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Originally published Saturday, May 31, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Roku's Netflix Player keeps you watching

Netflix got it right with the Netflix Player by Roku, a compact $100 Internet appliance from the video service known mostly for snail-mailing...

Special to The Seattle Times

Netflix got it right with the Netflix Player by Roku, a compact $100 Internet appliance from the video service known mostly for snail-mailing DVDs. It's simple. It works. It's not a world beater but it's plenty good enough.

You can watch video streams of 10,000 items through the Roku box, just as you can using a Windows computer, as long as you have a modest monthly DVD subscription with Netflix. There's no extra charge for streaming content and no monthly limit.

The catch? The 10,000 count includes marvelous and entertaining material, but it's a bit inflated. It includes every individual episode of streaming TV shows, some of which number in the dozens.

And you must use a reasonably fast broadband connection while watching. There's no portability, either, to handheld devices like an iPod, Zune or Archos.

These limits are less of a handicap than it might seem. The player performs admirably at its job, and for more casually watched content, like old TV episodes, it pairs well with Netflix's DVD-by-mail offering.

The service

Netflix provides the same content to its PC-based streaming service, which requires Windows XP or Vista, as it does to the box manufactured by Roku, a well-known maker of network-savvy audio equipment.

When Netflix first launched streaming, it limited usage to a number of hours corresponding to the number of dollars spent per month. With a $13-per-month DVD delivery subscription, you could watch 13 hours per month.

That wasn't so bad, because the early content was generally subpar, even if it cost nothing extra.

Netflix has since made an enormous effort to boost the quality, range and depth of what it delivers over the Internet. (The Windows-only restriction remains for PC viewing.)

It has removed the cap, and with all subscriptions that have no limit on the number of DVDs you swap out each month, you can have unlimited streaming. Monthly prices start at $9, with one DVD in your possession at any given time.

Current titles include hordes of classic films, recent movies like "The Hours," and an endless supply of sitcom episodes, from "The Munsters" to "30 Rock."

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A long scan through movies shows hundreds of works cut from fine cloth. Browsing films a few months ago was more like wandering through a 1997-era Blockbuster's teen-comedy section.

Titles available for streaming on a PC or via the Netflix Player can be found in the Watch Instantly tab on Netflix's site after you've signed up for an account and logged in.

Every item listed in this section has a Play button for PC view; hover over that button and an Add to Instant Queue button drops down. Click that, and the movie takes its place in a list Netflix maintains separately from your DVD rental queue.

In a nice touch, when you first use the streaming device, Netflix automatically adds all titles in your DVD queue that are available for streaming into your Instant Watching queue.

How does it work? Let's fire up the player and see.

The appliance

The Netflix Player is just 5 inches square by 2 inches tall. There's no reason for it to be larger, but efficient use of space isn't always foremost in the minds of electronics makers.

The player needs just three connections: to a TV set, to a network and to power. Power is the simplest, of course, and the network connection can be made either via Ethernet with a built-in connection, or via Wi-Fi, which can be configured during setup.

When you're ready to hook it up to a television, you have a few more choices.

The Roku box offers plain composite video (either using a single-pronged round plug or a four-pin round S-Video plug); component video (three plugs); and HDMI, a compact cable that carries digital video and audio to a TV. There's also optical digital output and regular left/right analog audio output.

Firing up the Netflix Player, you'll see a few simple screens that let you choose a network type. I started with Ethernet, with a router that automatically assigns network addresses. The Roku was up and running in a few seconds.

I later switched to Wi-Fi, and it was straightforward to enter my long WPA Personal passphrase, then connect. The password isn't hidden as I enter it, making it possible for me to verify it was correct.

And that was as complicated as it got. The system checked for a software update, found it, downloaded it, and restarted itself. I was then presented with a screen showing queued movies.

Simple left and right navigation let me browse through what Netflix had preloaded from my DVD queue, and I clicked Select to start playing.

You can't browse Netflix's offerings in this first release. You must use Netflix's Web site to select and manage your streaming queue. That's far less irritating than it sounds.

I've never liked using limited controls for finding media — the DirecTV TiVo makes me a bit crazy when I have to type in data.

At Netflix's site, I have a full keyboard and a fast response when making selections.

The experience

Selecting the cover art for a movie or series brings up a display with a bit more information, and a few choices. For episodic content, you can start playing the first one or scan through the episodes in a series.

Netflix says streaming movies start in as few as 30 seconds, and that seemed to be the case with my 2.5 Mbps (real speed) broadband connection. Occasionally, it took a minute or more.

The movie and TV quality varies by the source. More recent items available on DVD were crisp — higher than videotape quality, better than most Internet streaming video, but not at DVD level.

Some older TV shows appeared to be digitized from commercial videotapes, not the production masters, which was a bit surprising.

A display of one to four dots shows you the quality of the stream. If you're downloading a large software update for a computer and try to stream, the box appears to drop to the lowest acceptable quality it can eke out.

While the content is streamed, the Netflix player buffers as much as it can. In several cases, I found I could fast forward 30 minutes or more through a long movie and have the movie resume within just a second or two.

The fast-forward and rewind buttons are clever. You step through a set of thumbnail images of the scenes, several seconds apart. This is a neat way to go back and forth without the entire movie being available.

As with all other digital download services, there were no extras — no alternate languages, no commentary, no "making of" documentaries or deleted scenes.

The conclusion

Netflix and Roku aren't being as ambitious as their competitors, which include a laundry list of big companies (Apple with its Apple TV, Microsoft's Xbox 360 with Xbox Live and CinemaNow); experienced companies (TiVo partnered with Amazon.com); and the scrappy startup Vudu.

Those firms and partnerships focus on downloading movies that are rented or purchased, and with starting to play them as fast as possible.

But there's something to be said for an inexpensive streaming option with a quality that's just good enough and that costs existing subscribers nothing extra each month.

I'm sure Netflix will gain subscribers with this new appliance, but it's a nice add-on for customers it wants to keep loyal, too.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column in Personal Technology.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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