A Tired Old Script: Web Movie Innovation Thwarted by Studios

Roku's device lets you stream movies straight to your TV, but frustratingly few titles are available.
Roku's device lets you stream movies straight to your TV, but frustratingly few titles are available. (Roku Via Associated Press)
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By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, June 5, 2008

The latest plot twist in home movie viewing comes courtesy of a black box not much bigger than a VHS cassette.

This $99.99 gadget, like many other new video devices, connects to both a TV and a home network to bring movies off the Internet. But unlike competitors, it also connects to one of the most popular video-rental services in the United States: Netflix.

And on it, you can watch all the movies you want with any Netflix subscription of $8.99 or more per month.

In some alternative universe, Roku's Netflix Player might become as essential as a DVD player for movie fans. But because the Netflix Player only accesses a tiny fraction of that service's vast catalog, it's now more of a curiosity, a novelty for niche markets.

Or, to phrase things as politely as possible: None of the Netflix Player's core problems can be blamed on its hardware or software. This box -- made by the Saratoga, Calif., firm behind a few elegant, simple wireless receivers that play Web radio and music stored on a computer through your stereo -- is far more appealing than the PC-based "watch instantly" feature Netflix launched in January 2007.

That option limits you to viewing a movie on a computer's screen unless you have hooked it up to an HDTV with a PC-compatible video input. And it comes with infuriatingly limited system requirements: You have to run Microsoft's Internet Explorer in Windows XP or Vista, then consent to the installation of an array of video and "digital rights management" browser add-ons before watching anything.

With the Netflix Player you only need a computer to visit Netflix's site, pick out movies and add them to the "watch instantly" queue. So you can run any browser you like and don't need to add any strange software.

The player connects to both wired and wireless networks. The only difficult part of setting up a review unit loaned by Roku was "typing" a WiFi network password by selecting letters and numbers from the TV's screen with a simple nine-button remote.

Roku's box doesn't store movies for offline viewing, instead relying on broadband connection to stream them directly from Netflix's site. But to keep you from waiting more than a minute for a TV show or movie to start, Netflix must trade quality for a fast download.

On a DSL connection with an unremarkable speed of 1.5 million bits per second, video on the Roku box was limited to half of peak quality. That meant that while the picture generally looked fine on an old, standard-definition cathode-ray tube TV, most text in movies' closing credits was blurred beyond recognition.

At one point, the Roku box felt compelled to downshift to the lowest possible quality level, which made the subtitles in "Nanking" difficult to read.

When paired with a much faster connection and a high-def LCD at washingtonpost.com's offices, Netflix could serve up its highest possible picture, advertised as "DVD-quality." But on that sharper screen, things somehow seemed worse.

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