roku netflix player

I got a Roku Netflix player a few weeks ago, and I’ve been meaning to write a review about this thing ever since. However, the idea keeps getting pushed back, and since I don’t think I’m ever going to get around to doing the in-depth take on it, a short overview will have to suffice for now. Plus, posting this now is partly inspired and prodded by Engadget’s review of Netflix streaming devices, which was great, but managed to miss, in my opinion, one really major flaw with the service.

Here’s the short summary, before I go into any detail:

Ruko: Almost Perfect (A+)

Netflix: Needs Work (C+)

It’s hard to really write an accurate take on the Roku box because it is, for now, only tied directly to Netflix’s service. The Roku box and it’s firmware, UI, and options are simply amazing, awesome and wonderful. The best way I could describe it is it’s as simple and easy to use as the Tivo’s PVR menus are.

The only problem is with the Netflix service itself. I’ve run into apparently the same issue that others have, and that is that there is audio/video sync issues all over the place. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s happening in about 35% of the movies I’ve watched so far … and I think I’m being generous with even that number. It feels like its closer to 50%. I haven’t done any hard data gathering, but it happens enough that I’ve almost completely resigned myself to sticking to DVDs because its so common.

Before I bash Netflix, though, lemme go on with the glories of the Roku player because it really is awesome. When I first got mine, I took one look at the remote and thought to myself, “you have got to be kidding me.” It’s really small and the buttons look like crap. It looked like it was going to be an instant disaster, but after about 30 seconds of using it, I knew I was dead wrong. The feel is actually really comfortable, and the UI is smartly done, and makes the need for more buttons absolutely unnecessary, by combining multiple functions into each one.

I could go on and on about the UI, because it is is nice, but I’ll do that later. I’ll just say that it’s intuitive and well-done. One thing I was really worried about was that the interface would suck because the one on my HD Tivo leaves a bit to be desired. The Tivo’s Netflix interface by comparison is total crap.

The Roku has some features that I really like. Some of them are that if you are browsing your queue, and you are at the first or last entry, going to the left or right will wrap around and continue at the other end.

Choosing your rating for the movie is simple, too. It displays it as a selectable option in the menu, and when your pointer moves over it, then you have the option of selecting the star rating. Kind of a cool, nice touch.

Fast forwarding and rewinding is really cool. Instead of actually moving you through the stream, once you hit one of the buttons it will show snapshots of the scenes. You just select the scene where you want to pick up, it will rebuffer the stream and away it goes.

Finally, the feature I am most happy about, being the freak that never finishes watching anything in one setting, it makes it easy to resume playback of where I was. Not only that, but it remembers the last movie / show I had selected of my queue whenever I wake up the device again. That is just awesome, and one thing that really annoys me about the Tivo interface — any changes you make and it will bump you back to the first entry in the queue. That probably wouldn’t be an issue with most, but since I have 150+ in mine, it’s a bit of a pain going back and forth.

Speaking of updating the queue, the second you change something on the Netflix website, it will get changed on your box as well the second you start navigating around your selections again. It’s great.

The Roku even has a cool feature for resuming playback of TV series. I started watching Star Trek, the original series, and once I finished with the first episode, the first entry in the menu for that selection was to start watching the second one. The Tivo’s interface, on the other hand, will just dump me into the same menu regardless of where I left off.

One interesting thing about the resume point for shows / movies, though, is that the location is stored remotely on their servers. That’s actually a nice thing. So if I stop watching the show on my Roku, I can go over to my Tivo and resume playback from the exact same position (and now that I think about it, it actually does that on the website, too). That’s another nice touch.

Anyway, I have no complaints with the Roku box itself. There’s a lot of little things it has that just impress me, and I haven’t even gone over all of them. It’s one of those things that just works. As far as the hardware goes, I’m impressed with that as well. It has every video output available, from Composite to HDMI and everything in between (Component, S-Video). For networking, it comes with both an onboard NIC and an onboard wireless card. Not even the Tivos have that yet, which is another minor annoyance for me. And it still is only $100. Very nice.

Now, then, the only problem is with the actual Netflix service. I don’t know what they are using to encode their movies, but something along the line absolutely sucks, because the A/V sync issues are pretty annoying. And I’m not talking about me being the videophile noob that notices 10 milliseconds of delay, but I’m talking about 3 to 5 seconds delay. Sometimes it’s present in the movie no matter what you do, and sometimes it happens if you stop the movie and restart playback. I haven’t watched a *lot* of stuff on there yet, so I haven’t noticed any patterns … if it’s with certain studios, or whatever. It is pretty lame, though.

I’m not too worried, overall, I’m sure the issue, along with the small selection, will get worked out sooner or later. I’m just surprised how common it is so far, especially as the service is getting pushed out to a lot of devices.

For now, though, if I had to recommend getting something for streaming Netflix, I’d say if you are into independent film, then don’t wait. I still think the Roku box is an amazing deal at just $100 for everything it does.  My wishlist of features that the UI had is extremely short — with a big queue it’s a bit tough to navigate through all of them quickly.  One thing has certainly settled on my mind, though, everytime I watch something — I definitely think I made the right decision in buying the shows I want to watch myself on DVD and controlling every aspect of the UI and playback myself.  There’s just enough kinks and tweaks that need to be worked out that I think owning or renting the DVD still wins for now, but only barely.  It’s getting to be a really close battle.

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