Netflix: New Set-Top Box Streams Video to TV

How many little boxes do you have in your living room? A TiVo and a DVD player? Maybe a Wii or an Xbox? A wireless router in the corner? Netflix is betting that—if you're a happy subscriber and a PC user—you'll be eager to plunk down $99 for one more. The world's largest online movie rental service made good on a years-old rumor this week by announcing the release of the Netflix Player. The compact box is made in partnership with Roku, a privately held digital media company, and lets subscribers instantly stream movies and television shows from their account directly onto their television.

For avid Netflix users, this is cause to rejoice. How many months has that copy of "The Battle of Algiers" been sitting on your coffee table? (It would be a shame to send it back without watching it. And yet every time you plop down on your couch, it just feels too much like homework.) With the advent of the Watch Instantly feature last year, Netflix guilt became a thing of the past for many users: you could keep getting your allotted monthly DVDs delivered in the mail and additionally stream a small but growing list of films directly onto your laptop. (Provided you're a PC user, that is. Apple, whose Apple TV was suddenly a Netflix competitor, declined to play ball.) But there was still one little hang-up: not too many people enjoy watching movies on their computers. Ever try sitting through the director's cut of "Amadeus" at your desk? Oof.

With Roku's Netflix Player, subscribers who haven't already synced their computers with their television sets can now stream movies and TV shows directly onto their living room screen of choice. It's a cool toy. Setting the box up is truly easy. Simply plug it into the wall, hook it up to your set and run an Ethernet cable to your modem. If your home is Wi-Fi enabled you don't even need to do that last step: once you turn the TV on, the Roku box immediately searches out your network. The box gives you a one-time code to type into your Netflix account online. Once you do that, every movie in your queue that's available for instant streaming appears on the screen. A simple remote lets you toggle through the list and choose which movie or TV show you want to watch.

There are a few bugs and drawbacks. Scanning through movies is incredibly clunky, and the stream needs to rebuffer once you've finally found the spot of film you want to rewatch (woe betide the fellow who frequently misses key bits of dialogue or needs to watch favorite scenes over and over). If your connection is weak or compromised, the film occasionally stops to rebuffer without warning—an unforgivable sin for the film devotee. You can't add to or rearrange your queue on the TV screen, but you can rate films or delete them. The selection isn't all that it could be, but with 10,000 titles and more every day, it's getting there.

The device has an impressive pedigree. Anthony Wood, CEO of Roku, is perhaps best known as the creator of the digital video recorder (DVR) and as the founder of ReplayTV, where he served as president and CEO before the company's acquisition by SonicBlue in 2001. But there is that nagging little fact: who wants another box? And more wires to untangle and trip over? The folks at Roku aren't divulging any plans to open their box to services other than Netflix's, but in an interview with NEWSWEEK they didn't deny it, either. A box like this with Netflix as one channel among many would certainly make it a sweeter deal.

But the dizzying list of competitors gets longer almost every day: CinemaNow, Apple TV, Amazon Unbox, Akimbo, Vongo, Vudu and someday, maybe, even Google could all be Netflix killers in the end. Unlikely, perhaps, but online alone there's also YouTube, Hulu, and Joost. Netflix might be smart to team up with a cable provider to offer on-demand services. No additional box needed. Still, for now a one-time $99 fee (plus your monthly Netflix subscription) seems reasonable enough to catch up on all those movies we never got around to watching when Netflix sent them to us on DVD. Rock me, "Amadeus."