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Thursday, June 05, 2008, 05:55 am PT (08:55 am ET)

Review: Netflix Player vs Apple TV

Roku's new dedicated box for streaming content from Netflix's Watch Instantly service offers a fairly large but somewhat eclectic variety of decent quality movies and TV programs at a very reasonable price, particularly for existing Netflix subscribers. While frequently pitted against Apple TV, the two products are actually more complementary than directly competitive. Here's how they stack up.

Roku's Single Trick

The Roku box currently does one thing: stream select Netflix titles from a library of content available for immediate viewing. Netflix says that around ten percent of its library of 100,000 DVDs is available for streaming from its Watch Instantly service. Using it previously required hooking up a Windows PC running Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player to your TV set. With the Roku box, you can tune into Netflix Watch Instantly streams a bit more conveniently with minimal setup.

The downside to the $99 Roku box's core simplicity that it requires adding yet another remote and video input to your home theater setup just to expand your potential movie viewing options. Netflix's service might be more attractive if integrated into a DVR such as the Tivo, or into Apple TV as a software module. Netflix plans to license its service to other hardware makers, so anything's possible.

Apple TV allows users to buy or rent movies online in a pay-per-view model, but it also serves as a link between the computer and the living room home theater and stereo, allowing users to show off their iPhotos libraries and stream audio from any iTunes computer to the stereo system, as well as shop for movies, TV, music, and music videos that can sync back to iPods and iTunes computers in the household.



Lots of Cheap Content

On the other hand, viewing streamed titles on the Roku box doesn't cost anything extra for existing Netflix subscribers; being able to immediately watch any of the subset of movies and TV episodes available for streaming at no additional fee is a pretty sweet deal. All of the iTunes movies and TV episodes available for Apple TV have a rental or download fee that can add up for users who love watching TV.

At the same time, Apple TV also provides access to an increasing number of audio and video podcasts, including several now being presented in HD. The growing library of news, comedy, music, sports, arts, tech, and special interest podcast programing is all available for free. It's also possible to watch YouTube videos on Apple TV, but their low quality leaves something to be desired for anyone looking for alternatives to DVD rentals, cable, or satellite programming. Apple TV also provides access to your own home movies in iTunes, and shared movies published by friends using the .Mac Web Gallery service. If you have family and friends using .Mac, Apple TV makes a pretty slick way to share and view home movies in better than DVD-quality.

In terms of content, the Roku box and Apple TV deliver a limited amount of overlap. The Netflix documentaries, older movies, and TV shows available to Watch Instantly are certainly cheaper to view than when buying them from iTunes individually, but the type of content Netflix offers also represent the least compelling feature of Apple TV. Many of the Netflix streaming titles are independent, foreign, or obscure titles that aren't even in iTunes. Conversely, the broad functionality of Apple TV in serving up free alternative content, user generated material, new release and blockbuster HD titles is completely absent on the Roku box.

Netflix Player


Menus and Shopping

In order to watch any titles on the Roku box, you'll need to go to the Netflix webpage and navigate through its offerings to select the movies you want to add to your Watch Instantly queue. Once added, a step that seems to take an oddly long amount of time in the web interface, the selected titles become available for watching immediately on the box itself. There is currently no way to shop for titles on the Roku box directly from the TV interface, which is somewhat clumsy but not a show stopper. The only thing the box displays on TV is the series of titles you have previously added to your Watch Instantly queue via the Netflix website.

Apple TV debuted with a similar sort of limitation, as movies originally needed to be downloaded through iTunes on a computer, then synced with Apple TV in order to watch them. With the January Take Two software update (Review: Part 1, Part 2), Apple TV now lets users browse for movies directly from their living room TV and watch titles directly without dealing with a separate computer at all.

Roku also plans to eventually provide a software update for its Netflix box to enable direct online shopping as well. Netflix users are likely already accustomed to picking their movies from the service's website and setting up a queue, so the bare bones menus on the Roku box aren't likely to raise too many barriers for its intended audience. It is somewhat frustrating to navigate through the Netflix site looking for Watch Instantly titles, because it keeps recommending related movies that are only available on DVD. From casual browsing, it feels like much less than ten percent of the Netflix library is actually available for streaming. It seems more like five percent, and that subset is mostly older, foreign, or special interest.

On page 2 of 3: Sync or Stream; and Audio and Video Quality