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Video Review: Netflix delivers Internet movies to TV

It's the big horse race in the gadget market this year: Who's going to win consumers' hearts with a box that brings Internet movie downloads to the TV set? Now, we have a tiny box that deserves to be a winner.

Roku Inc., a small maker of Internet-connected media devices, this week introduced a black box that grabs movies and TV shows from Netflix, the DVD rental-by-mail pioneer.

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You attach the Netflix Player to your TV, and connect it to your home broadband connection over Wi-Fi or a cable. Pick a movie using the included remote, wait a minute for the download to start, and then watch on your TV.

There are couple of other boxes on the market that do the same thing, including the Apple TV. The Roku Netflix Player, which is half the size of a Nintendo Wii, isn't really better than any of them, but it has one tremendously attractive feature: its price. In a shaky economy, that's the kind of feature that seals the deal.

It costs just $99.99. Even more importantly, it's cheap to use. If you already subscribe to Netflix's DVD rentals, you pay nothing extra to watch as much Internet video as you want, as long as your monthly plan is $8.99 or more.

This makes the Roku-Netflix combination a far better deal than its competitors. Apple Inc.'s device costs $229 and lets you rent movies from iTunes for $2.99 to $4.99 each. Vudu Inc. sells an eponymous box for $295, with similar rental prices. Various TiVo Inc. digital video recorders will let you download movies from Amazon.com. The catch with all of these is that you have just 24 hours to watch a rented movie; if you need more time, you have to pay the rental fee again.

If you're the kind of person who sits down once a week to a watch a movie straight through, that will cost you about $15 a month for four movies with either box. But if you watch those movies in half-hour segments four days a week, you're paying more like $60 a month.

Apple, Vudu and Amazon.com aren't directly to blame for their rental terms, which are set by movie studios. Vudu has managed to double the rental period on independent movies.

Netflix, on the other hand, manages to skirt these onerous rental terms entirely by licensing the movies from the studios not for downloading, but for streaming.

The downside to this model is that Netflix has fewer "big" movies available, and they take longer to show up after they leave theaters. Some of its 10,000 instant-view movies are exercises in obscurity, like the Italian horror movie "Planet of the Vampires." But there are enough good flicks to give you your money's worth and more, like "Letters from Iwo Jima," "La Vie en Rose" and "Pan's Labyrinth." TV shows include "Dexter" and "Heroes."

You pick the movies on the Web site, using your computer, and place them in a "queue." Back at the TV, you pick among the movies in the queue with the remote. You can't access the entire instant-view catalog through your remote _ you have to preselect on the computer. I didn't find this to be a problem.

 

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So how do the movies look? Good enough, in most cases. Everything is in standard definition, but the quality varies considerably from movie to movie, and with the speed of your Internet connection. At a download speed of 2.2 megabits per second, the maximum quality delivered by Netflix, "Heroes" looks as good as or better than a DVD. "Blade Runner" looks terrible at any speed, apparently because of low-quality source material.

Most of the content is watchable, but if your broadband line is medium-range DSL at 1.5 mpbs, the quality will be substantially less than if you have 3 mbps or more.

I also found that if I connected the player to the Internet using Wi-Fi, the speed of the download varied between 1 mbps and 2.2 mbps, with an attendant change in picture quality. When I connected the box to my Internet router with a cable, everything came down at 2.2 mbps.

There's no surround sound, but if Netflix were to add that to its movies, the box would play it, according to Anthony Wood, chief executive of Roku. Wood also said the player is capable of high-definition video, if Netflix would provide it. HD would probably require a download speed of at least 6 mbps, and it might be tough to get it to work over Wi-Fi.

The Apple TV and Vudu are less dependent on the speed of your Internet connection, because they contain hard drives that can store a movie for later viewing if the connection is slow. Each also has about 100 HD movies available.

The lack of a hard drive in the Netflix Player is part of the reason it's so cheap, but it's also behind its one really annoying feature: reversing and fast-forwarding takes much too long. Since it takes up to a minute for the box to "find its place" in a movie by downloading the content from Netflix, skipping back 10 seconds to listen again to a missed line can take much longer.

For me, the low price was an effective dose of Gold Bond powder on this irritation. Starting a movie takes up to a minute? Yes, but hey, it's cheap! The picture quality varies a great deal, and there's no HD? Yes, but you can't expect the world for $8.99 a month.

Roku's box is just the first of what Netflix hopes is a whole family of products that get movies from its Web site. LG Electronics is planning to include the streaming capability in a Blu-ray DVD player later this year, and two other unnamed manufacturers are bringing out set-top boxes.

But I don't see a big reason to wait for them. Even if the Roku player sacrifices a few things to limbo under the $100 price level, it's a no-brainer for the 8 million-plus Netflix customers out there. If you're not one, this is an added reason to become one.

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