I spent part of the last few days watching Netflix movies on my TV set. Netflix has long allowed members to rent movies on DVDs and, since January, has enabled Windows users to watch them on a PC.
The movies I watched came through my broadband Internet connection directly to my TV, thanks to a new $100 set-top box from Roku. The box can connect to the Internet via an Ethernet cable or a WiFi wireless network, and to your TV through all the common analog and digital cables. There is also an optical audio out port for sending sound to an audio receiver.
Once you buy the box, the only thing you need to use the service is an unlimited Netflix account, starting at $8.99 a month. And, unlike other online video "rental" services, there is no charge per movie. You can watch as many movies or TV shows as you want for the single monthly fee.
Contrast this to Apple TV, which costs $229 for the device, plus $2.99 to $4.99 for each movie you watch. Similar services, including Xbox Live, Amazon Unbox and Vudu have similar pricing due to the arrangements they have with studios.
However, unlike Netflix, these services generally offer movies at about the same time they come out on DVD, and they offer high-definition titles. Which brings me to the two "catches".
Unlike Netflix's 100,000-title DVD library, the instant service gives you access to only 10,000 titles. You're unlikely to find the latest blockbuster films, but there are some great and relatively current movies including 2007 best-actress Academy Award nominee La Vie en Rose, some perennial favorites such as Air Force One and lots of oldies and independent films.
There are also TV shows including some seasons of The Office, Weeds, Dexter, 30 Rock and oldies like Leave it to Beaver, The Dick Van Dyke Show and, of course, the Andy Griffith Show.
The only other catch is that movies are not currently available in high-definition. If you don't have a high-definition set it won't matter, but even if you do the video will look almost as good as a standard DVD, though not as good as a BluRay high-definition DVD or a high-definition TV show.
The Roku box is capable of handling high-definition, and Netflix says it is working towards making high-def available in the future.
The service requires at least a 1.5 megabit broadband connection but the movies will look better if your connection is 3 megabits per second or higher. As you start to stream videos, you see a quality rating from 1 to 4.
With my cable modem service I'm getting the highest quality and it takes about 25 seconds between the time I press play until the show starts playing. If you're not sure of your broadband speed go to http://pcanswer.com/broadband-meters for links to several broadband test sites.
Unlike Apple TV, you don't download the movie but stream it to your TV in real time. That means you need a live Internet connection every time you watch the movie. But, unlike Apple TV and most online movie rental services that give you only 24 hours to finish watching a film once you start, Netflix videos never expire as long as you keep up your membership.
Because they are streamed and not copied to a hard drive you can't watch them on a portable media player, but you can watch them on a Windows notebook or desktop PC - as long as you have a good broadband connection - as I occasional do from hotels while traveling.
Installation and use is as easy as it gets. You place the Roku box near your TV and connect the cables. If you're using a wired Ethernet you just plug the cable in the back. If you're using a WiFi connection you may have to enter your network security code.
All of that is done through the Roku remote via onscreen menus. Unlike Apple TV, you can't pick out just any movie from the TV set. You have to use a web browser to go to Netflix.com, add them to the queue and seconds later they will be available to watch on the TV. The website lets you browse by genres such as comedy, drama, action and foreign.
The box itself has no parental controls but unless your kids know your Netflix password, you can control what goes into the queue. One of the "genres" you can browse through is "Children and Family," making it easy to load the queue with child appropriate videos (if you want to watch more adult oriented videos you can load them just as you're ready to watch and then remove them after you watch them).
Netflix instant doesn't have hardcore porn, but it does have some adult-only films such as Kama Sutra: The Secrets to the Art of Love.
The Home button on the Roku remote takes you to thumbnail images of all shows in your queue. Select one and you get a screen with a description plus the option to play it. If you'e already watched part of it you can resume from where you left off.
Once you'e viewing you can pause, rewind and fast forward but there will be a 20 to 30 second delay while the video jumps to the new selection point. To make it easier to navigate you'l see thumbnails of the section of the video as you fast forward, similar to scene selection on a DVD.
Despite a couple of limitations, I'm impressed by the Roku box and the Netflix instant viewing service, but before you spend $100 for the box, visit Netflix.com to see if the movies and TV shows covered by the service are to your liking. And if you're already a Netflix member with a Windows PC you can get a feel for the service by trying it out on your PC first.
By Larry Magid
Copyright 2008 CBS. All rights reserved.