Roku's $99 Netflix box: Easy, cheap, fast movies?

The DVD-by-mail service has hit on the perfect way to stream movies.


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Farhad Manjoo
May 20, 2008 8:25PM (UTC)

It sometimes seems as if every R&D dollar in the tech industry these days is going toward building a new movie-rental scheme. Tech firms, working through the byzantine Hollywood licensing rules, are looking to get you movies quickly, for little money, and without breaking up your nightly date with the La-Z-Boy.

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Apple, Amazon, TiVo, several start-ups, and the cable companies have all released less-than-stellar efforts -- but has Netflix finally hit on the perfect service?

Reviews are streaming in this morning for the new Netflix rental box made by a Silicon Valley tech firm called Roku. The tiny device, which costs $99, streams Netflix's Watch Instantly movies to your TV -- one of several devices in the works to get Netflix's online movies to your living room.

Here's the best part. Most Netflix users can get the service for no extra fee. In other words, if you already get Netflix (at the $8.99 level or more) and you buy the Roku, you'll be in movie heaven: You'll continue to get your DVDs in the mail, plus you'll be able to watch any of 10,000 movies and TV shows on the Roku whenever you like.

I've raved about Netflix's Watch Instantly before. Its main advantage is price: It's free for Netflix subscribers. Moreover, Watch Instantly isn't hampered by rental limits. Many competing rental services -- Apple's, for instance -- give you a limited time in which to rent a movie. Apple's limit is 24 hours, meaning you can't start a film after dinner tonight and then finish it after dinner tomorrow.

But until now, Netflix's plan has only been available on Windows PCs. The Roku device sets streaming movies free to your TV.

The thing isn't perfect, still. "Netflix has 100,000 DVDs available, but only 10 percent of them can be procured for streaming," notes Wired's Mark McLusky. He adds: "Also, fast forwarding and rewinding is a bit of a chore, given the limitations of video streaming, although the player smartly displays a visual timeline of scenes to help with navigation."

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What strikes me as beautiful about this system, though, is the way it fulfills all your movie needs. As always, you'll get the huge selection and no-late-fee goodness of Netflix's DVD plan, but with the bonus of instant-gratification, for those few nights when you find yourself lusting after something you didn't remember to put in your queue.

Seems like a good deal for $99.


Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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