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!
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.