A Step Towards Video Heaven

by Bob Seidel

I have been a fan of the Netflix DVD rental service and a member almost since its inception in 2001. I originally was attracted to it because they seemed to understand what I needed and delivered it. I didn't want to walk the aisles of a rental store looking for a title, and then having to bring the tape back the next day. Netflix offered a great selection website, and the DVDs arrived at my door. I could then take as long as I waned to view them, and return them when I wanted.

But Netflix didn't stop there. They realized that the ultimate goal is not to have DVDs (or other media) at all. What people really want is to sit down in their easy chair in front of the TV and to be able to select from any movie or TV show ever made. Locally, Time Warner does have movies on demand, but the selection is meager and they don't stay permanently - there are only a couple of dozen offerings and they change fairly frequently.

Using the Internet, Netflix has now jumped into the streaming video business and has brought us closer to Video Nirvana. The new service, using a small box from a company called Roku, was so cool that I just had to order one.

Netflix offered their "Watch Instantly" service about a year ago. Using your same Netflix membership, and at no additional charge, you could view movies directly on your PC from the Netflix website. The quality, as I have reported previously, was acceptable but not great. Roku is the next step. You have to purchase the Roku box for about $100 and install it on your TV system. When done you can view any of the movies that you put in your Watch Instantly queue on your home TV. And still no additional charge on your membership.

The Roku is a very small black box that connects to your TV setup as a DVD player would. It also connects to your broadband Internet connection either by wired Ethernet cable or via standard wireless. Since I didn't have a network cable running to the TV (yet) I just set it up using my wireless network. The setup was slick and easy and I was on the air to Netflix very quickly. To use it you go to the Netflix website on your PC, add the movies you wish to your Watch Instantly queue, and then you can access them from the Roku box using your TV to control it.

The video quality was acceptable. It depends on the quality of your Internet connection, but I was able to achieve their highest measured quality. The video is almost but not quite DVD quality but certainly good enough for viewing. The audio was stereo only at this time, but they do plan to support High Definition with full surround sound at some time in the future.

But as all things, it is not perfect. You can select from about 10,000 titles currently, but most of them are "B" movies (or C, or D, or even E!). If you enjoy rooting around in '50s obscure Sci-Fi stuff you are all set! There did seem to be a number of TV series and my spouse mentioned that there were some she missed and could catch up on. Also, it takes about 20-30 seconds to start a movie.

Your Internet connection now becomes the bottleneck. If you are actively viewing with the Roku, you will notice that web browsing becomes noticeably slower - video takes a lot of bandwidth. But the bigger issue is that all this streaming video puts a burden on the cable companies and other Internet providers, who may feel compelled to charge more monthly for the excess bandwidth you consume. Not a problem now, but watch this space - tiered Internet access by bandwidth is coming.

Netflix is attempting to legitimize this technology by offering it in other boxes besides the Roku. There are rumors that the next version of game players, such as the Sony PlayStation or Microsoft X-Box, may offer this service built-in.

Netflix is setting the direction and taking the lead in streaming video. The next step may be a response from the cable companies offering their own versions. Right now, cable movies on demand have better quality, but far fewer offerings - so my choice is Netflix - go to www.netflix.com to check it out.

(Bob Seidel is a local computer consultant in the Southport - Oak Island area. You can visit his Website at www.bobseidel.com or e-mail questions or column ideas to him at bsc@bobseidel.com. For specific inquiries, please call Bob Seidel Consulting, LLC at 278-1007.)