Netflix was a pioneer in the business of movie rentals — getting consumers to rent DVDs online and mailing them out in cheery red envelopes. Recently, it has put a lot of effort into a service that delivers movies digitally over the Internet to subscribers, preparing for a day when getting movies on a physical disc will become outmoded.
People today use the Netflix service on their computers, but Netflix (NFLX) has cut a series of deals with hardware partners to make the service available on TV sets through an array of devices.
Most of these devices were designed to do other things: a videogame console, high-definition Blu-ray disc players, a TiVo (TIVO) digital video recorder. So to see how well the service works on these devices, I’ve spent the past couple of weeks comparing the Netflix experience on Microsoft’s (MSFT) Xbox 360 game console, on LG Electronics’ BD300 Blu-ray disc player and on a set-top box from Roku called the Netflix Player. The last, as the name implies, is designed mainly for Netflix service.
The devices suffer from a relatively skimpy selection of videos on the Netflix Internet service. Netflix has more than 100,000 titles for rent on disc, but about 12,000 titles for viewing through its Internet service at the moment, and there’s often a months-long delay after a movie’s release before it shows up online. Television shows generally turn up more quickly, with a handful, like NBC’s “Heroes,” watchable the day after they air.
Still, I find the Netflix service very appealing, especially for catching up on episodes of TV series, such as “30 Rock,” that I missed when they aired. Unlike the iTunes Store and other sites that charge users $1.99 per TV episode and $3.99 to rent a movie online, the Netflix Internet service is free to subscribers to its DVD service on one of the company’s “unlimited” rental plans, which start at $8.99 a month.
Depending on how fast your Internet connection is, Netflix videos begin playing almost instantly, though you can’t keep permanent copies.
Connecting the devices to Netflix through my wired home network was easy in all three cases. I used a wireless home network — more common in homes than the wired variety — with the Roku device, the only one of three products that comes with built-in Wi-Fi (it worked well in this mode). People who want to use the Xbox 360 with a wireless network will have to spend $70 or so on an external Wi-Fi adapter. LG recommends people use only a wired home network to connect to Netflix from its player, including adapter kits that cost about $100 for transmitting data over home power lines.
All the devices require you to create a list of movies you want to watch from a computer, just like Netflix subscribers set up “queues” of DVDs to be delivered by mail. The Xbox 360 offered by far the most elegant-looking interface for browsing through videos in my Netflix queue, letting me glide through a long row of cover art representing the movies and TV shows I selected on my PC.
In contrast, the Netflix menu on the LG Blu-ray player and Roku device were more static, making it more awkward to navigate the expanse of titles. Netflix became available on the Xbox 360 in November as part of a more sweeping software upgrade, delivered over the Internet, that remade the graphical look of the system.
The quality of most of the videos on Netflix is, to my eyes, about DVD quality, though Netflix is adding some titles in high-definition to its Internet library. HD titles were available for viewing only through the Xbox 360 when I was testing the service. Roku and LG say they will make software updates available online this month that add HD support to their devices.
The Xbox 360 also has some annoying quirks when using it as a movie player — including a noisy fan I found distracting. The game controller that comes with the Xbox 360 is clunky for playing movies, so users will need to invest in an inexpensive additional remote-control design for media. The Roku and LG players, in contrast, were totally silent and had acceptable remote controls for watching Netflix videos.
I experienced the most serious glitches with the LG Blu-ray player, which occasionally dropped the video signal to my television set as I was watching a movie. LG says the loss of video signal could have been due to the connection I used to hook the player to my TV, though I’ve never had a problem with other devices using the same connection. The LG Blu-ray player also took the longest of all the devices to install software upgrades from the Internet.
While there are some differences in the Netflix experience on the Roku device, Xbox 360 and LG Blu-ray player, none of them is so great that they should trump other considerations — like a desire to play videogames or watch HD Blu-ray movies — in deciding which system is the best fit.
The LG Blu-ray player is available online for about $300. The cheapest Xbox 360 model is $199. (To get Netflix through the Xbox 360, users must be “gold” members to the $49.99-a-year Xbox Live game service.) But if what you’re after is primarily Netflix movies, and you’ve got room near your TV for another box, the $99.99 Roku product is the best value.
Walt Mossberg is on vacation.
Write to Nick Wingfield at email@example.com