Look out, Apple TV: The $100 Netflix Player has arrived

The long-awaited "Netflix box" has finally arrived, but is this barebones product worth the $100 asking price?

Netflix Player selection screen
The straightforward interface of the Roku Netflix Player CNET

The Netflix box is finally a reality.

The Netflix Player by Roku is the first product that allows subscribers to have movies and TV shows from the service's Instant Viewing feature (aka "Watch Now") to be streamed directly to their TV screen. Previously, Instant Viewing was available only to Windows PC users through the Internet Explorer browser. With the release of the Netflix Player, subscribers need only have a wired or wireless broadband connection to access the entire Instant Viewing catalog through their TV. The full review--with hands-on video--is available at CNET Reviews. But for those who prefer to cut right to the chase, here's the short and sweet version:

Netflix Player
The diminutive Netflix Player can access about 8,000 titles--so far. CNET

We've been playing with the Netflix Player for about two weeks, and--for the most part--we found a lot to like. Setup is simple, and--if you've got a solid broadband connection--picture quality is acceptable and streaming performance was almost entirely lag-free.

Those looking for the HD video quality and polished interface of Apple TV and Vudu will be disappointed. The Netflix Player is strictly barebones--you're not intended to do anything more than just dive in and watch the movies and TV shows you've already queued up via your online Netflix account. The biggest drawback--for now at least--is the dearth of quality content. Thanks to Hollywood's byzantine licensing system, less than 10 percent of Netflix's 100,000-plus library of titles is available for streaming to the Player. That means, for now, that only two of Netflix's top 100 DVDs are available for streaming: March of the Penguins and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

That said, the Netflix Player has a major trump card in terms of price: it retails for $100, and delivers unlimited streaming to any Netflix subscriber on the $8.95 plan or above. That's a major departure from Apple TV, Vudu, Xbox Live Marketplace, and Amazon Unbox , all of which offer only pay-per-view options, including download-to-own videos and rentals with tight viewing windows (e.g. rental titles must be completely viewed within 24 hours).

For the time being, Roku's affordable box is the only Netflix hardware on the market. However, Netflix has reaffirmed that three other hardware partners are scheduled to release competing products by year's end. (One is confirmed to be LG; the others have yet to be named.) It's likely that the subsequent players will be more upscale products--such as a Blu-ray or DVD player--that include Netflix playback as a value-added feature rather than the main attraction. In the meantime, the Roku solution offers a quick, easy, and affordable way to watch a limited selection of Netflix videos on your TV.

What do you think: is the Netflix Player a game-changing product that bests Apple TV? Or is the selection too lackluster to be worth even its $100 asking price?

 

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