Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Next Greatest Thing in Home Entertainment?

Whenever I read personal finance blogs, people always seem willing to pay for some kind of televised entertainment, whether its cable, satellite, iTunes show downloads, in-store DVD rentals, or DVDs by mail. Some particularly value-conscious TV watchers have given up cable and satellite for free over-the-air analog and digital channels. Some simply watch free programming available from a number of sources, such as the major networks' (CBS, ABC, Fox, NBC) websites. Often, when I miss an episode of Lost , I'll watch it the following day from The quality is good, with streaming HD available on the most recent seasons, but I still prefer watching shows on my TV.
Netflix, though a partnership with a small company called Roku, is trying to bridge the gap between the computer and TV in a way that other devices like Apple TV have been unable to do on a mass scale.

Announced last week, the Netflix Player by Roku allows Netflix subscribers with plans costing at least $7.99 to stream an unlimited number of TV shows and movies from their PC to a TV connected to the player. The player connects to virtually any TV via HDMI, component cables, s-video or RCA ports (red, white, yellow). The box connects to your computer via ethernet or Wi-Fi, with a faster connection (read, ethernet) producing generally better picture quality. The box is value-priced at only $99 and simple to install and operate, according to news accounts.

The main drawbacks appear to be three-fold. First, the streaming Netflix library the device draws from, about 10,000 titles, is still fairly limited, especially with newer releases. I've heard most of the movie titles available were released 5 or more years ago. This is to be expected, since it would be hard to fathom Netflix offering unlimited viewing of the latest releases. Second, because the device only streams content from a computer (it has no hard drive), picture quality can be spotty and is limited by one's internet connection. Plus, movie viewing can be interrupted by the device having to buffer during times of slow internet connection. Obviously, a hi-speed internet connection is required and I think you need at least a 1 Mbps speed, but obviously, the higher the better. I read that the device offers three bit rates, with the highest at 2.2 Mbps, and that it automatically detects your connection speed. Lastly, though the box is capable of receiving and outputting an HD signal, Netflix does not currently offer any HD streaming content. Even if it did, the previous streaming speed problems would certainly come into play. In all likelihood, internet connections would have to see a big across-the-board jump in speed before streaming HD would be a viable option with the Roku box.

I don't subscribe to Netflix, but my girlfriend does, so this box, despite its flaws, seems like a welcome addition to her TV cabinet. It is fairly inexpensive (especially if you are already a Netflix subscriber and if you can use it to offset any other entertainment spending like cable TV altogether). It is easy to setup, which is a huge plus for her. She is like a lot of people in that she just wants devices to work without much fuss. She also is not such a stickler for video quality as much as I am. The biggest drawbacks for her, and I think for most people, are the limited content and the possibility of waiting for video to buffer. Still, for $99, this device sounds like a bargain worth investigating and I can only imagine what type of further innovation this device may bring.

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