Too Lazy for DVDs?
Netflix's new set-top box is a couch potato's delight.
Initially, all of these problems made me write off Netflix's foray into hardware. But as the days passed, my boyfriend and I ended up using the set-top box more than cable or the DVD player. Three little red envelopes sat unopened while we watched documentaries, Coupling (the original British version), Dexter (several great Showtime series are available), and more. Television shows and independent movies are well-represented on Netflix's streaming service, which works out well. I've always been reluctant to load my Netflix queue up with TV shows since the multiple discs crowd out other selections. (Law & Order fans, you've hit the jackpot: Netflix has made seven seasons of Special Victims Unit and five of Criminal Intent available, just in case there's an hour in the day without a rerun of either.) And though I love indie movies, I tend to pack them at the bottom of the queue, reluctant to watch something artsy after a long day at work. The decent selection of workout DVDs is also a plus.
The set-top box, I discovered, doesn't just enable you to be lazy about how you watch movies. It reveals the pleasures of being lazy about what you watch. Crafting the perfect DVD-by-mail queue is labor-intensive—I have to balance the movies I want to watch with those my boyfriend wants to watch; I worry about lumping too many dumb comedies or classics or indie movies in one place; I try to return everything quickly to get the most out of my subscription fee. The instant-watching queue is more like a junk drawer. You can toss in anything you might watch eventually, hence the presence of five seasons of Saved by the Bell on my instant queue. (The day might come when I want a Bayside High marathon.) A streaming service also makes it easier to ignore the veto vote—the spouse who whines, "I don't want to rent that stupid movie." With the set-top box, you just have to shame your partner into giving the movie 10 minutes to prove itself.
Using the set-top box is quite similar to on-demand cable. The difference is that on-demand lets you browse titles from the comfort of the couch and has a much more up-to-date selection of movies. But in my book, the Netflix box wins because you don't have to pay for each movie you watch. Plus, the Netflix selection is ever-growing—they don't just rotate titles in and out. You can also watch any movie or TV show twice, whether it's one day or two months later. I enjoyed The King of Kong so much that, a day later, I made my boyfriend watch it, too—we just had to add it to the instant-watching queue again.
I grew to love the Netflix set-top box, but you'll recall that I tried it out only because I got it for free. Though the boxes sold out just after they went on sale, that was likely just the initial rush of movie nerds. (Plus, some tech blogs suspect the company might have intentionally underproduced them to generate buzz.) It will be more of a challenge for Netflix to sell the $99 boxes—which deliver media you can already get for free on your computer—to casual movie-watchers.
Netflix's plan to survive the death of the DVD relies heavily on streaming—the company spent $40 million last year to expand its instant-watching selection. The plan might just work if the company bites the bullet and gives the box away for free—or at a very reduced cost—to new subscribers. (Plans are in the works for more, possibly cheaper, Netflix boxes, including using game consoles to deliver streaming content, says Netflix's Steve Swasey.) Learn from my experience, Netflix: Once the box is in people's houses, they'll be lazy enough that they won't be able to resist using it.
Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project from Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that covers emerging technologies and their implications for society and policy.