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Electronic Design

Consumer Electronics Series: Roku Netflix Player

Roku’s partnership with Netflix has lead to the Roku Netflix Player (see the figure). It’s designed to stream movies from the Netflix Internet site in the same fashion as its PC-based service. Netflix DVD and Blu-Ray customers receive an allotment of viewing time based on their rental program.

I happen to be a happy Netflix customer, so I decided to try out this new platform. I found it to be interesting and very good for a first generation product. Still, there are some caveats and areas for improvement for future versions. But the promise of expansion is what makes the player so compelling.

First the pitfalls. You need a high-speed Internet connection like cable or Verizon FiOS or you will be disappointed in the quality. What is acceptable on a small PC display is lackluster on a large screen HDTV, where DVDs or Blu-Ray disks would be spectacular. This is because the streaming is done in real-time with minimal queuing as the box has no on-board hard drive. Also, it does not take advantage of any storage that may exist on the local network like that big hard disk on your PC. That is a possible area of improvement.

Apple TV users might be familiar with the hard-disk scenario as Apple TV comes with a built-in hard disk that is used for buffering. It may take awhile before content buffers, but the quality will be top notch and there will be no pauses once it starts. For those Netflix users that normally wait days for a DVD to arrive an hour is going to be a significant jump in satisfaction.

The Netflix Player plays a video stream with minimal in-memory caching. Try using the PC-based streaming support from Netflix before buying this box. If the PC-based display looks good on a PC in full-screen mode, then you will probably like what the box can deliver. If not, the box will not improve upon the PC experience.

Assuming you don’t have a low-speed DSL line then the playback quality is pretty good. It does not appear to match the DVD and definitely not the Blu-Ray quality, but this was not that big an issue for me.

This leads to the next issue with the unit: movie selection. Using the Netflix browser interface, users queue up the movies to watch. This is actually not that bad since you normally use the same interface for adding DVDs or Blu-Ray disks to your mail queue. The only difference is that you place them in a viewing queue. This list is available to your Netflix box.

I suspect that new software revisions will allow movie selection via the player. This type of interface does not tax the hardware. It is simply a matter of programming.

Viewing controls are the typical VCR controls. It is possible to restart a movie from the last point viewed. In fact, the remote control is smaller and simpler than most IR remotes because it only needs to cover the more limited functionality that view-only support requires.

Installation is the best part of the system. It has interfaces that will work with most televisions, but it is the HDMI interface that is the easiest since audio and video are on the same cable. Installing the batteries in the remote was more challenging. The remote is used once the unit is connected to the TV. The player supports wireless and Ethernet connectivity. The former is usually more complex to set up (since you should need a key for Wi-Fi security). As with most boxes of this sort, the process only needs to be done once.

A single four-digit code presented by the box once the Internet connection is up. This number must be entered on the Netflix Web site using your PC’s browser. You need to log into your Netflix account first.

The next step is simply to select a couple movies to view using your PC’s browser and then selecting one to play using the Netflix Player remote control.

Closing Comments
Look for more devices to include support like this such as Blu-Ray players that are required to have network connections. They already have the rendering engine and connection to the television so it is just a matter of software to provide this type of service.

One thing I would like to see is DLNA support so I could access home videos stored on my network’s hard drive. The player definitely has the capacity to handle this and there would be no bandwidth limitation as there might be for an Internet connection.

I’ve already mentioned the possibility of using network hard disk as a caching device. The PC and NAS boxes are obvious choices. It would work best if these had an application that received the content from the Internet rather than having the Netflix Player doing the job. On the other hand, if you are already waiting for a movie to be cached the extra time associated with the player in the middle should be minimal.

The challenge for Netflix and other companies providing this type of service is selection. Right now all of the Netflix offerings are available on DVD, newer ones on Blu-Ray and a subset for online viewing. In fact, most of my DVD queue for mail delivery was not available via streaming.

After using the player it is clear that it will replace mail delivery if the issues already mentioned can be addressed. I would not be surprised if the player was free if you sign up for a plan in much the same way as cell phones are handled now.



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