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Geek Gifts 2008: The Roku Netflix Player fulfills the promise of streaming video

The Roku Netflix Player is a small set top box that delivers streaming video over the Internet into your living room in a manner so easy even your grandparents could understand it. Check it out in this Geek Gift Guide.

The Roku Netflix Player simplifies streaming video, making it accessible to anyone. The device suggests a potential problem for the DVD — do we need physical media anymore?

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Reading some of the product reviews I have written for TechRepublic in the past, you would probably consider me to be a curmudgeon who is difficult to impress. You'd be correct in that assessment — it takes a special effort to impress me when it comes to technology and gadgetry. Style does not amaze me at all, only function gets my attention.

That reluctance to embrace the latest, greatest thing is what makes the subject of this review so impressive — the Roku Netflix Player. It has been a long time since I was so pleased with an electronic device. Roku has designed a set top box that does exactly what it says it does and it does it with an ease and competence that has to be experienced to be appreciated.

All you have to do is buy the Roku Netflix Player for $99 from the special Roku and Netflix Web site, and when it arrives a few days later, hook it up to your television, click in the WPA password to your wireless network (or use the Ethernet port), and begin watching your selected movies, documentaries, and television programs from the extensive Netflix library. It really is that simple. I believe even my technically challenged father could figure it out, or at least be able to use it after I set it up for him.

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Check out what makes the Roku Netflix Player so special in its TechRepublic Cracking Open Photo Gallery.

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This blog post is also available in the PDF format in a TechRepublic Download.

What I like

  • Inexpensive
  • Small and unobtrusive
  • Easy to set up
  • Easy to use
  • Large library of titles
  • No limits to how much I can watch
  • ROM can be updated
  • Ships with standard composite and stereo cables (RCA)
  • Connections for HDMI, composite video, S-video, RCA connections, optical audio
  • Part of the basic monthly subscription price
  • Lots of video streams to choose from

What I don't like

  • Can only add to your Instant Play list on Netflix with a computer connection (the player has not true Web browser)
  • The Netflix Web site has this design quirk — to select a movie or show for viewing on the Roku Netflix Player requires that you hover your mouse over the selection. Without the mouse hover, the button to select an asset for streaming is not visible. This is the exact opposite of how all other Netflix selections work
  • While video quality is good, it is not high-definition (promised in the future)
  • Adds another remote to my ever-growing collection
  • Does not come with HDMI or Composite Video cables, they must be purchased separately.
  • Only shows content from Netflix, streaming content from other sources would make the unit more versatile
  • While there are lots of video streams, new releases are generally not in the instant streaming library
  • So far, the special features normally found on DVDs are not available

Bottom line

The Netflix Player from Roku is a perfect example of function trumping form. It is a simple rectangular black box that streams a video signal over the Internet to your television. The video it streams is served by Netflix at no extra charge to your basic monthly subscription. That's all it does and it does it well.

If you don't have a media PC or you don't want another media PC for the television in bedroom, this unobtrusive little black box may be just the ticket you are looking for. It would be nice if you could stream other Internet content through the Netflix Player, but at only $99, that is a small quibble.

Geek Gift Score (out of a possible 5)

  • Fun factor: ****
  • Geek factor: ****
  • Value: *****
  • Overall: ****

A side note

Bill Detwiler was all excited about the Roku Netflix Player until I explained to him that it is not like the Slingbox — you cannot stream video from other sources and use the Roku device as wireless repeater. But because the Roku can have the ROM flashed and updated, we are thinking it will be possible to hack the Netflix Player and possibly add more functionality. Care to wager on how much time will pass before such a hack is accomplished?

About Mark Kaelin

Mark W. Kaelin has been writing and editing stories about the IT industry, gadgets, finance, accounting, and tech-life for more than 25 years. Most recently, he has been a regular contributor to BreakingModern.com, aNewDomain.net, and TechRepublic.

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