By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, March 3, 2009 at 5:11 am
Roku’s little $100 digital video player–also known as the NetFlix Player–just got a lot more interesting…and a lot less Netflix-centric. The company is rolling out support for Amazon’s Video on Demand, adding Amazon’s 40,000 movies and TV shows to the 12,000+ offered by Netflix’s Watch Instantly service (there’s some overlap). It’s the least expensive, most straightforward way to get Amazon video onto a TV. (Other options include TiVo and a $200 adapter for Sony Bravia TVs.)
40,000 items give Amazon Video on Demand one of the richest content libraries of any Internet service, but it still doesn’t make for a full-blown Blockbuster substitute: It’s missing some titles (all Disney releases, notably) and everything is in merely adequate standard-definition, not HD. Stuff looked reasonably good on my 19-inch 720p LCD TV, and–like all SD content–not so impressive on my 42-inch 1080p one.
Netflix Watch Instantly provides all-you-can-enjoy access to its eclectic (read: incomplete and random, but interesting) library of titles. But except for some free items, Amazon puts a la carte prices on everything it offers. TV shows are 99 cents to rent (when available) and $1.99 to buy; movies are $3.99 (new releases) and $2.99 (everything else) to rent for 24 hours, and mostly $14.99 (new releases) and $9.99 (everything else) to buy. The prices are comparable to those at Apple’s iTunes and other purveyors of online video. But Amazon being Amazon, there are some deals–at the moment, for instance, you can rent Journey to the Center of the Earth or Meet Dave for 99 cents.
The Roku box is so small (about the size of a loaded club sandwich) and cheap in part because it doesn’t contain a hard drive. I wondered if that would leave it gasping to keep up with video as it streamed it wirelessly over the Net, but in my tests with a 6Mbps cable-modem connection, it performed like a champ–playback was smooth and glitch-free. There was just a pause of a few sections at the start while it buffered enough data to begin, and a similar one when I fast-forwarded into a TV show or movie or skipped backwards. (Both Netflix and Amazon give you nifty thumbnails that help you figure out where you are as you hop around.)
Since there’s no drive, even Amazon titles you purchase sit on Amazon’s servers when you’re not watching them. In fact, you get can at them not only through the Roku box, but also from a PC or Mac, or other devices that support Amazon Video on Demand.
At a hundred bucks, the Roku player is one of the least expensive ways to get video off the Internet and onto a TV. But Roku didn’t just make its gadget cheap–it tried to create an Internet TV box that’s as simple as possible. Setup is a cakewalk (the box has HDMI, component, S-Video, and composite hookups, and both Wi-Fi and Ethernet). The remote control has nine buttons and needs no explanation; browsing around in menus just makes sense, and Netflix and Amazon work similarly. My one major gripe: You can sort through popular Amazon content via sections such as “Top TV Shows” and Top Channels,” but there’s no way to search on the box or even see alphabetical lists of titles. To really get access to all 40,000 items, you need to find and buy them in a browser on a computer. (As for Netflix, all locating of content is done on a computer, where you put items in a queue just as when you order DVDs; the box is for playback only.)
This box lacks the versatility of the $229 Apple TV, which syncs up video, photos, and music between your TV, Macs and PCs, and iPod or iPhone. It also makes to attempt to compete with the image quality of either Apple TV or Vudu’s $149 box, both of which offer a fair amount of HD. (The only HD Roku currently has are 200-odd Netflix items, and the quality far from eye-popping.) But the player is cheap, small, simple, and fun, and the Netflix feature provides unlimited access to a smorgasbord of material for the cost of a Netflix subscription. I got a kick out of it.
The Roku digital video player is available direct from Roku and from Amazon. Here’s a video walkthrough of what it’s like to find and watch Amazon video on the Roku (and, after the jump, some still images).