Netflix became a thriving business by catering to people who are too lazy to hop into the car to pick up a movie. Last year, with that demographic in mind, the company launched "Instant Watching," a Web service for customers who couldn't be bothered to walk to the mailbox and pick up a red envelope. Now, Netflix hopes to appeal to people who don't want to leave the couch: The company has started selling a set-top box that delivers streaming video directly to your television set.
I've been a Netflix customer for two years now and have been pleased with the wide selection, the ability to share my queue and reviews with friends, and the flexible subscription options. But even though I've been known to indulge in laziness, I've found Instant Watching to be a big letdown: The service chains you to your PC (it has to be a PC—no Macs allowed), and the selection is terrible. I quickly grew tired of spending 30 minutes trying to find a movie I was willing to watch on my laptop. It was just easier to watch a Top Chef rerun on my TV.
The Netflix set-top box, which is manufactured by Roku and sells for $99, didn't have me panting, either. The last thing I need is another clunky box for the mini-Stonehenge— DVD player, VCR, Nintendo Wii, Gamecube, cable box—beneath my television. But I decided to give it a chance (mostly because Netflix was kind enough to send one to me for free).
Setting up the set-top box was pretty painless. Once I connected it to my TV, it detected my wireless network, and the on-screen menu guided me through the remainder of the setup process. (There were some minorly irritating snafus; for instance, while attempting to update the software, it stalled and said, "Unable to connect to Roku." I simply tried again, and it worked.) In about 15 minutes, I was happily watching The King of Kong, a fantastic documentary about the battle for the world-record score in the arcade game Donkey Kong. Retrieving the movie took less than a minute, and the video quality was impressive.
Unfortunately, The King of Kong was the only movie on the Roku that I really wanted to watch. The box has the exact same terrible selection that's plagued Netflix's Instant Watching service—it's a sad state of affairs when there are more than 10,000 titles available and The Postman, Fools Rush In, Wedding Daze, Aloha Scooby-Doo!,and Cougar Club make it into the top 50 most-watched movies. There are also some issues with the device itself. It feels flimsy and cheap, like a $30 DVD player. If you can make it through an entire movie without having to skip around, it's easy to forget you're not watching a DVD. Fast-forwarding and rewinding, though, are tedious and inexact. (You have to browse by scrolling through a selection of frames grabbed from 20-second intervals within the movie.) Another major design flaw: It's impossible to channel surf. To add movies to the Roku, you need to log on to your computer and add titles to an "instant queue" (separate from Netflix's normal mail-delivery queue). New additions show up immediately, but switching between computer and TV is annoying. Come on, Netflix, you're trying to appeal to lazy people here!