10,000 Netflix Vids Zapped to Your TV

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One thing I hate: Buying music. I haven't bought a CD or MP3 for years. Instead, I subscribe to music — I pay a small monthly fee to Rhapsody and can access most of the world's music (more than 5 million songs) by streaming it via the Net to my home audio system. I can listen to just about any song I want, any time, anywhere. That's known, in the geekosphere, as "music dial tone."

So where's video dial tone? I'd love to subscribe to a service that gives me any TV show or movie I want, for a flat fee. But most of the services that tackle this problem want me to either "rent" downloadable video — typically for a day or two — or buy the bits outright. Products here range from Apple Computer's nifty Apple TV set-top box, which also connects to YouTube, and stores all your digital media in one handy place, to Vudu, whose sleek device connects your TV to a library of 6,000 films and TV shows. Both products are promising if you like to rent or buy. But I want video dial tone.

This week, a consumer-electronics company called Roku, in partnership with Netflix, launched a set-top box that brings us tantalizingly close to my dream. The Netflix player ($99 at netflix.com) is a palm-sized, black device that connects your broadband network (wired or wirelessly) to your TV. For as little as $8.99 a month, you can access Netflix's library of 10,000 movies and TV shows on demand. Watch what you want, instantly, for as long as you want. You can even start a movie on your home TV, and finish watching it on your PC laptop at a hotel days later. Apple, which uses its own digital-rights management to copy protect films and TV shows, doesn't support the Netflix on-demand service.

Setting up the Roku was about as painless an experience as I've had, and took less than 5 minutes. I cabled it to my TV, powered up both, then followed the on-screen prompts. The Roku device found my wireless connection immediately and asked for my password. I watched video by logging into my Netflix account (you'll need one, which also entitles you to rent-by-mail DVDs) and adding movies and TV seasons to my "instant" queue; they show up on the Roku box almost instantaneously. I moldered on the couch for a few days, watching The Office reruns, some old Kubrick and Peckinpah movies and a Jimi Hendrix documentary. It was great.

The Roku device is the first to launch after Netflix announced licensing deals earlier this year with four, third-party consumer-electronics companies. For its part, the Roku folks told me that additional content deals, yet to be disclosed, would extend their device beyond Netflix, though they declined to elaborate. YouTube? Hulu? Your guess is as good as mine, but clearly the device will only get stronger as it adds user-generated video sites and network TV streams.

I have three small criticisms of the Roku box.

Twice, the movie paused for a few seconds to buffer the video stream. That's a buzz kill — the Roku folks say it can happen when your broadband speed drops below 1 megabit per second. (My standard Comcast connection is usually above 2 megabits per second, but congestion, I guess, happens. Either that or Comcast, which has long been suspected of throttling back on bandwidth hogs, is punishing me.)

Another limitation: Netflix doesn't offer any HD movies yet. (Both Apple and Vudu, which have smaller libraries over all, do.)

And finally, while 10,000 titles sounds like a lot-Netflix claims it's the biggest selection available anywhere — it's still relatively modest. While we could watch all seasons of The Office, there were no HBO series, for instance. A Netflix spokesman pointed out that the company launched its DVD subscription business in 1999 with a mere 3,900 titles; it offers 100,000 now. So, while it's not yet video dial tone, we're off to a great start.