Netflix seems to be doing things right when it comes to the streaming game, partnering with several hardware companies in an attempt to make its service more or less ubiquitous -- a pretty sharp break from the proprietary hardware approach taken by most of its competitors. That means Netflix subscribers have quite a few choices when it comes to streaming, and we thought we'd put the ones available now head-to-head and try to crown a winner. The good news? There isn't a mediocre choice out there. The bad? Well, read on.
Update: We shot another video to answer some lingering questions about the Roku player, check it below.
Roku Netflix Player
Roku's Netflix Player is the granddaddy of this group, originally launched back in May of 2008. It's been updated with some interface tweaks and HD support since then (and it'll soon work with Amazon), but overall, it's the still the same Netflix streaming experience it's been from the start, sleek and minimal. Dedicated hardware means setup is fast, the interface is snappy, and streams buffer in quickly -- our only complaint is that the video hardware in the unit is slightly but noticeably inferior to all the other boxes we looked at. It's not bad, mind you -- it's just not as great as on the Samsung or the TiVo. Of course, you can only ask so much from a $100 box, and you might not even notice the drop in picture quality on a lesser TV, but if not having the absolute best bothers you, you'll want to step up. Otherwise the Roku is perfect for parents, bedrooms, dens and so on -- it's cheap, it's wireless, and it's ridiculously easy to use.
Update: There were a few questions about the output mode of the Roku player, so this is a newer video to show it off playing in HD.
Netflix on TiVo is a somewhat new thing -- it just launched in December 2008, and it was just the second device to handle HD streaming. We said it was our favorite Netflix implementation when we first tried it out, and that's still true -- although it doesn't look quite as good as the Samsung in our opinion, it's close, and it's the most consistently reliable at getting HD content to stream in HD. If you're like us and a TiVo is your primary living room device, this is by far the most convenient way to get your Netflix streams -- and TiVo's riff on the Netflix playback controls make it accessible for anyone in your family that's comfortable with the remote, which is a big win in terms of usability. Of course, getting a TiVo requires a fair bit of CableCARD drama, so if you're happy with your exisiting set-top we'd say you should look elsewhere, but if you've already got a TiVo or have decided to get one, you're doing just fine. We just wish TiVo or Netflix would tweak the interface to show us what content is in HD -- it's incredibly frustrating that it's not displayed.
Ah, the Xbox. It's easy to think of the 360 as Netflix's secret weapon: it's got a huge installed base that's probably already subscribed or interested in subscribing to the service, it's plugged into a vibrant network that enables interesting planned features like Xbox Live party video sharing, and -- most importantly -- it's free. It's actually a pretty great proposition: if you've got Xbox Live Gold, you've got a Netflix box, no questions asked. So it's too bad the Netflix experience on the Xbox doesn't always live up to its potential. Although the interface is by far the flashiest and prettiest, video quality can be extremely dark, the fan runs constantly, and using the controller for playback controls doesn't necessarily feel intuitive for non-techies. To cap it all off, the 360 appears to be somewhat more particular about streaming in HD: although several Engadget editors have consistent success, during this test we never managed to pull down an HD stream, even when plugged into directly into the exact same 10Mbps cable connection as the other boxes. We're not sure if it just hates certain connections or something else is wrong, but it seems like the 360 is just more finicky than the other boxes. Our verdict: if you've got an Xbox, try it out and see how you feel. If you're happy -- like lots of people are -- that's great. If not, chances are a $100 upgrade to the Roku will bring a world of difference.
The Samsung and the LG represent a whole new front in the streaming war -- it's one thing for Netflix to put out dedicated boxes and sneak onto game consoles, but it's an entirely different proposition for mainstream Blu-ray players to support the service. This is where Netflix really thinks it's going to make a play for the hearts and minds of the consumer, and while the experience on the Sammy isn't perfect, we can see why there's so much enthusiasm -- streaming video on BD-P2500 looks amazing. It runs a very slightly tweaked version of the Roku's interface, but the HQV video hardware in the box is so obviously superior even things like the cover images in the menus look better. Of course, the real reason the 2500 needs all that horsepower is for Blu-ray playback, and that's where the tradeoff comes in -- we've always found Blu-ray players to be slow, and the Samsung is no exception. While it's definitely faster than other BD units we've used, it's still rather, uh, thoughtful, and it takes the longest to buffer up a stream. (Don't even ask us how long it took to pull down a firmware update when we first turned it on.) If you're only interested in Netflix, you'll have to decide whether the dramatic bump in image quality over the Roku is worth the $250 premium and longer load times -- we'd say the BD-P2500's $350 pricetag is only worth it if you're serious about Blu-ray as well.
(Ben Drawbaugh from Engadget HD tested the BD300 -- he and Nilay have extremely similar Pioneer Elite receivers and Kuro plasmas.)
The LG is substantially similar to the Samsung -- they're both Blu-ray players that feature slightly tweaked versions of the "standard" Netflix interface found on the Roku player. Although we've heard mixed reviews of the LG's Blu-ray quality, the unit's video hardware produced solid video quality when streaming HD, and the interface was snappy and responsive. However, the BD300 had the hardest time connecting to the network of any of the units we tested -- we eventually had to manually configure it with a static IP so we could enter a DNS server address, since DHCP wasn't working with our router. From what we can tell, this is a common problem with the BD300, but once we got it working the overall Netflix experience was more or less indistinguishable from the Samsung. Seeing as the two decks are priced almost identically at retail, we'd say the Sammy is the obvious winner between these two at the moment, but if you're willing to play network tech, the LG will certainly do the job.
Before we crown a winner, it's important to note that Netflix streaming involves a pretty major tradeoff -- a huge part of the movie experience is sound, and Netflix doesn't offer any surround audio at all. You're stuck with stereo no matter what, and while we know Netflix is working it, stereo audio just doesn't cut it compared to the 7.1 and 5.1 surround we've become accustomed to. If you can deal with that (and the limited selection of content), you'll find that picture quality in HD at its best can rival that of broadcast television HD -- it's certainly not Blu-ray and there are occasional compression artifacts, but it's eminently watchable. Things in SD aren't bad either: at best it's DVD quality, still watchable at worst. Think about it this way: you're going to want to do The Dark Knight and Iron Man on Blu-ray with seven speakers and a sub at full tilt, but if you're just looking to spend a lazy Sunday watching movies under a blanket, you'll be pretty happy with Netflix.
So, who's the winner? Well, straight up we'd give it to the Samsung for picture quality alone, but really, it depends on your needs, since there isn't a bad choice in the group. If you're the sort of person with a stacked A/V rack, you'll probably find that you've got one or two Netflix-capable devices like the TiVo or Xbox 360 already -- ubiquity is the company's ultimate goal. If you're starting from scratch, we'd recommend the Samsung or LG so you can maximize your Netflix membership -- you need something to play those DVDs and Blu-ray discs you get in the mail, after all. If you've already got your physical playback situation sorted and you just want to dip a toe in the water, the Roku's a fine choice -- sure, it doesn't deliver as perfect a picture as some of the other options, but for $100 it's hard to beat.
There is one other thing:
That popped up after we'd been swapping boxes in and out for a while, but since the only device plugged in right at that second was the Samsung, we just had to wait until the servers figured it out before we could watch movies again. We don't have any problem with copy restrictions on subscription video (especially since Netflix is such a tremendous value) but at the end of the day, DRM is DRM, and wonky things are going to happen. We doubt Netflix's DRM servers deal with people constantly starting and stopping movies on four different units for the better part an afternoon very often, but there's no avoiding the fact that if something goes awry, you don't really have a lot of options to make it better. It's a just a small issue with a service we think is fantastic overall, but if you're wearing a cape while reading this on a FreeBSD box, it's something you might want to think about.
The rest of us will be happily watching Netflix's collection of 80s movies.