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.