It seems like everything about Roku's Netflix Player seems understated, from the plain, unceremonious purple box it shipped in, to the nondescript black plastic case, to the stripped-bare user interface. But as we've quickly discovered, it's pretty easy to learn to love this little hundred dollar bugger, even despite the fact that we need another set top box in our living room like we need a hole in the head. Sure, it's great that Netflix subscribers get a cheap, easy avenue for additional content to their TV, but the real beauty here is that this might actually be a streaming video box friendly enough to rival the Apple TV -- or to give your folks. Some initial impressions:
  • The box is extremely small and light; looking inside, it just looks like a single, small PCB.
  • Most of the vertical space it does consume seems to be for its myriad ports, including composite, component, S-Video, HDMI, and TOSLINK.
  • The guided setup out of the box is really brief and painless. It supports 802.11b/g with WEP, WPA, and WPA2, and we were online in a cinch. Activating the box is as simple as hitting and entering a short code -- really easy and instantaneous.
  • The remote looks cheap at first blush, but it's actually got a pretty good feel to it. The buttons are clikier than they are mushy.
  • The interface, at its best, is simple and slick looking. It has almost no options and is ridiculously straight-forward. The interface, at its worst (namely, during movie playback), is still pretty decent, but lacks some polish.
  • While fast-forwarding, you get still image markers to help indicate progress. It's nicety to ease the pain of skipping through streaming video (which we know presents some unique technological challenges), but it can use a little work. Chapter/scene markers, as in the Apple TV, would be a good start.
  • Movie selection is done completely within Netflix's site, so don't expect to do any browsing through the device interface. If you want to load and watch any content on the box, you have to make sure it's in your Netflix Instant Queue through a browser. This part is definitely the biggest drawback for power users, but it does ensure a crazy simple device UI with zero learning curve.
  • Movies don't load instantly (even on a 25Mbps connection), but they do load pretty quickly.
  • Video quality is so-so. Definitely worse than a DVD and not even quite up to a standard def Apple TV vid. But it's certainly passable, and Netflix seems genuinely interested in bumping up the visual fidelity in the future.
  • We saw some really wacky stuff going on with the HDMI, and the device did not play well at all with our HDMI switch. Roku let us know they're aware of some HDMI problems, and will be pushing out bug fixes and software updates as they're completed.
Stuff we hadn't yet heard about the Netflix Player
  • Netflix dispatched a team of a couple dozen engineers to Roku to build the Netflix Player. Netflix didn't want to be the only hardware partner (which we already know), but clearly wanted to make sure whomever released the first box really nailed it.
  • Netflix (and Roku) understand that the device's value doesn't just end with playing back Netflix content, and anticipate the box having content coming in from other providers as partnerships get hammered out.
  • The box only outputs at 480i (over composite and S-Video) and 480p (over component and HDMI), although Roku will enable HD content (and menus) as soon as Netflix gives the thumbs-up. From the sound of things, it seems like they want to do this sooner than later, which we clearly hope they will.
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Roku Netflix Player hands-on, first impressions