Roku Netflix Player suffers mystery glitch

After a sparkling debut, the Netflix Player by Roku has suffered its first setback. Owners have seen dramatic drop in video quality. Is Netflix the problem?

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
2 min read
Roku's November 13 note to customers asking them for help determining the cause of a dramatic decline in video quality. Roku

The Netflix Player by Roku, which enables owners to watch streaming Web video on their TV sets, has received plenty of applause from pundits and owners since debuting last May. But the box now faces its first major challenge.

Customers from around the country have been "experiencing inexplicable loss of video-streaming quality," for at least three weeks according to Roku's engineers, who have posted comments at the company's Web forums. Device owners have posted complaints to the same forums about receiving less than half of the video quality they've had in the past. One user told CNET that the video stream is now "unwatchable."

Tim Twerdahl, vice president of consumer products at Roku, told CNET News on Monday that the company is still unsure about what exactly triggered the problem, but he said indications are it originated at Netflix. Twerdahl added that the problem likely affects Netflix's other boxes as well as Roku's player.

"All we know is Roku didn't make any changes," Twerdahl said. "This is not a box problem. We know from some reports that this seems to be correlated with a change in Netflix's content distribution network (CDN), and Netflix is trying to figure out what the issue is."

Steve Swasey, Netflix's spokesman, would not confirm whether the issue originated with the company's CDN. He also wouldn't identify which CDN Netflix works with (some of the best-known CDNs include Akamai, Limelight Networks, and Level 3) or whether the malfunction affected any of the other devices that offers Netflix's streaming service. "Netflix is looking into the matter," Swasey said.

For the past year, Netflix has offered streaming video over the Web. This year, the company announced it would roll out the streaming service, called Watch Now, to a handful of boxes that enable people to watch streaming video on their TVs. Among them were LG Electronics, TiVo and Microsoft's Xbox.

When I asked Twerdahl why most of the complaints have come from owners of Roku's device, he said the other boxes were launched much more recently and don't yet have the same number of customers. That may be true, but I couldn't find any complaints from Xbox owners.

Terry Moore, an Indianapolis resident, said his video quality ranged between three and four dots since buying Roku's player in June but now comes in at one or two dots. The dots are the indicator lights that inform Moore of the speed of his Internet connection. Four is best.

Moore told CNET News that he noticed the dramatic drop off in video quality.

"At one dot, the picture quality is unwatchable," Moore said. "(The image) looks like water on the screen it's so blurry."

On November 13, Roku staff asked owners to supply background information to determine where the problem might be. A review of the people who posted responses shows numerous different ISPs and locations. According to the posts by Roku's engineers, there aren't any patterns there.