of the streamed Netflix movies this afternoon, and it worked perfectly. I wish they would stream 1080p, but it works great for what they are currently doing. Only about a 30 second wait for the movie to start playing. I think we'll definitely get more out of our Netflix membership now.

JohnB 01-27-2009 11:10 AM

Re: Weighing Devices for Your Netflix Delivered via Web
I've used to Roku player and found it worked great - of course I run it wired to my router and have (supposedly) the fastest internet connection available from TimeWarner Cable (at my location). I was never bothered by having to go online to add movies to my queue and accept the selection for what it is. I did have 1 problem with 1 movie where it failed after about 15 minutes but otherwise everything has come in flawlessly with good quality.

I recently switched to a Samsung DVD player with Netflix, I haven't tried it yet (other than getting it configured) but I don't forsee any problems.

I highly recommend the Roku, especially now that it will be supporting Amazon pay-per-view (not that I have any intention to use that given Netflix just nice to have). I keep trying to convince the rest of my family to invest in this box, just a great thing to have around for those lazy days.

I should note I don't see it replacing my Bluray's that I rent from Netflix, for critical viewing I still want those but for certain things, TV shows, non-critical viewing, this is great.


rlpiii 01-27-2009 11:35 AM

Re: Weighing Devices for Your Netflix Delivered via Web
We considered getting one of the Roku players, but decided that if we wanted to cancel Netflix, it would suck to be stuck with a box that could not do anything (did not know about the amazon thing for the Roku until your post). We figured at least with the LG, we'd have a BR player if we decided to cancel Netflix.

I still also want to get BRs in the mail for quality sound and video. So far, it has been great for watching streaming DVD quality movies. I believe that the LG up-converts the stream to HD too, and I am not sure if the Roku does that.

JohnB 01-27-2009 01:57 PM

Re: Weighing Devices for Your Netflix Delivered via Web
The Roku does do hi-def, can't remember if it scales the normal content or whether my Integra was having to do that - for what I was watching I was satisfied with the image quality in any event. I do agree that having a dedicated box can be limiting, that having something like the Samsung or LG Bluray players can be a great way to go - I was really hoping the PS3 would do it so I could have bluray, netflix, and SACD all in one box (yes, I know there are those out there that feel this would compromise the quality of each, I just don't have the space or inclination to have a 100 different sources and while I love my A/V system/music in general I'm just not that critical of it, I just sit back and enjoy it). I think I saw some article saying the Roku box was looking to open themselves up to additional content, that they could add new streaming services easily without having to replace the box.

I think it is great seeing Netflix expand out the way they have with this service - I think new LG TV's are having it built in as well, a great win for them. I've been very happy with their service for years and this is just icing on the cake in my book. I think you really couldn't go wrong with any device for this service assuming you have the internet bandwidth - the Roku being $100 is pretty cheap so if you aren't looking for a bluray player or already have bluray this device is great. If you don't have a bluray then I would recommend the Samsung (I have the BDP-2500 which has the Silicon Optix Reon chip I think which it uses to scale Netflix) or the LG.


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